Three firefighters barely made it to safety just as the floor gave way beneath them.
Maynard Lebo, William Mixell and Bruce Weigle were manning a hose line when flames burned through wooden beams holding up the western half of the Alexander covered bridge in North Middleton Township.
“They leaped from the collapsing end as it crumbled into the water,” The Sentinel reported on Aug. 27, 1952 – the day after the fire. “The structure toppled into the stream with a hissing sound.”
Forty-five minutes had gone by since a passing motorist first saw the bridge on fire at about 4:15 p.m. That person notified John Leffler, an employee at a nearby water plant, also along the Conodoguinet Creek.
Volunteers from the Union Rural and Friendship fire companies converged on the state-owned bridge located on Longs Gap Road. Built in 1878, it was 223 feet long.
“Before the firemen arrived, the entire span was in flames, and the intense heat thwarted efforts to run a hose line through the bridge to attack the blaze from both ends,” The Sentinel reported.
Instead they focused mostly on saving the east end of the bridge by spraying water from hoses positioned at road level and from the stream beneath the structure. “The firemen stood in three feet of water to douse the smoldering timbers,” The Sentinel reported.
Watt’s Bridge fire
Almost 18 years later, on April 2, 1970, a blaze destroyed the Watt’s covered bridge on McClures Gap Road. Here again, first-responders barely escaped death or serious injury.
Michael Stidle and Dale Goodling, both members of Union Fire Company, were on the bridge fighting the fire when the entire span collapsed into the Conodoguinet Creek. Both men were unhurt after racing 15 feet to safety, according to The Sentinel, which published a story later that evening.
The newspaper reported how this fire raged out-of-control despite a heavy rain that caused smoke to blanket the stream crossing. The alarm was first sounded at 5:35 a.m., and the North Middleton Fire Company was the first to respond. Union Rural and Empire Fire Company also sent personnel and soon there were 25 men fighting the fire.
The bridge was totally involved when volunteers arrived, said Stidle who was an assistant chief. The bridge was gone within 45 minutes and firefighters returned to station.
While the Watt’s bridge crossing had a history of destruction, the Alexander crossing had a history of indecision. Both spans were built at a time when there were dozens of covered bridges in Cumberland County.
The first Watt’s bridge was built of iron in 1868 at a cost of $4,893. This was destroyed by an ice flood on Feb. 10, 1881. The bridge was rebuilt with wood at a cost of $2,548, but this second span was washed away by a flood on May 30, 1889. The Watts bridge was then rebuilt a third time with wood before it was destroyed by the fire in 1970.
Historian J.D. Hemminger wrote a research paper on Cumberland County bridges, which he read before the Hamilton Library Association on Feb. 17, 1905. The association was the forerunner of the present-day Cumberland County Historical Society.
A state law passed in 1799 required residents to petition their county court to have a bridge built. A grand jury then reviewed each petition and, if it meets their approval, a court order was issued to the county commissioners to proceed with construction.
The law was amended in 1802 to require the appointment of six “viewers” to investigate and issue a report to the grand jury and commissioners on whether a bridge is necessary. Six “viewers” also inspect the bridge once it is constructed.
The Hemminger paper included a detailed history of the Alexander Bridge. The first petition on this was filed in March 1806. This was followed in 1813. Neither petition received favorable consideration.
Two more petitions were filed in 1831 and in 1832. The last effort proved successful and, on April 18, 1833, the commissioners hired Samuel Alexander to build a 180-ft. long wooden bridge which he completed the following August. He was paid $1300 by Cumberland County with “the greater part of the cost…met by subscription.”
Forty-four years later, in 1878, the county condemned the old bridge and replaced it with the span that was destroyed in August 1952.
Fire and flood
Covered bridges were a popular subject among local historians whose research is stored in the historical society archives. An undated newspaper article attached to Hemminger’s 1905 paper lists 37 covered bridges – nearly all of which were built before 1890. Twenty-four of the 37 spanned the Conodoguinet Creek while the remaining 13 crossed Yellow Breeches Creek.
The Hamilton Liberty Association sponsored an annual student essay contest in honor of Charles Lamberton from 1909 to the 1980s, said Cara Curtis, archives and library manager.
In 1925, local student Margaret Meals wrote a Lamberton prize-winning essay titled “Our Covered Bridges.” She mentioned how bridges were usually located at or near grist mills and often named after the mill owner. Sometimes the name changed as the mill changed hands.
“We still have 25 of these bridges in use at the present time ... ranging in age from 42 to 111 years,” Meals wrote. “Our oldest covered bridge is the Houston Bridge, which was built by Jacob Bishop in 1824.”
Ice floods in 1881 and 1884 damaged or destroyed many of the covered bridges in the county, Meals wrote. She added how high water in 1889 – the year of the Johnstown Flood – took away both wooden and iron bridges.
Meals listed two covered bridges destroyed by fire – the Anderson Bridge near Lisburn and Liberty Forge Bridge. Both spanned Yellow Breeches Creek. The longest covered bridge in 1925 was Eyster’s Bridge which, at 408 feet, made it the second longest bridge in Pennsylvania, according to her.
On Jan. 13, 1951, The Sentinel published the paper “Covered Bridges of Cumberland County,” which researcher Ray B. Lackey read before the Hamilton Library Association on Dec. 14, 1950.
“All of us well remember with particular pleasure, our first impression of a covered bridge,” Lackey wrote. “The pointed roof, coolly dark on a bright, summer day and the echo from the muffled thud of your horses’ hoofs as we rode across the plank floor, all gripped our imagination.”
Lackey counted 25 covered bridges in 1950 – the same as Meals. The last ones were built in 1889 and were identified by him as Wagoner’s Bridge on Route 74 and the Watts Bridge.
Most covered bridges were built of white pine cut from forests located near the stream crossings, Lackey wrote. He added generally these structures were located on secondary or unimproved roads with no more than 20 vehicles traveling in each direction per day.
Fire and flood were not the only cause of damage to covered bridges. “The public is often very careless with the use of firearms to shoot holes through the roofs,” Lackey wrote. He mentioned how fishermen used to remove the weatherboarding to burn the wood in camp fires and how overloaded vehicles were also a problem to preservation.
In 1971, Timothy Healy wrote the Lamberton award-winning essay titled “Landmarks of Yesterday: The Covered Bridges of Cumberland County” in which he said only four of these spans remain.
“Since 1792 the volume of covered bridges has declined at a rapid rate,” Healy wrote. “Either because of misuse causing irreparable wear or accidents such as fire, the number of covered bridges has decreased alarmingly.”
There were only two left by 2013 – the Ramp Bridge in Hopewell Township about two miles southeast of Newburg and the Bowmansdale Bridge, which was relocated to Messiah College and reconstructed from 1970 to 1972. .