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Philippi Covered Bridge
used with permission Thank You
The Philippi Covered Bridge was completed in 1852 to a design by West Virginia’s pioneer covered bridge builder, Lemuel Chenoweth. The bridge is an outstanding example of a modified Burr truss with two spans totaling 308 LF. It is historically significant in its own right as one of the finest examples of the timber bridge builder’s art. In the mind of the public, however, it is identified with the first engagement of the Civil War following the shelling of Fort Sumpter.
BRIDGE TURNS 150:
In 1851/52, a young blacksmith named Amasa Kittle made bolts and nuts for the new covered bridge spanning Tygart’s River. His products were but a token towards the total project. The six graceful 140’ arches, hewn from yellow poplar, required most of the metal fasteners—they were built in segments. The Burr truss beams were notched, mortised, tenoned, and pinned with wood plugs or wedges.
Kittle’s wrought iron was probably manufactured at nearby Valley Furnace where iron production of 4.5 tons per day began in 1848. The iron was hauled by wagon to Fairmont and then barged to Wheeling. Kittle may have used finished iron shipped on the return trip.
Originally a toll bridge on the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike, the Philippi Bridge has since carried the traffic of US250, making it the only covered bridge in America on the US primary highway system. The bridge also holds a special place in history. Union and Confederate troops battled here on June 3rd, 1861. This is the site of the first land battle of the Civil War.
THE BUILDER: Lemuel Chenoweth of Beverly responded to an 1850 advertisement for bids to build a new bridge at Philippi. Already an accomplished bridge builder, he made an exact scale model of his design. He tied the model to his saddle and rode over the mountains to Richmond, hopeful of winning the contract.
Although other engineers scoffed at him and his crude wood model, Chenoweth had the last laugh. To demonstrate the strength of his design, he placed the model between two chairs and then stood on it. The model did not so much as bend under his weight, prompting one official to quickly calculate that the actual bridge would support a man some 600’ tall! Chenoweth won the contract, the final cost of the bridge being $12,181.24. That’s $40 per LF if you are counting.
Prior to designing the Philippi Bridge, Chenoweth learned his formal math and engineering skills from Col. Claudius Crozet, a French military engineer who first taught at West Point and then was appointed head of Virginia’s public works projects. Crozet designed and supervised the building of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which passed through Beverly, and that is how the two men met. The section of the turnpike that ascends Rich Mountain from Beverly is still renowned by engineers for its constant gradient. This turnpike connected other Virginia turnpikes as well as the port at Norfolk to the Ohio River, all in all an important road through the Appalachians.
THE SITE: Chenoweth selected the narrowest crossing site possible that also required the least amount of excavation to bedrock. The riverbed is solid and very shallow here. He would have used 5, and as many as 10, slip scrapers to excavate loose dirt and gravel from the abutment and center pier foundation sites. The scrapers piled the dirt around the foundations to make small cofferdams, keeping water at bay. The scrapers also built a causeway from one shore to the center pier, using as much dirt and rock as they could from the riverbed.
A horse could pull a slip scraper for about an hour before needing rest. The work was rugged, meaning that shoes needed frequent attention. Chenoweth would have needed two or three horses per scraper while excavating the site and building the cofferdams and roads.
THE TIMBER: All of the structural timber is yellow Poplar. In 1851, Chenoweth found a nearby grove of Poplar with trees as large as 60” in diameter. “Tulip” Poplar is light, clear-grained, very strong for its weight, and insect resistant if kept dry.
I could find no reference for a water-powered sawmill but Philippi did have a gristmill at the time. (Note: The town had a Tanner in 1861 and he may have operated in 1850. A tannery is also a clue to a nearby sawmill as Tannic acid is made from tree bark.) Given that Philippi was the county seat with a courthouse, retail center and innumerable houses, there probably was a local water-powered mill with a reciprocating saw. The board siding and deck planks were cut from yellow Poplar.
Froes were used to split the approximate 20,000 roof shingles—most likely split from Chestnut Oak or American Chestnut. In this era, shingles were of irregular width but would have averaged 6” wide and 18”-24” long. The shingles overlapped so that only the bottom third or fourth of each shingle was exposed.
The very large logs were halved and then quartered with a 2-man saw. This made them easier to drag. Also, quarter-sawn lumber is preferred for strength because the grain runs nearly perpendicular to the plane of the board.
THE FOUNDATIONS: The crews used pry bars and picks to remove loose rock from the bedrock seam that is the foundation. They would have been as finicky as dentists in this regard because of the tremendous weight of the stone abutments and center pier.
Nearby sandstone was quarried and hauled on sleds to the site. There is an old quarry site up the hill from the bridge on the west side of the river. The large, rectangular rocks were lifted in place and then grouted with cement mortar.
As successive lifts in the abutments went up, the slip scrapers would start backfilling with dirt. The compacted backfill would have kept up with the top 2-3 courses of stone. It is here that Chenoweth would have been using 10 or more slip scrapers because the roadway approaches had to be built concurrently with the backfill operation.
