Road trip: in search of California’s covered bridges

Road trip: searching for some of California’s historic covered bridges

As an 11 or 12-year-old, I remember my dad saying, on weekend drives, “let’s see where this road takes us”. Off we would go in a 1950’s stationwagon down an unknown country road to reveal its intrigue. And, one of my early memories of his discoveries was the historic covered bridge about three miles east of our house, in Bath, Ohio. Early bridges were built entirely out of wood, so more substantial bridges were enclosed and roofed, to weather the elements and last for decades.

I have continued that back roads legacy all of our married lives, occasionally irritating my spouse on these exploratory sojourns. But, we’ve discovered some wonderful treasures by doing that, including the longest historic covered bridge in the US, the Medora covered bridge, circa 1875, 461 feet long near Medora, IN, and just a few miles off US Highway 50.

The Medora Covered Bridge, near Medora, Indiana, is longest historic covered bridge in the US, at over 460 feet, dating to 1875.

Talking recently with my brother, Ned, we reminisced about the old covered bridge near our house in Ohio. That got me thinking of California’s Knights Ferry covered bridge, which I hadn’t been to in years, and wondering about other covered bridges in California. As I would discover, historic covered bridges come with interesting history, are usually close to an old town of consequence and spectacular scenery.

The Knights Ferry Covered Bridge, circa 1864, at 330 feet longest in California.

Hence, what better reason for a couple of road trips? On two separate day trips, off we went. First, to the Knights Ferry covered bridge, touring down the gold Rush Highway, State Highway 49 and then following south along the Stanislaus River to Knights Ferry. The town itself sprang up when gold was discovered; in 1849, Dr. William Knight (a member of the 1844 Fremont party) returned to a favorable river crossing, establishing a ferry there. Within a few years, a toll bridge was built, but washed away in the huge flood of 1862. The new bridge took its place in 1864, higher and more stout, the longest covered bridge in the state at 333 feet. Now part of a lovely state park, it’s perfect for exploring and swimming on summer or early fall days.

The Knights Ferry interior is open only to foot traffic today.

Adjacent to the bridge is the old Mill House, circa 1854, and the Tulloch Mill, a gristmill built after the big flood and converted to a hydroelectric plant in the late 1800s. The town grew to include several taverns, several hotels (one of which still stands dating to 1856), the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) two-story hall, circa 1870, still in use today for community dinners and events.

The Mill House, circa 1854, at Knights Ferry, CA.

A few days later, after searching on-line for “covered bridges in California“ and finding a list of about 50 in California (both historic and more recently built), we headed north to the quaint gold rush town of Nevada City to find two nearby covered bridges. On the way to the first, the Bridgeport covered bridge, we passed by the Nevada County Museum.

Even though closed, the museum grounds were covered with old mining machinery and paraphernalia, indicating the huge impact that the gold rush had on this part of California. Imagine a cast iron waterwheel, standing 14 feet tall and weighing 26,000 pounds, or a “portable stamp mill”, 12 feet tall and weighing several tons, for crushing granite ore to free up the gold – both available to see, touch and “ooh and ahh” over.

The Nevada County Historical Society features lots of
gold mining machinery and mining goods.

When we arrived at the Bridgeport covered bridge, stretching across the South Yuba River at what was formerly Nye’s Crossing (another early ferry), we found its roof and siding removed, with the exoskeleton undergoing repair by the state of California. This bridge, connecting the two towns of Penn Valley and North San Juan, provided for an active trade route in the gold rush boom days. In its current state of exposure, the timber trusses and arch span are impressive, particularly realizing they were built in 1862, early in the Civil War days.

Bridgeport’s exoskeleton is exposed due to renovation of the 1862 covered bridge.

We then proceeded about 15 miles northeast, to the Freeman’s Crossing covered bridge over Oregon Creek on a very quiet road, an ideal place for picture taking and staging a few classic car pictures with the bridge as backdrop. The bridge dates to 1860 and, but for the original huge support timbers inside the bridge, is mostly new lumber due to recent reconstruction.

Freeman’s Crossing Covered Bridge over Oregon Creek lies about 15 miles north of the historic mining town of Nevada City.

We made our way to Nevada City, established in 1849 and soon becoming the most important mining town in the state, with Nevada County being the leading gold-mining county by the early 1850s. Today, it’s one of the more memorable of northern Gold Rush cities with buildings dating to the 1850s, quaint shops, nifty restaurants and (after asking several locals for a pub recommendation), the Three Forks Pub. Not only did the pub offer a number of tasty craft-made beers, but the place featured some of the best handmade pizza we’ve had in years.

Nevada City’s Main Street (checkout the Three Forks Brew Pub!).

Fun road trips, and, another dozen historic covered bridges in California to seek out. After that, what? One idea, tracking down some of the almost 10,000 historic IOOF halls sprinkled throughout the US!

For more info: California covered bridges, dalejtravis.com/cblist/cbca.htm; Knights Ferry, knightsferry.com; Nevada City, nevadacityca.gov.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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