The World’s Longest Covered Bridge in Hartland has a fascinating history. In the 1860s, the Saint John River valley was an agricultural hub, producing substantial quantities of oats and buckwheat flour. Families settled along the riverbanks, and farmers relied on the river to reach markets. However, this was challenging during spring break up, winter freeze, spring floods, and summer’s shallow waters. Ferries, towboats, and steamers could only navigate the river in ideal conditions.
When the railroad arrived in Hartland in 1874, it boosted agricultural production due to the influx of more farms. However, transporting produce to markets remained a challenge. Farmers were frustrated as they could see a quicker route to markets across the river using the railroad, rather than taking a minimum two-day trip to Florenceville or Woodstock. Retail businesses also benefited from the farmers’ trade when they brought their produce to town. People would spend the day trading at the four general stores or stay overnight at one of the four hotels with livery stables.
Advocacy for a steel bridge began in the 1870s and gained momentum until 1890 when a group of men from both sides of the river approached the government with compelling arguments for a bridge in Hartland. However, their proposal was rejected, as the government had recently built a steel bridge in Florenceville, 12 miles upriver, and funds were unavailable. Undeterred, the group formed the Hartland Bridge Company and sold bonds to raise money for the bridge’s construction. Charles McCormack, a bridge builder by trade, became the President and later the superintendent overseeing its construction. Other executive members included a druggist, a doctor, a carpenter, a businessman, and a farmer.
The construction of the World’s Longest Covered Bridge in Hartland began in 1898, starting with the building of the piers. During the first year, six wooden hollow grids were created and filled with rocks from farmers’ fields. In the second and third years, the builders employed Howe Truss construction to create individual bridges for each of the six piers and two wooden abutments. This remarkable feat was the result of the determination and collaboration of local communities.
The bridge was scheduled to officially open on May 14th, 1901. However, on May 13th, Dr. Estey received an urgent call from the Somerville side, prompting workers to lay down some boards to let him pass. This event marked the unofficial opening of the bridge. On May 30th, 1901, Charles A. McCormack, the superintendent of construction, wrote a letter to himself as the President of the Hartland Bridge Company, announcing the completion of the project. This letter was also sent to the provincial government.
The historic official opening took place on July 4th, 1901, when Premier Tweedie and government officials arrived in Hartland by train to celebrate the occasion. An estimated 5,000 people attended the grand parade, ribbon-cutting ceremony, and celebratory dinner, marking the official opening of the iconic bridge.
In the 1906 election, a toll-free bridge and government takeover were among the promises made to Hartland residents. After the election, there was no fanfare or celebration, but James Pearson, the tollgate keeper, simply stopped showing up for work, signifying the bridge’s toll-free status.
Life seemed good for the small hamlet nestled in the Saint John River Valley, now connected by their cherished bridge. However, on July 15, 1907, disaster struck. At 1 am on Monday morning, a fire erupted behind W. F. Thornton’s Drug Store. The fire bell rang twice, prompting people to rush out with buckets and whatever else they could find to fight the blaze. As the flames soared and crawled under the connected wooden boardwalk, they threatened other buildings and even the wooden river bridge. The dry, weathered wood structures that had stood since the early 1860s succumbed to their worst enemy: fire.
Communities in the surrounding areas were alerted and asked to provide any assistance they could in battling the fire. Woodstock’s fire equipment arrived by rail, but since it was a weekend and the CPR roundhouse was cold, it took three hours to build up enough steam for the 13-mile journey. The firefighters were exhausted, and the fire showed no signs of slowing down. Efforts to control the fire were further hindered when it was discovered that someone had cut two sections of the water hose, and the water barrels on the bridge were empty.
Despite these challenges, a significant effort was made to protect the bridge. It did catch fire, but only the approach and the toll building were partially burned, leaving the rest of the structure unharmed. On the street level, up to fifteen businesses were destroyed, along with numerous family residences and professional offices located above the shops. The community suffered a devastating blow, but the bridge survived. Rumours circulated about the cause of the fire, but no concrete evidence was ever found.
