Bridge builders left their mark on county landscape

by Patricia L. Pastore

Two skilled carpenters, Joseph Albert Britton and Joseph J. Daniels, had no idea the covered spans they built over Parke County's waterways might draw millions to visit their handiwork more than a century after each constructed a total of 24 covered bridges of the 32 covered bridges still in existence in this county.

Britton is credited with constructing 14 of them, and Daniels, 10.

Britton, a Rockville native, was born in 1839 in a log cabin about three miles east of Rockville. His father, a skilled carpenter, taught him the trade long before he began building bridges. His lack of schooling -- records indicate he spent approximately six months out of three years in school -- didn't prevent him from self-education. He was widely read and studied classical literature.

Britton enlisted in the infantry during the Civil Wear in 1862 when he was 23. His company was hurriedly sent to Kentucky before being fitted with uniforms. There, the unit was surrounded during the first skirmish and made prisoners of war. Later, when the war ended, he read law and was admitted to the bar in two states, Kansas and Indiana.

Life as a lawyer apparently didn't agree with him because he returned to Rockville and began doing carpentry again. In 1882, county commissioners approved a contract for him to build the Narrows Covered Bridge over Sugar Creek at the east edge of Turkey Run State Park.

Twice married, Britton had eight sons and four daughters. Edgar, Lawrence, Charlton and Eugene Britton all worked on bridges with their father, thus the company name Britton and Sons. Eugene Britton was the most active in the bridge building business. By ?1815?, Eugene Britton won the bid on his own to construct a bridge Bowsher Ford.

The elder Britton built mostly short, one-span bridges. He is known to have constructed only two two-span structures.

The wooden spans built by Daniels and Joseph Britton appear similar when taking a quick look, according to "Indiana Covered Bridges Through the Years" by George E. Gould. Gould says the bridges show a variation of the use of metal tension rods. He says Britton used them in all structures and Daniels used them only occasionally in later bridges.

Gould claims Daniels experimented more than Britton and readily adapted to new ideas. He said Daniels used a slightly curved top to the portal openings and the Brittons used a flat-top opening with the outer edges sharply angled to meet the side panels.

"Down through the years many of the bridges have been damaged, repaired or modified so that few retain their original outline," Gould wrote.

Daniels was possibly the most important builder of covered wooden bridges in Indiana history, say documents collected by Parke County Inc., host and coordinator of the covered bridge festival.

One report says Daniels, over a 54-year period from 1850 to 1904, erected 50 covered wooden bridges in western Indiana. Of these, 19 were railroad bridges, of which four were in Parke County; and 31 highways bridges, 16 of which were in Parke County.

Daniels, son of bridge builder Stephen Daniels, was born in 1826 in Marietta, Ohio. He assisted his father in building long truss covered bridges in southern Ohio before constructing his first bridge in Indiana at age 24. His fame as a bridge builder grew. In 1860, the Evansville and Crawfordsville Railroad sent him to Parke County to build bridges across Little Raccoon and Big Raccoon creeks.

Originally, these bridges were built to carry 20-ton locomotives. Before they were replaced, the weight of the trains they carried increased to 60 tons. Daniels' bridges were widely known for their strength.

Daniels' political affiliations surfaced when he constructed one single-span bridge across Sugar Creek. The strong Unionist and admirer of Andrew Jackson named one built in 1861 to honor Old Hickory. The Jackson Bridge is an exception to the custom of naming the bridge either for a nearby community or for the landowner at the time of construction.

The 137-year-old Jackson Bridge is 207 feet long and a single span double Burr arch bridge. For added strength, Daniels doubled the Burr arches on each truss in this span and used eight instead of four. In addition, he selected extra heavy timber for framing the structure. In 1977, 116 years later, this span was still in use. Today it is a bypass bridge, and only foot traffic is allowed.

Daniels built his last bridge, the Neet Bridge, in 1904 when he was 78 years old. He died in 1916 and is buried in Parke County.

Daniels and his wife raised two sons, Parke and Henry, and they also had two daughters who died as young children.

There is no indication that Britton and Daniels were friends or even worked for one another. From bids both men submitted to the Parke County Road Department, it is obvious they were competitors.

Henry Wolfe, another bridge builder, is credited with constructing four covered wooden spans in Parke County. Only two remain, and both cross Little Raccoon Creek -- the Crooks Bridge and the rebuilt Portland Mills Bridge. He is believed to be the son of Aaron Wolfe, who built two bridges in Putnam County in 1838. Nothing in the records indicates who is the father and who is the son. Burr arches were used in all these bridges built by the Wolfes.

Jefferson P. Van Fossen and J.L. Van Fossen, brothers associated with the Parke County Road Department, are credited with building four or more covered bridges and foundations in Parke County. After an arson fire destroyed the second bridge at the Roseville/Coxville Bridge site, Jefferson P. Van Fossen received the contract in 1910 to replace that structure and also the bid to build a bridge at Jessup.

Witnesses at the Roseville/Coxville Bridge building site say the on-site construction foreman was J.J. Daniels. An early photograph shows lettering on the bridge portal. It said, "J.P. Van Fossen Contractor, J. Brooks Builder."

Only the names of three other bridge builders surfaced in old records. Clark McDaniel is credited with building the Catlin Bridge, constructed in 1907; D.M. Brown built the Mill Creek Bridge that same year; and the Rush Creek Bridge was constructed in 1904 by William Hendricks. No additional information is known about these builders.

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