Famous Nevada County covered bridge will get ‘girdle’

The historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge on the South Yuba River is about to be fitted for a life-saving girdle.

Crews last week were pouring foundations for what state parks officials describe as a steel girdle support system, to be constructed in the next three months, that will hold the 152-year-old bridge in place until a major rehabilitation project can get underway, possibly next year.

The steel reinforcement system may be coming just in time. Bridge advocates at South Yuba River State Park in Nevada County say they fear the truss-and-arch bridge with the sugar pine shingles could collapse this winter if there’s significant snowfall or high water flow.

The 229-foot-long bridge is the longest single-span, wood-covered bridge remaining in the United States, and perhaps the world. It draws thousands of fans of old bridges from around the world each year.

The foothills bridge was closed to public passage three years ago when park officials noticed a significant increase in the bowing of its huge timber trusses. Cast-iron tension rods have stretched and are no longer holding key bridge pieces in alignment. Two-foot-thick Douglas fir timbers have pulled away from each other. Key support beams have bowed as much as 5 inches.

Lobbied by several local preservation groups, state officials came up with funds to do the stabilization work that got underway a month ago. That work is expected to be done in late December. State Parks Superintendent Matt Green said work is on schedule and going well.

A second phase will begin next year. Parks officials will call in experts to help design a restoration plan for the bridge. That project will be far more complex, Green said, and could take several years to complete. In total, the state has allocated $1.5 million to save the bridge.

A local bridge advocate said the girdle is going to be ugly, while it lasts, but he is pleased the famous span finally appears to be headed to a secure future. Doug Moon, chairman of the Save Our Bridge Committee, said his group and others in the area plan to keep pushing the state Department of Parks and Recreation to make sure the project moves forward on pace.

“We want to see it done in the next few years; we are hoping by 2017,” Moon said.

The bridge served a major role during a formative era of California history. Constructed in 1862 by David Wood, a sawmill owner, it served as a key toll crossing on the Virginia Turnpike wagon trail between Marysville and the silver mines near Virginia City, Nev. Carts pulled by eight horses, mules or oxen paid $6 to cross. A one-horse buggy paid $1 to cross. Horse riders paid 50 cents. People on foot paid 25 cents. Hog owners paid 5 cents per hog.

The bridge later served motorized cars taking the northern, lower-elevation route through the mountains. It has been a main attraction in South Yuba River State Park for the last 45 years.