By 1913, the uncovered bridge began to show signs of wear and tear. In winter, snow was used to cover the floorboards to reduce friction from sleighs, while rain and sun took a toll on the wooden trusses, boards, and stringers. Additionally, melting snow and animal waste contributed to the bridge’s deterioration. Upon inspection by the Provincial Highway Superintendent, it was reported to the Premier that the bridge was rapidly decaying. Discussions commenced about replacing the bridge with a steel structure, but between 1913 and 1919, during the war years, only essential repairs were carried out.
After a political change, the new Public Works Minister decided to take action. Damage from ice and log drives had weakened piers 2, 4, and 5, and another thorough inspection suggested building a new bridge. However, steel was too expensive, so a wooden structure was proposed as a replacement. The townspeople, who would have gladly accepted a government-built bridge two decades earlier, now opposed the idea, not wanting to return to using ferries. A compromise was reached: the existing bridge would be strengthened, wooden piers replaced with concrete, and the entire structure covered to protect it from the elements. The work would be done in phases, and although the community agreed to this plan, they still requested a steel bridge.
The bridge was closed, ice bridges and ferries were reintroduced, and phase one repairs began. During the work, it was discovered that a main support cord was damaged by river drivers, who had hitched tackle to the bridge and used heavy teams to pull jams away. The bridge was set to reopen to traffic on April 6, 1920. Spirits were high, but heavy rain that weekend caused the ice to break up and jam, leading to a rapid rise in water levels. On the very day the bridge was scheduled to reopen, two western spans and one pier were washed away. The community’s worst fears were realized as they once again had to rely on ferries and ice bridges, limiting their ability to cross the river.
The communities on the opposite side of the town were left without mail, telephone services, or access to markets. Sixty percent of the town’s trade came from farmers on the west side of the river. Fertilizer for the upcoming crop season was not yet available, new machinery purchased and ready to be transported across the river remained on the Hartland side, and hay sold couldn’t reach the market. Residents now had to travel 24 miles one way to access established markets, turning the situation into a disaster.
Within a month, the Superintendent devised new plans. As part of phase one, the two western spans, the west abutment, and one pier would be replaced with wood, and a new concrete pier would be constructed. In the next phase, the remaining piers would be built using concrete, and the bridge would be moved from the wooden piers to the new concrete ones. Finally, the entire bridge would be covered with wood to protect it from the elements.
Eleven months later, the first phase was completed, and on March 1, 1921, it was reported that the bridge was open to the public. By September 1921, the new concrete piers were finished. All bridge spans were raised by 30 inches and moved westward by 20 feet onto the new piers by October 20th, without any interruption to traffic. The covering of the bridge began immediately and was completed by December 1921.
Almost as soon as the bridge was covered, traffic ceased after dark. Parents were worried about their daughters, as they viewed the covered bridge as a long tunnel and disapproved of their daughters casually driving through it with young men. The bridge became known as a “kissing bridge.” Complaints about its darkness led to an immediate council meeting, and lights were installed, although it remains uncertain whether the town or the government paid for them.
The first reference to the Hartland Bridge being the longest covered bridge in the world appeared in the Observer Newspaper on December 23, 1931. The Saint John Standard newspaper on October 2, 1937, claimed that Norway had the longest bridge, but after taking measurements, it was found that the Norway Bridge was 200 feet shorter. The claim of having the longest covered bridge in the world was confirmed without dispute by the Indiana Historical Timber Bridge Committee and has been upheld to this day.
The bridge was declared a National Historic Site in 1980 and a Provincial Historic Site in 1999.
On July 4, 2001, the Town of Hartland celebrated the Covered Bridge’s 100th birthday by re-enacting the original opening day of 1901 with a parade, ribbon-cutting ceremony, dinner, modern fireworks, and dancing on the bridge’s ramp.
The bridge has been the subject of countless photos for various occasions, including weddings, graduations, vacations, school class pictures, basketball teams, and family photos. On August 5, 2018, a first-of-its-kind event took place.
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