Putnam County was home to dozens of wooden, covered bridges built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Nine have been preserved, taking you into the county’s beautiful, rural countryside.
A covered bridge is a timber-truss structure with a roof, decking, and siding, creating an almost complete enclosure. Most of America’s covered bridges were built between 1825 and 1875 and covered to protect the trusses and decks from snow and rain, preventing decay and rot. It’s probably a folktale, but some say the bridges were painted red because most barns were red, making bridges more comfortable for horses to enter.
What’s not folklore is what made the red “paint.” Most bridges of the 1800’s were painted with a mixture made on-site, as ready-made paint was expensive and not easily found. Because the wooden bridges mostly spanned creeks and rivers they were constantly exposed to moisture that encouraged mold and fungus to grow.
Originally the paint was made from a mixture of skimmed milk and lime, and builders learned from farmers who added linseed oil to their barn paint to make it soak into the wood and last for years. The fun-fact part of the story is that iron (ferrous) oxide, also known as rust, was plentiful and known to kill many fungi, including mold and moss. By adding rust to the mixture, and oftentimes mud, it not only protected the wood but gave it its red color. The red paint also absorbed the heat from the sun better in winter, keeping snow off the roof and letting the bridges better protect horse-drawn traffic from the elements.
At one time, there were as many as 12,000 covered bridges in the U.S., according to the book “Covered Bridges Today.” Estimates on the current number range from 850 to about 1,000. Pennsylvania, with 150 still in use, holds today’s U.S. record. According to the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, Parke County, Indiana, our next-door neighbor, is the U.S. county with the most, with 31.
Putnam County’s nine preserved historic structures are often called “kissing” or “wishing” bridges, stemming from the commonly held superstition that to go quickly through a covered bridge would create a standing wave that would cause the bridge to collapse. The bridges naturally make today’s drivers slow down and enjoy the ride. A wish or a kiss makes this trip through Putnam County history even more memorable.
If you want to choose just a few to visit, here’s what makes each one unique.
Cornstalk Covered Bridge is a Burr Arch Truss bridge over Cornstalk Creek. Built by Joseph A. Britton in 1917, its name from the creek it crosses. A single-span bridge, it’s 82’ long, 16’ wide, 14’ high, with a shingle roof and concrete abutments. Both the bridge and creek are named for Peter Cornstalk, Chief of the Eel River Tribe of Native Americans who once inhabited the area. The site known as Chief Cornstalk’s Village, “Snakefish,” is located 1.3 miles northeast of the bridge; an Indiana Historical Marker recognizing Chief Cornstalk is located in Parkersburg, approximately two miles northwest of the bridge.
Pine Bluff Bridge’s double-span reaches a length of 211 feet, or 233 feet counting an 11-foot overhang at each end. The portal is 16′ wide by 13.5′ high. The roadbed is wood, the roof is tin and the abutments are concrete. According to countyhistory.com, Pine Bluff is a unique variation of the Howe Truss, which included steel plates. It is included on the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges list of significant bridges, and it is believed, but not confirmed, that Pine Bluff was built by Joseph A. Britton, who built the Rolling Stone Covered Bridge just a few minutes away and the Cornstalk Bridge, over Cornstalk Creek, about 20 minutes to the northwest. This bridge is listed in the World Guide as #14-64-03.
Built in 1915 by J.A. Britton, this Burr Arch bridge crosses Big Walnut Creek. The Rolling Stone Covered Bridge is 103′ long. The single-span bridge is 16′ wide and 13′ high, with concrete abutments and a sheet metal roof. The bridge takes its name from a large boulder in the Creek which was rolled around by the action of the water. For the protection of the bridge, the boulder has been removed. Three of Putnam County’s nine historic covered bridges, this one and the Pine Bluff and Baker’s Camp bridges, are within 10 minutes of each other, just east of the town of Bainbridge. In terms of height, the Rolling Stone is the shortest of the three.
Built in 1901 by J. J. Daniels, Baker’s Camp Covered Bridge, also known as Hillis Bridge, is one of three in northern Putnam County, east of the town of Bainbridge. It carries County Road 650 North over Big Walnut Creek about 1.25 miles (2 km) south of the road’s intersection with U.S. 36. Built by J. J. Daniels, the bridge is an example of the Burr arch-truss design.
The last covered bridge built in Putnam County, called Edna Collings Bridge or Baby Bridge, is believed to be haunted. It was built by Charles Hendrix in 1922 to span Little Walnut Creek and, ironically, it replaced a concrete bridge washed out in high water. The Burr Arch bridge is the shortest in the county at 80’ long, plus 8’ overhangs at each end. It is 15’ wide and nearly 14’ high.
Local lore claims it’s haunted by a mother and child. The most common tale is that a little girl by the name of Edna Collings lived nearby and frequently swam in Little Walnut Creek. Her parents would drop her off on their way to town and, when they returned, would honk three times to let her know it was time to leave. One day, Edna failed to respond to the horn and, upon searching the creek, she was found to have drown. Circumstances concerning her death are unknown.
Variations of the story have her mother following her in death. Grieving over the loss of her child, she is said to have hung herself. Another tale says it was Edna’s father who built the bridge in memory of his daughter.
The routine you must follow to see the spirit of Edna begins with driving onto the bridge. There, turn off your engine and honk three times. If you follow the pattern of her parents, Edna is supposed to appear and try to get in the car with you. Some witnesses have found child-sized handprints on their car and heard the laughter of a little girl nearby.
To encounter her mother, take a piece of rope supposedly hanging from the sign of a nearby church. Once on the bridge, it is said this will summon a shadowy figure.
Dunbar is nearer to downtown Greencastle than any of the county’s nine covered bridges. One of the three oldest in the county, built in 1880 by farmers with timber cut on the Dunbar farm, Dunbar is a Burr Arch, two-span bridge, with an unusual arrangement of open-air “windows.” It’s 16’ wide, nearly 14’ high and 174’ long with 12’ overhangs. At one time, the name J.J. Daniels was on the timbers in the bridge. He built the nearby Oakalla Bridge, so it’s possible he is responsible for this historic structure, built 18 years prior.
A Burr Arch bridge built by J.J. Daniels, it gets its name from the former Oakalla Station along the old Big Four Railroad. Built in 1898, it is 16’ wide, 14’ high and 152’ long, with 15’ overhangs.
In southwest Putnam County are the Houck and Dick Huffman bridges, two of the three oldest that were built in 1880. The restored Houck Bridge is unique in that the road now goes around it, and the section of road leading to and from it is now paved parking. It’s an ideal place for a tranquil picnic. This bridge takes its name from the Houck family, owners of the surrounding land when the passage was constructed over Big Walnut Creek. A Howe Truss, two-span bridge, it ties with the tallest at 15’ high, is 16’ wide and 210’ long with 3’ overhangs. From the bridge, look to the northeast. The Boone-Hutcheson Cemetery, at the top of the hill, is the final resting place of Daniel Boone’s sister and sister-in-law, the wife of Squire Boone, and their families.
The Dick Huffman Bridge, built in 1880, was called the Wekty Bridge when it was built, taking its name from the nearby Wekty Mill along Mill Creek. At 265’ long, it is Putnam County’s longest. A two-span bridge, it’s 16’ wide and 15’ high.