Final episode in the four (and a half) part saga of the Covered Bridge.
Click on the topic “bridges” in the right column to see the other posts.
The Legislature’s Blessing
Once Commissioner Palmer had made his announcement, the only thing needed was an Act of the Legislature to legitimate the funding. On April 3, 1961, a bill was enacted into law permitting the State Highway Department to spend the money it needed to build the bridge.
Here is the text:
Chapter 8, Laws of 1961 of the State of New Jersey (pp. 21-23)
AN ACT supplementing Title 27, Highways, of the Revised Statutes of New Jersey to permit the State Highway Commissioner to enter into an agreement with the board of chosen freeholders of the county of Hunterdon for the restoration of a covered bridge over the Wickecheoke creek, and appropriating funds therefor.
WHEREAS, Hunterdon County Bridge No. D-304 which spanned the Wickecheoke creek in Delaware township in that county, was the last publicly controlled covered bridge within the State of New Jersey; and
WHEREAS, This bridge, being in need of repairs by reason of damage by the elements, the floods of 1955, usage since 1872, and a truck collision, was declare unsafe for public travel by the board of chosen freeholders of Hunterdon county, and under the authority and direction of said board was dismantled and removed; and
WHEREAS, The people of the State have supported a petition by residents of Hunterdon county that there should be an authentic restoration of this covered bridge as an historic spot to recognize and commemorate an era when covered bridges were commonplace in New Jersey;
WHEREAS, Unexpended balances as of June 10, 1959, in the accounts appropriated by chapter 229, laws of 1955, for construction, reconstruction and repair of county and municipal roads and bridges were reappropriated by chapter 106, laws of 1959, for construction and reconstruction of free bridges and approaches under the control of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission;
BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey:
1. That the Covered Bridge, No. D-304, over the Wickecheoke creek on County Route No. 32 in Hunterdon county shall be designated as an historic spot in recognition and commemoration of an era when covered bridges were commonplace in New Jersey.
2. That the State Highway Commissioner may enter into an agreement with the board of chosen freeholders of the county of Hunterdon wherein the State Highway Commissioner shall cause the restoration of the covered bridge on County Route No. 32 over the said Wickecheoke creek in the county of Hunterdon at the same time the said board of chosen freeholders of the county of Hunterdon shall construct a new modern bridge parallel and adjacent to the covered bridge aforesaid.
3. The covered bridge shall be restored upon the existing stone abutments in accordance with its original design as a covered bridge, with such modifications as the commissioner may deem necessary to accommodate present and prospective vehicular traffic thereon. In the restoration of said covered bridge the commissioner shall use as many of the members and pieces of the present dismantled bridge as shall be practical. Upon completion of the restoration both the covered bridge and the new modern bridge heretofore mentioned shall be under the control of and maintained by the board of chosen freeholders.
4. Unexpended funds in the account reappropriated by chapter 106, laws of 1959, for the construction and reconstruction of free bridges and approaches under the control of the Delaware River Joint toll Bridge Commission, in an amount not to exceed $35,000.00 are hereby appropriated to the State Highway Department, as an emergency appropriation, for the restoration of the covered bridge over the Wickecheoke creek in Hunterdon county by the State Highway Commissioner.
5. The State Highway Commissioner is hereby authorized to expend moneys in an amount not exceeding the said $35,000.00 in the restoration of said covered bridge.
6. This act shall take effect immediately. Approved April 3, 1961
The New Old Bridge
So—as Fred Cicetti put it, “The state put the pieces back again, reinforced the abutments and built a steel undercarriage, which increased the bridge’s capacity to 20 tons.” As for the modern bridge put up by the Freeholders, Cicetti did not mince words: “The concrete bridge is about as attractive as a garbage scow. But, at least you can stand on it to give the old girl a good once over.”1.
Another reporter provided more details of the work done on the bridge:
“Abutments were rebuilt and reinforced with concrete set into rock footings and steel-doweled into the old masonry walls. Old timber trusses 84 feet long, 12 feet 9 inches high and 1 foot 3 inches thick were reconditioned and erected in their former positions on steel brackets, projecting from a new steel undercarriage, and new and salvaged planking was laid on the floor stringers. Sixty percent of the original pine siding was also contained in the restoration and 90 percent of the old rafters were used to support a new cedar shingle roof. All this was done at a cost of $69,468. The contractor was J. F. Chapman & Son of Hillside, New Jersey.”2
The work proceeded rapidly. Not only did it get accomplished with only $35,000 (compared to the $300,000 that the county required for a far less extensive restoration in 2003), but the job got done in five months. On September 15, 1961, the reconstructed covered bridge was dedicated.
