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The 1894 Bunker Hill Covered Bridge - Definitely Worth a Stop if You're Wandering Through Central North Carolina

While wandering across North Carolina from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Raleigh via Interstate 40 in the not-so-distant past, a sign caught my eye - “Bunker Hill Covered Bridge - This Exit.”

Wait. What?  A covered bridge? ... In  the middle of North Carolina? ... On my route of travel?  Well, anyone who knows this Distracted Wanderer at all knows that covered bridges are quite high on my “List of Must-Sees” so it came as no surprise to my distracted sidekick (aka cousin Amy) that we were going to be taking a brief detour as I slowed and took Exit 138 off of the highway then followed the signs pointing us tin the direction of the bridge located two miles east of Claremont off Highway 70 inside Connor Recreational Park.

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One of Catawba County’s most historic structures as well as one of only two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina, the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge is the only remaining wooden example of the “Improved Lattice Truss” design that was patented by Herman Haupt in 1839.  One of just three bridges with Haupt's design built in the United States, the bridge joins Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, J.S. Dorton Arena on the grounds of the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, and the Blue Ridge Parkway in representing North Carolina on the prestigious list of civil engineering landmarks.

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So what’s the story behind this bridge that had me detouring on my way to Raleigh? Glad you asked! Let’s start with the man who patented the design that was used for the construction of the bridge and move on from there, shall we?

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Herman Haupt was born in Philadelphia on March 26, 1817 and appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1831 by President Andrew Jackson. Only 14 years old at the time of his appointment, he graduated in 1835 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry. A few months later he resigned his commission to take a position as district superintendent and chief engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. A year after the Civil War began, Haupt was appointed as a brigadier general in the Union Army after the U.S. War Department organized a new bureau responsible for constructing and operating military railroads. As the Chief of Military Railroads for the Union Army, Haupt built trestles out of found materials that President Abraham Lincoln described as “bean poles and corn stalks.” Prior to his appointment by Head of the War Department Edwin M. Stanton, Haupt had been working as chief engineer on the Hoosac Tunnel in Western Massachusetts which - at 4.75 miles long - remains to this day the longest active transportation tunnel east of the Rocky Mountains.

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In 1839 Haupt used analytical methods that he had developed to design a more efficient lattice truss that appeared to be entirely free of the defects that plagued the standard lattice truss design. Patented in 1820 by Ithiel Town of Connecticut, the “Town lattice truss” used planks rather than heavy timbers and was easy to construct but Haupt was afraid that the bridge construction might fail under heavy moving loads.

As there were no known mathematical calculations for determining the strength of a simple truss, Haupt made calculations of his own by modeling bridges and then testing them. During his experiments he came up with the “improved lattice truss” which made the structures more efficient and economical by using the optimal size and placement of truss members. His design was patented as the “Haupt truss” and though initially published anonymously in a pamphlet entitled “Hints on Bridge Construction,” it was later described in detail in his 1851 book General Theory of Bridge Construction which became a standard textbook in engineering schools across the country.
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As for the site where the bridge is located it's on Old Island Ford Road where it crosses over Lyle's Creek and it's got a bit of history of its own. The route is on the line of a former Native American trail that had been laid out sometime between 1767 and 1780 as part of the main overland route between South Carolina and Kentucky. A popular route for overland travel, in January of 1781 following the American Revolution Battle of Cowpens in northwestern Cherokee County, South Carolina, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan of Virginia used the road to transport over 500 British prisoners under guard of Colonel Charles McDowell and Colonel William Washington’s dragoons. The captured British were marched to a site on the Catawba River that was used by the original settlers of the area known as Island Ford and from there were received by the Commissary of Prisoners and conveyed to the interior of Virginia.

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In later years the road was used as a major thoroughfare for settlers heading to Kentucky and Ohio but it’s not known what happened to the original bridge as certainly there had to be one; history picks up again in the late 1800s when it was decided that a new bridge was needed. According to Catawba County histories, in the late 19-century local landowners were responsible for building and maintaing bridges on their property so in 1894, when Catawba County commissioners called for the rebuilding of a bridge across Lyle's Creek in the area of the former crossing, they ordered J.S. Bridges, agent for the owners of Bunker Hill Farm where the property was located, to take care of the matter.

