There are less than 100 historic wooden covered bridges in the Hoosier state, with Wabash County being able to boast two of them.
Currently, the towns of North Manchester and Roann feature their covered bridges as two of the county’s 28 listings in the National Register of Historic Places, both of which allowing traffic into and out of town safely over the Eel River.
In the county’s history, however, it has seen about a dozen located in the two aforementioned towns, Wabash, Liberty Mills, Laketon and the former town of Dora. Simply strolling over the wooden planks without sunlight, one knows they’ve entered 19th century Indiana but for a few seconds.
Covered bridges in the region are also relatively rare. Most covered bridges in Indiana are located around Terre Haute, with the closest to Wabash County being the Vermont Covered Bridge in Kokomo, approximately an hour’s drive away.
In Roann, a town of approximately 500, the 288-foot-long structure, located on North Chippewa Street on the north side of town, is a relatively rare Howe truss bridge, a design patented in 1840 by William Howe, a millwright from Massachusetts, that uses verticality and diagonal beams that slope up towards the center. It can be found adjacent to the small Citizen’s Cemetery, a stone’s throw from State Road 16.
In the history of Roann bridges, three water and two fire incidents have either destroyed or damaged them. The original Roann bridge was built in 1841, having washed away by floodwaters the following year. The second bridge was built three years later, but to only suffer the same fate two years into its life. A third bridge was constructed a short time later, but flood waters took a Roann bridge again in 1876. In 1877, the bridge that stands now was completed.
On Sept. 28, 1990, this specific area of Roann was a nightmare. At about 8 p.m. that Friday, a fire was discovered devouring the bridge, only two weeks after the town’s celebratory Roann Covered Bridge Festival. An investigation later found that the blaze was set intentionally, but the arsonist was never found. It came 18 years after another fire damaged the existing bridge’s roof. Luckily, after a few days of mourning and grief on that fall 1990 night, hundreds gathered in the town to organize a fundraiser, which would eventually garner statewide attention.
The Roann Covered Bridge Association was formed and a goal of $300,000 was established to rebuild the town’s focal point and pride, a place where a wedding even took place at one time. Funds were raised over a couple of years, with deposits flowing into a town bank as quickly as the day following the meeting, and it was soon made stronger and more durable than ever, able to take on a four-ton weight load.
Fundraisers ranged from door-to-door solicitation and selling cookbooks to charity basketball games at the Roann school and tin cans around town. Securing a historical landmark grant was achieved just before deadline as well.
Just over two years after the fire, on Dec. 1, 1991, construction began on the bridge. Less than two years later, the final dollar was raised and it was rededicated.
In North Manchester, a town of approximately 6,000, the 150-foot-long structure, located southeast of Mill and Sycamore streets on the south side of town, is called a “truss bridge,” which uses triangles to take on large quantities of weight.
According to a testimony by Daphne Cook provided through the North Manchester Center for History, North Manchester’s bridge was created in 1872, always being the color red, and repaired in 1977. For many years, it served as the only way to get over the river into town, aside from canoe-and-rope systems for those who could float over.
In 2013, the bridge went through a $724,000 rehabilitation project, through local investment and State funds, to replace its roof, siding, floor beams and other timber, along with the installation of lighting.
The original Wabash covered bridge was built in 1859, allowing people and their wagons to travel over one of the state’s largest natural resources, the Wabash River. At that time, it cost $3,500 to make and it was the longest covered bridge in Indiana at that time. It ventured diagonally across the waterway, starting on the north side where the main Wabash Street bridge is today and ending on the south side 300 feet eastward.
In 1894, Wabash’s second covered bridge was constructed due to the previous bridge being sold to BF Williams for salvage for $100.
In Laketon, an unincorporated town of several hundred people located west of North Manchester just south of State Road 114, there have been two covered bridges. According to the Center for History, the first Laketon bridge was constructed around 1858, allowing people over the Eel River for about 16 years. The second bridge was a 165-foot-long structure, 189 feet if one includes the 12-foot overhangs at each end, and was 16 feet wide, with a height of 14 feet. It was built by Smith Bridge Company, a year after its predecessor faltered, in 1875. It was also lost, with the second lasting until 1957.
Little information is available on the former covered bridge of Liberty Mills, a small, unincorporated town located northeast of North Manchester just off of State Road 13. The community, which has eight roads that criss-cross perfectly to create what looks like a tic-tac board, used to have a covered bridge on the land that is currently being used for the bridge that is located just west of town. Documents from the Center for History indicate that the covered bridge replaced a crude bridge in the early 1870s. Center documents also show that the Liberty Mills bridge was torn down in 1952.
The town of Dora, which now sits at the bottom of the Salamonie Lake, once had a covered bridge as well. In 1967, the bridge was released from its securing moorings and floated to a new location, safe from the encroaching Salamonie reservoir, according to a County history book. It was later destroyed by a fire in 1984, after being in the area for 110 years.
By Eric Seaman
of the Wabash Plain Dealer