North of Terre Haute, Indiana (near the eastern border of Illinois) is Parke County, nicknamed “The Covered Bridge Capital of the World.” Once upon a time, there were over 10,000 bridges of this type across the US. Today there are only a few hundred left. Of these, 31 are located in Parke County, near the town of Rockville, Indiana.
You can visit many of the bridges using a helpful color-coded map available at the Rockville tourist office. Most of the bridges were erected near small villages and communities, often in proximity to a mill. The bridges are built of poplar wood on either sandstone or poured concrete foundations, with the entire weight supported by arches, in a style known as the Burr Arch Construction. They were built to be wide enough for a bale of hay to pass through.
Why are the bridges covered? Popular lore says that since wood rots faster when it is exposed to the elements, covering it ensured a longer lifespan. Popular lore also nicknames these bridges the “Kissing Bridges” because, according to tradition, a man was entitled to kiss his lady as their wagon crossed the bridge, far from prying eyes.
Across the entrance of each bridge are the words, “Cross this Bridge at a Walk.” The admonition was first painted on the bridges in 1880 to stop the damage that could occur if a team of horses trotted across the wooden planks or if Civil War troops marched across the bridge in cadence.
Finding the covered bridges of Parke County is a treasure hunt through the meandering country lanes and dirt roads of Hoosier county. The Billie Creek Bridge and the Beeson Bridge are the most accessible, being part of the Billie Creek Village, a recreated turn-of-the-century village just outside Rockville.
Driving down a back road off the Bridgeton Road, we find the McAllister Bridge, still in use for vehicular traffic, a single car at a time, over the Little Raccoon River in the middle of corn fields. It is partially hidden by trees. Further south, the Neet Bridge sits proudly over the Little Raccoon River in the middle of corn fields. It is no longer in use except as a pedestrian footpath across the river.
Finally, we reach Bridgeton, with its magnificent firehouse-red bridge over a long, low waterfall, near the Bridgeton Mill. This iconic structure (which was torched by an arsonist in 2005 and rebuilt by the local community) is one of the most famous covered bridges, having appeared in jigsaw puzzles and on postcards. The Bridge, over Raccoon Creek, stands next to the Bridgeton Mill (1823), the oldest continuously operating mill west of the Allegheny Mountains. Walk across it and sample the delicious home-made ice cream or pick up some Amish honey or stone ground flour from the Mill. There are a number of historical structures around Bridgeton but many are only open for a limited time each year.
There are many more covered bridges to discover if you have the time. For the ultimate experience, Parke County celebrates its bridges in a 10-day Covered Bridge Festival with crafters, vendors, and food of every type (including “Buried beef” and a hog roast) throughout the area.
IF YOU GO
Parke County is in the heartland of America, west of Indianapolis and north of Terre Haute, accessible off Interstates 70 and 74. The Parke County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 401 E. Ohio Street, Rockville (www.coveredbridges.com; Tel 765-569-3525) has a color-coded map of the bridges as well as other points of interest.