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In the spring of 1895, area residents built the bridge abutments with stone from a nearby quarry and the property owners contracted a builder - Andrew L. Ramsour a local businessman and carpenter from Jacob’s Creek who was the designer and keeper of the Horseford Covered Bridge which had been built as a toll bridge across the Catawba River in 1849 and was later washed away in the flood of 1916. The bridge that Ramsour erected over Lyle's Creek was named the Bunker Hill Bridge in honor of the owners' farm whose property it was on.

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No one knows exactly why Ramsour chose the design that he did - especially as it was nearly 50 years old at the time – but it’s thought that he had found Haupt’s design in a copy of his popular 1851 book on bridge building and decided to give it a go. Upon completion of the building of the bridge it was reported in the May 23, 1895 edition of the Press and Carolinian (Hickory, North Carolina, May 23, 1895, p.5.) “Mr. A.L Ramsour completed the bridge over Lyle’s Creek last week and says it is the best bridge in Catawba County. As Mr. Ramsour is not given to idle affirmations, we could hesitate sometime before contradicting his statement.”  I doubt many argued with him!


Originally built as an open span the bridge remained uncovered until 1900 when a covering was erected to protect the wood - not the people crossing over the bridge!  In 1921 the wooden shingles on the roof were replaced by tin and for the next several decades, Bunker Hill Covered Bridge carried local traffic over the creek until U.S Route 70 (sometimes referred to as “the Broadway of America” due its status as one of the main east-west thoroughfares in the nation) was constructed in 1926. In the 1930s the bridge was officially closed to local traffic except for farm vehicles which continued to use it until the 1940s.

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Efforts to protect the bridge began as early as 1952 when the Catawba County Historical Association led a movement to protect Bunker Hill Covered Bridge which resulted in the state of North Carolina obtaining a lease from the local landowners and then creating Connor Park with a walking trail that provided visitors access to the bridge. In 1971 the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1978 the North Carolina Department of Transportation rehabilitated the bridge.  Following a period of vandalism, the bridge and park were closed to the public in the early 80s though it was not the intent of the Catawba County Historical Association to keep it covered for long.

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In 1985 the owners of the bridge and property where it stood, Roland K. Bolick and his sister Raenelle Bolick Abernathy along with their respective spouses, donated the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge to the Catawba County Historical Association. Though the bridge had withstood several floods - including the 1916 flood that took out the Horseford Covered Bridge - on November 22, 1992, a series of storms that produced powerful tornadoes blew through the area and fallen trees severely damaged the bridge leaving it in need of repair and restoration. Calling in a master bridge-wright from Ashland, New Hampshire, Arnold M. Graton lead the restoration efforts in 1994 along with DCF Engineering of Cary, North Carolina to restore and rehabilitate the 100-year old historic bridge before it was rededicated in a ceremony of great pomp and circumstance in August of 1995.

In 2001 the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge received a designation as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark as the last wooden "Haupt truss" design still standing and in 2003 it was recorded on to the Historic American Engineering Record, part of the Federal Government’s oldest preservation program.

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As it was a somewhat gloomy, rainy day when I head the Siren Song of the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge while wandering across North Carolina, the photos here are somewhat dark and even a bit depressing so if you'd like to take a different look than the one I saw, please head over to this webpage from the Library of Congress which has some much better shots of the bridge or to this webpage on the Catwaba County Historical Association's website that also has a terrific gallery of photos including some taken while the bridge was undergoing restoration in 1994.


It appears that the Catawba County Historical Society has been making some alterations in order to make the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge accessible to folks in wheelchairs so now instead of crossing over Lyle's Creek to reach the bridge, visitors head down a short trail through the woods that parallels the creek and hoof it (or roll) in a short ways from there. As for the bridge itself, unfortunately it looks like a lot of local youth decided that it made a great canvas for their artistic graffiti endeavours over the years but in spite of that, the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge is still well worth going to visit if you happen to be wandering around in that area of North Carolina.

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Comments

  1. It's beautiful. Too often up here in Northeast PA the bridges are all "stock, barn red". So to see one that is more natural in color is really awesome. Glad you spotted the sign and took the detour!

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