SPENCERVILLE COVERED BRIDGE
The Spencerville Covered Bridge, also known as the Coburn Covered Bridge, is located in Section 33, Township 33 North, and Range 14 East, on Mill Street (County Road 68) east of Spencerville, DeKalb County. Crossing the St. Joseph River, this single span Smith #4 Truss structure has a length of 160 feet, or 168 feet including the 4-foot overhang at each end, with a portal clearance 16 feet wide by 13 feet high. Built in 1873 by John McKay, there is a 55-foot concrete ramp at the west end; a concrete center support was added to strengthen the structure. A bypass bridge was finished in 2003 that will divert heavy traffic while the covered structure is still open to traffic. Significant repairs were undertaken to ensure the continued preservation of this landmark that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. The Spencerville Covered Bridge was listed in the 1989 World Guide as #14-17-01.
|The following history of the Spencerville Covered Bridge was presented
in the July 1973 "Vanguard" special edition commemorating the centennial
of the Spencerville Covered Bridge with the kind permission of its author,
John Martin Smith.
The 1863 map of DeKalb County indicates a bridge at the site of the present covered bridge. It is not known what happened to this bridge but it was at a strategic location. Access to the grist and sawmills was so important to the Pioneer that the prompt replacement of the bridge was essential.
The first reference to the Spencerville Covered Bridge appears in The Waterloo Press, June 26, 1873: "DeKalb County will build a new bride across the St. Joseph River, at Spencerville."
On July 10, 1873, The Waterloo Press carried the first legal notice for the Spencerville Bridge:
NOTICE TO BRIDGE BUILDERS
The substantial difference in length is puzzling, form 70 feet to 170 feet. Perhaps there were alternative sites or possibly an embankment was to be built to connect with the shorter span. The notice appeared in the July 10, 1873 edition of the paper and the bids were to be received on the following day. this was probably an error on the part of the Commissioners or the publisher.
In any event, no contract was let on July 11, 1873. The following week, July 17, 1873, The Waterloo Press carried another legal notice:
NOTICE TO BRIDGE BUILDERS
The same notice appeared in The Waterloo Press on July 24, and 31, and August 21, 1873, and in the Auburn Courier on August 21, 1873. On the 17th the editor of The Waterloo Press commented: "DeKalb County is bound to build a bridge across the St. Joseph River. See Notice to builders."
The only order of business on the first day of the September 1873 session of the DeKalb County Commissioners was the opening and consideration of bids for the Spencerville Bridge. The minutes of the meeting appear at Commissioner Record F, Page 449:
The Board of Commissioners of DeKalb County and State of Indiana, meet in regular session at the Auditor's Office, in the Court House, in the Town of Auburn September 1st 1873. Present George Ensley William Richmund And Daniel Gonser Commissioners of DeKalb County Wm L. Meese by by his Deputy T. B. Totter sherif of said County and William McIntyre Auditor of said county And Ex Officio Clerk of said Board of County Commissioners.
In the Matter of A Bridge Across St. Joseph River near Spencerville.
Comes now Sundry parties and presents bids for the construction of a Bridge across the St. Joseph River near Spencerville which Bridge was heretofore, by Notice given in the Waterloo Press and Auburn Courier, two weekly newspapers published in DeKalb County and of general circulation of the proposed time to let the work of building the same.
And the Board being fully advised in the premises now here let teh construction of said Bridge to John A. McKay in accordance with the plans and specifications now on file in the Auditors Office of said County, for which construction of Abutments and Superstructure said Board agrees to pay said McKay the sum of Twenty three Dollars per lineal foot for One Hundred and forty Six feet of bridge, which amount is to be paid as fast as the Material is furnished and the work progresses upon the order of the Board, or, their agent the Auditor is to draw his warrent upon the County Treasurer for the amounts. Said Bridge to be completed on or before the 1st day of November 1873. And in accordance with a contract on file in the Auditors office and is in these words and figures (he in) all payments to be made in orders drawn upon the Treasurer of said County.
Whereupon the Board adjourned to meet at 8 oclock tomorrow morning.
Publicly read and signed in open session.
On the following day the Commissioners made the following order:
Ordered by the Board that John A. McKay be allowed Twelve (12) Dollars for drawing and specifications for a bridge across the St. Joseph River near Spencerville as per bill on file in these words and figures (he in) (Commissioners Record F, Page 451).
On September 4, 1873, it was "ordered by the Board that Wm. Richmond be and is hereby appointed Superintendent of the Bridge to be built by John A McKay near Spencerville in said county as per contract and specifications now on file in the Auditor's Office" (Commissioners Record F, Page 469).
On October 31, 1873, the Commissioners allowed "To Smith Bridge Company for bridge near Spencerville, $1423.50 - J. A. McKay orders in par $850." (Commissioners Record F, Page 199.)
Work apparently progressed on the bridge through the fall of 1873. On December 4, 1873, McKay was allowed an additional one thousand dollars in part payment of his contract.
On March 3, 1874, it was "Ordered by the Board that John A McKay be allowed Sixty three dollars and seventy five cents, it being in part the amount said McKay discounted county orders received for building Bridge at Spencerville in said DeKalb County. (Commissioners Record F, Page 522).
The last reference found was the march 6, 1874 session where William Richmond was allowed the sum of $202.50 for "..Superintending Spencerville Bridge and other Bridges in the County..." (Commissioners Record F, Page 552).