NAILS: Upon completion of the structural truss framing, one workman said, “There’s not a nail in her!” As mentioned, the structure of the bridge has few metal fasteners. There were, obviously, kegs and kegs of nails in the bridge’s “skin”. I could not learn where the nails were made but am sure that they were headed, cut nails rather than hand-forged. Cut nails were being mass-produced by 1820. By the 1840’s, Wheeling had already earned its nickname of “Nail City” so it is quite possible that the nails came from there.
HORSE TEAMS: Trying to determine how many horses were used on the project is just about impossible in this day and age. Consider this: The 1850’s workman worked 10 hours per day, six days per week. Most horses were rented from area farmers who, no doubt, needed their horses during plowing and harvest seasons.
On rainy days, or days that the river was up, the horses that normally pulled scrapers would have been used to drag logs to the mill or to the site. Or they might have sledded stones from the quarry to staging areas. And they also teamed to pull freight wagons loaded with boards. The economics of the job dictated using as few as horses as possible. We can assume that 20 horses were there most of the time with perhaps 40 at peak schedule.
With this many horses, there had to be a full-time blacksmith/farrier who also did harness work. And he probably hired 2-3 boys as helpers. One of these lads probably peddled away at night sharpening axes and tools on the grinding wheel.
TOOLS & EQUIPMENT: Before the bridge went up, Philippi had its local smithy. As this was Chenoweth’s 12th bridge job, one may assume that he already had a lot of tools and just needed to gear up for this, his biggest project.
Bridge construction and future prospects of increased traffic and commerce on the turnpike probably caused another smithy or wagon shop to start in business. These shops, plus the others in the Valley, no doubt provided tools, hardware, and equipment for the job as well as made necessary repairs.
The year 1850 can be considered a watershed year. That year, the Valley Furnace ironworks imported a steam engine, the first in the county, to run the furnace’s air blower and trip hammer. The B&O was the first railroad to cross the mountains, reaching Grafton, some 20 miles downstream of Philippi, in Jan. 1852. The B&O reached Fairmont in July, about the same time that the bridge was completed. Rail service to Philippi, however, came much later in the century. Thus, we can assume that Philippi was still fairly remote in 1850-52 and that the tools used to build the bridge were made locally.
And just think of the hand tools needed to build this bridge.
Start with the logging crews who needed axes, saws, cant hooks, wedges, chains and hooks. The wood wrights needed axes, adzes, and other hewing tools to fashion the beams. The carpenters needed sledges, hammers, chisels, gouges, and augers to shape and join the beams. The roofers needed froes and hammers. And the masons needed a wide variety of quarry and masonry tools plus the equipment to lift the rocks into place. Perhaps, only the engineering tools like the transit, level, and measuring chain were manufactured in the eastern cities.
RESTORATION: After the 1989 fire, historians soon learned that the bridge had been modified many times. The concrete deck, pedestrian walkway, board & batten siding—all were changes from the original bridge. The restoration team spent months just collecting facts, including the original plans and contract at the Virginia archives in Richmond.
Certain modernizations, such as a fire suppression system, were included in the project to prevent a future catastrophe. The actual modernization and restoration work took about a year to complete and cost $2 million.
THE RESTORATION BLACKSMITH: Eugene Ratliff, an Oak Hill blacksmith, was hired to reproduce and repair the bolts that Amasa Kittle made some 137 years prior. The arch segment bolts were 15/16” diameter with round heads. While the fire damaged some of these bolts, most had their thread ends ruined when the crew removed them by driving them out with a sledge.
Unable to locate wrought iron, Eugene used 1” mild steel to reproduce 109 bolts and reworked 38 originals. By upsetting the 1” rod in the ladle mold of his swage block, he perfectly duplicated the round head and tapered shaft of the original bolts. The top chord and top beam bolts were headed in the same manner but reproductions were made from 7/8” mild steel.
The top braces were originally fastened with 1/2” square shank bolts with round thread ends. All of these broke during removal and were reproduced.
Eugene noted that the round heads had their purpose. As livestock frequently crossed the bridge, the round heads prevent an animal from being cut should it stray into a beam or arch.
To make the round head hold, a cast iron donut washer was used. These washers had a tapered hole to sleeve the tapered bolt shaft. The arch bolts used 3/4” thick donuts and the beam bolts used 1/2” thick donuts. All of these original donut washers were saved and reused.
Eugene made 2” x 10” mortise chisels for the wood Wright crew. He also made bar strap braces from 1/2” x 3” and 1/2” x 2” mild steel. And he made the "1991" touchmark with which the crew used to identify all of the replacement wood beams. (1991 was the year that the restoration was completed.)
AN INTERESTING OBSERVATION: Mr. Chenoweth either goofed and ran short on wrought iron rod or else he needed extra bolts because several of the large bolts had been “stretched” by drawing them out in their centers. Other bolts were pieced by welding.
Was this another case of a contractor who skimped on materials? Or just a smart blacksmith knowing where and how to cut corners?
It doesn't matter. The bridge is so strong that the bolts are incidental to its overall strength.
Just ask the 600’ tall man!
Arch bolt; 26" x 15/16", round head w/taper; cast
iron donut washer 3/4" thick w/tapered hole, and 2"
x 2-1/4" square nut
photo courtesy of Eugene Ratliff
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