This was a ceremony of some importance in Delaware Township history. Present were the Highway Commissioner Dwight Palmer; Senator Wesley Lance; Assemblyman Raymond Bowkley; Ralph J. Muller, Director of the Hunterdon Board of Freeholders; Freeholder J. Linton Alles; George Pyatt, Mayor of Delaware Township; Mrs. Edward Stone, President of the Green Sergeant’s Covered Bridge Association; Mildred Cotton and Chester Errico, members of the Association; D. Howard Moreau, President of the Hunterdon County Historical Society (and also publisher of the Hunterdon County Democrat); Hal Clark, President of the “Delaware Valley Protective Association”; and, last but far from least, the 90-year-old Dr. Edward H. Gelvin. Joining these luminaries were almost 200 people, according to news articles. That must have been quite a scene.
Also present was Clint Wilson, who was inspired to read a poem he had written for the occasion, as follows:
“If this old bridge could tell us about the long ago,
What a legend would unfold that some would like to know.
We’d hear about the wagons that crossed the bridge each day.
We’d hear about the lovers that stopped here on their way.
It was called the kissing bridge but since has lost that name.
Our state’s last old covered bridge is now its claim to fame.
If this old bridge could tell us about what’s happened here,
We’d hear about the artists, a sight to many dear.
We’d hear about the tourists who came to get a view,
Take pictures of the old bridge, admire the scenery too.
We’d hear about the floods that raged, the dangers that they caused.
We’d hear about the famous that once right here have paused.
If this old bridge could tell us the close calls that its had,
Of all that’s fished in pools beneath, the boy that’s now a dad,
If this old bridge could tell us how time has changed the scene,
We’d know that time is precious to make the future green.
We’d hear about the people that came here for a walk.
What memories would unfold, if this old bridge could talk!”
In the ‘History Cabinet’ at the Delaware Township Municipal Building you can see a model of the Covered Bridge built by Sy Reimer “about 1970.” And there is a larger version built, I’ve been told, by George Brewer, a retired cabinet maker. (However, the plaque on its roof states that it is a “hand-made replica donated by Amos G. Jones, 1982.”)
There is also, along with news clippings and brochures, a post card addressed to Mrs. Anton Schuck notifying her that the Green Sergeant Covered Bridge Association’s Annual Meeting would be held in January 1972. Also a short, but somewhat inaccurate, history of the bridge, published by the Association in 1974. It appears that the Association’s work went on, even after the bridge was restored.
The Covered Bridge is still standing, and has become a symbol and a focus of historic interest. In 1974, the Covered Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999, thanks to the hard work of Dennis Bertland, the Covered Bridge Historic District was listed on the National Register. (Several news stories punned about how the bridge now gave ‘cover’ to nearby old buildings.) The District includes Edward Gelvin’s house, the miller’s house once owned by Millie Cotton, the old Opdycke house, the beautiful stone bridge on Pine Hill Road and a short distance to the east the Green Sergeant Schoolhouse. Brown’s Hatchery was not included because it was torn down many years ago. Same for Green Sergeant’s saw mill where the original planks for the bridge were cut. The property where the Sergeant sawmill and Browns’ hatchery was located has been conveyed to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, as part of its effort to preserve the Wickecheoke Creek. (To learn more about the Wickecheoke Creek Preserve, visit this site.)
In 2002, the County Road Department received a $300,000 grant for restoration work to be carried out under the guidance of the N. J. Historic Sites Commission and local residents. The County repaired and reshingled the roof and painted the walls. Extensive repairs were made to the masonry on the companion bridge. New guide rails and fences were installed and planters set between the two bridges for safety. That was a nice idea, but somewhere along the way, the planters disappeared. One letter-writer wondered who was going to water those plants; apparently no one volunteered.
What was also rebuilt was the plank floor. Part of the charm of traveling through the bridge is the sound of the floor boards rattling under the wheels of your car. It was once a very common sound—now it is rare.
There is little evidence today that this location was once very busy, first for the milling services provided by Samuel Opdycke, Charles Sergeant and Green Sergeant, later as the location for a hatchery business, and then as a place to buy liquor during Prohibition. Now, the only attraction for visitors is the Covered Bridge and the chance to catch trout in the creek. The Bridge is treasured in Delaware Township, and by many New Jerseyans, proud that our last covered bridge has been saved. With luck, and some effort, it will remain in place for many years to come.
POSTSCRIPT: In the process of writing these articles on the covered bridge, which were adapted from an earlier article published in the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society Newsletter and the Delaware Township newsletter “The Bridge,” I found myself asking questions that had not occurred to me before. Some of those questions I found the answer to, but others remain unanswered. Here are a few:
Q: Joseph D’Agnese wrote (NYTImes, 6/25/2000) that the covered bridge was neither the oldest nor the longest bridge in the state. What is the oldest bridge? I presume he meant one that is still functioning on a public road.
Q: What was Charles Ogden Holcombe’s position at the Lambertville Iron Works, and did he personally design the bridge or did he get help from Peter Sibley?
Q: There must have been other covered bridges in Hunterdon County. Where were they and when were they taken down?
Q: Did anyone keep the minutes or other papers of the Covered Bridge Association? It appears they kept meeting well into the 1970s. When did they disband?
Q: Someone wrote that the plight of the bridge got national attention. Was that merely a reference to articles about the bridge that were published in the New York Times–of which there were several–or something more?