The total cost of the bridge was $4458 according to the terms of the September 1, 1873 contract. The total amount paid to McKay and the Smith Bridge Company were $4449.25 including the $12.00 for the specifications. There is no apparent explanation for the discrepancy of $8.75.
John A. McKay was no stranger to the DeKalb County Commissioners. Ten years prior, in 1863, McKay, W. Valleau, and Alpheus Wheelock were the contractors for the second DeKalb County Courthouse. In 1868, McKay and Wheelock built the Dills Covered Bridge two miles upstream from the Spencerville Bridge. The August 28, 1873 edition of The Waterloo Press notes that "John A. McKay has the contract for four large bridges from the Allen County Commissioners." He also built numerous roads, barns, and other buildings throughout the county.
McKay's association with Alpheus Wheelock was apparently extensive. "Wheelock, McKay and Company" held the license for the Smith Patent Truss for the entire State of Indiana. "Wheelock, McKay and Goshorn" built the Covered Bridge in Wells County in 1869. Wheelock held a patent for abutments made from iron. There is no evidence that these were used for any of the DeKalb bridges however.
Mckay was born in Canada in 1832. He lived in the "Village of Auburn" at the times of both the 1870 and 1880 census wherein he was listed as a carpenter. He ran for Sheriff of DeKalb County in the election of October 11, 1870, but was defeated 1714 to 1626 by the incumbent Jeremiah Plum.
Alpheus Wheelock was a native of New York and was born in 1829. He was living in Auburn at the time of the 1880 census and was listed as a bridge builder. In 1877 he and C. L. Olds established the Western Bridge Works at Fort Wayne. The firm manufactured iron bridges and occupied a large plant between Harrison Street and the Wabash and Erie Canal. They employed one hundred men and had "four gangs." The firm held a patent to an "improved truss."
There were many different covered bridge structural designs, several of which were patented. The spencerville Covered Bridge is the Smith Truss, Variant Four, design. Robert W. Smith of Ohio was the originator of the Smith Truss which was a variation of the Howe Truss. The original design was patented. Smith's Smith Bridge Company of Toledo, Ohio, built or supplied the components for many of the bridges built in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan during this era. The company also built open wooden and steel bridges.
Smith bridges were usually made of Michigan White Pine. They were frequently pre-cut, framed or assembled loosely, disassembled, and then shipped to the site for assembly and locating over the stream or river.
The reference to "McKay Patent" in the legal notice which first appeared July 17, 1873, is at first puzzling. It probably refers to the "Smith Patent" for which Wheelock, McKay and Company was sole licensee. The contract for the Spencerville Covered Bridge was let on September 1, 1873, and the first contract payment was to the Smith Bridge Co. on September 31, 1873, for $1423.50. It would appear that this was the cost of the structural wood and iron components and that they had been received in DeKalb County by this date. The payment to Mckay on this date was probably for the abutments.
The allowance of one thousand dollars to McKay on December 4, 1873, would indicate that the bridge was substantially completed by this date ----not bad considering the size of the structure and the fact that erection would have been by animal and man power.
William Richmond was the Superintendent of the Bridge. He was a County Commissioner at the time and apparently lived in the Spencerville area. It was his duty to oversee the construction and make sure the bridge was built in accordance with specifications, much the same role as an engineer would fulfill today. Richmond was paid separately for these duties. His acting as superintendent would today be viewed as a conflict of interest but apparently was not considered such by the commissioners at that time.
Covered bridges were more expensive than either open wooden or steel bridges. A comparison is interesting. In 1874 the Commissioners let a contract to the Smith Bridge Company for a bridge across the St. Joseph River on what is now Indiana State Road 101. This was presumably the steel bridge that was replace in about 1864 by a new concrete bridge. The contract price was thirteen hundred dollars, less than half the cost of the covered bridge for a span that would have probably been about the same. In 1876 a contract was let to Daniel Culver for ". . . the construction of 100 feet of pile bridge at tow dollars and twenty five cents per foot the said Culver to furnish all the material and labor necessary for its construction." This was in Butler Township. The cost per foot of the spencerville Covered Bridge was twenty-three dollars per foot.
On the other hand, the longevity and utility of a covered bridge was far superior as is evidenced by the fact that we are celebrating the centennial of the Spencerville Bridge when other types of bridges of the same era have long ago disappeared.
The Spencerville Covered Bridge was threatened by flood on several occasions. In 1884 water and ice were level with the floor. The forces of the water washed and weakened the long "grade" on the west end of the bridge. The grade was saved by the concerted effort of citizens in boats stuffing straw into the cracks and crevices of the grade. There were also threatening flood conditions in 1898, 1910, 1913, and 1937, but the bridge always held.
A covered bridge will las indefinitely, if properly cared for. Michigan White Pine is extremely weather and insect resistant. The method of construction is conducive to longevity. The system of trusses and steel rods makes the bridge extremely durable. The roof and sides keep the timbers dry. The windows at the top permit the circulation of air around the timbers. The exterior siding must be painted periodically and the roof must be maintained.
The Spencerville Bridge has been properly maintained over the years. Major repairs have been made on several occasions. In 1916 Merritt and Auber Butler replaced the wood piers about ten feet from the west abutment with poured concrete piers. In 1920 the concrete approach and additional waterway on the west end were installed by the Butlers. The original wood piers on the east end were also replaced in 1922. Major work was done in 1954 when the Commissioners spent $3100 in replacing the sills and flooring. In 1970 a new roof of cedar shingles was installed. At that time the DeKalb County Commissioners committed themselves to permanently preserving the county's only covered bridge.