BEDFORD - Bedford County is refurbishing the seventh of its 14 covered bridges, protecting not only history but popular tourist attractions as well.
The Hewitt covered bridge, a monument to the design and craftsmanship of workers a century ago, will be dismantled and rebuilt for a new millennium.
Constructed in 1879, the timber burr truss bridge in Southampton Township will be painstakingly taken apart, with each timber and span numbered. It then will be rebuilt, reusing the old wood where possible, to become a 21st century structure able to handle the weight of anything short of a school bus or tri-axle truck.
"This is important for a lot of reasons," said Joyce Soroka, a member of the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society. "First of all, thereís a lot of history and heritage here and when you repair a covered bridge you have it for years to come."
The Hollidaysburg-based firm of P. Joseph Lehman is preparing specifications for the project and bids will be opened by the Bedford County commissioners on Oct. 25. If all goes well, engineer P. Joseph Lehman Jr. expects to have the work under way this fall with completion in June.
The $475,000 estimated cost is being picked up by the state Department of Transportation.
While the cost may seem high because the bridge carries only an average of 32 cars a day and serves seven homes five miles south of Chaneysville, Dennis Tice, executive director of Bedford County Convention and Tourist Bureau, said the payback for preserving bridges is astronomical.
"Itís a big deal. Four years ago before I started working here, I would never have suspected they were such a draw," Tice said in a telephone interview from his office on Julianna Street, Bedford.
"Itís a piece of architecture from the 19th century that people find quaint and charming and it says slower pace," he said.
Tice, a Bedford County native who admits he used to take covered bridges for granted, finds them such a tourist attraction that he has developed a bicycle tour called the Covered Bridge Loop, which takes in four spans dotting the Fishertown, Pleasantville and Osterburg area of Western Bedford County.
And, Tice said, restoring the old spans just makes good economic sense.
"Itís functional. Itís certainly not a waste of money because covered bridges have proven they can withstand time," he said.
The original design had nothing to do with charm, Soroka said.
"They were covered to protect the floorboards. It was a lot less expensive to replace the roofs than the flooring," she said. "And their idea worked because a lot of the floorboards on the bridges are still in good condition 100 years later."
In the early 1900s, Soroka said, the state was home to 1,500 covered bridges. Today that figure has dropped to 213.
"We just happen to have a lot of waterways in Pennsylvania, so we have a lot of bridges," Soroka said in a telephone interview from her office with the state Department of Education in Harrisburg. ĎAt one time a lot of those bridges were covered.
" Commissioner Gary Ebersole, who has been involved with preserving the bridges for nearly 20 years, said they are important not only as tourist attractions, but play an important role for residents who rely on them,
"The local communities appreciate the covered bridges," he said, noting they play a role in the quality of life..
Lehman expects the bidding to be competitive with as many as eight contractors submitting proposals to do the Hewitt work.
"It has been designated an historic structure, and if youíre not careful you could lose that designation," said Lehman in an interview at his Hollidaysburg office.
While steel reinforcements will be put in place under the wooden span, Lehman employed the expertise of a Penn State professor to provide computer modeling for the truss to determine the weight capacity.
A decision on which boards can be reused and which must be replaced will not be made until the span is dismantled. Lehman said he and the project inspector will help make those decisions.
He estimated that there are 200 main timbers and 200 secondary timbers that will be labeled and reused if possible.
Another challenge is finding lumber long enough to give the strength needed for the span, which stretches 88 feet, 5 inches across Town Creek.
The 90-foot single timbers are no longer available so the design calls for 35-foot lengths of southern pine from Louisiana or Oregon.
Earlier efforts to use local oak on other bridges failed, Lehman said, because the hard wood explodes in the drying kiln.
While from a distance the span, still open to traffic with a weight limit of 3 tons, looks in good condition, it is structurally unsound, said Ebersole.
Lehman described the truss as in poor condition in an inspection report in November. A crack runs the length of the bridge and both abutments ;offer from insect damage and dry rot.
The bridge has been relatively trouble free for he past 120 years. But in 1983, a flood washed out one of the stone-and-mortar abutments, which was later replaced with a concrete support.
Both abutments will be replaced with cement structures and a stone facing to give the bridge he appearance it had when it was built.