Fight for Survival: Covered Bridges in the Eastern Townships

June 21st, 2019

Horse-drawn carriages, dirt roads, and covered bridges.  They all seem to just go together when we think of the past.  CanadaPost’s recent issuing of a new stamp series showing Canada’s historic covered bridges speaks to the continued admiration our society has for these picturesque structures.  However, perhaps surprisingly to some, Quebec and New Brunswick were somewhat unusual in Canada for the proliferation of covered bridges across the landscape, while neighbouring Ontario, for example, had very few.  The Eastern Townships alone can count 222 covered bridges in its past!

By the mid-1900s, the region’s covered bridges were disappearing at an alarming rate as the demands placed on these structures changed with truck transport and widespread use of the automobile. In addition to demolition for ‘modernization,’ covered bridges also faced the threats of spring thaws and flooding, fires, and even the occasional theft of their wooden boards for campfires or personal construction projects.

By 1964, the number in the Townships had dropped to a mere 45 covered bridges and a number of those would have to fight to see 1974. By then, the number had dropped again by almost half.  One particular campaign, launched by the Richmond County Historical Society, was to save the last covered bridge in the county.  Known as the Gibson or Salmon Creek Bridge, it was located in Upper Melbourne and crossed the Salmon River.  Their diligent efforts over six years were rewarded in 1971 with the repairing and raising of the bridge courtesy of grant from the Canadian Heritage Society.

While the Historical Society’s hard work was enough to save the Salmon Creek Bridge from demolition, it couldn’t save the bridge from other forces and was destroyed by fire in May 1988.  Sadly, of the 23 bridges that survived the demolitions of 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, three others would also be lost by fire: the Rexford Bridge in Saint-Catherine-de-Hatley in 1985, the St-Camille Bridge in 1996, and the Capelton Bridge in 2002.

Today, 18 covered bridges still stand in the Townships.  The oldest is the John-Cook Bridge in Cookshire; built in 1868, it once crossed the Eaton River but following the re-routing of the river, it now spans a creek.  At 206 feet, the McVetty-McKenzie Bridge near Gould is the longest bridge still standing.  Scattered throughout the Townships, show-casing different construction styles, some still open to automobile traffic and some now accessible only to pedestrians; these gems are important reminders of a past era and are charming destinations for a summer drive.

Photo credit : P006/010/003 Minnie Hallowell Bowen fonds
The "short" covered bridge in Lennoxville over the Massawippi River, built around 1849 and demolished in 1938 following the construction of a steel bridge.
Photo credit : P020 E.T. Heritage Foundation fonds
Covered bridge in Sawyerville over the Eaton River, built in 1892 and destroyed by flood in 1942.
Photo credit : P020 E.T. Heritage Foundation fonds
The Richmond covered bridge, built in 1848 and torn down in 1882, was the longest covered bridge ever built in the Townships.
Photo credit : P058/001.05/002 Herbert Derick collection
The Inkerman Bridge in Frelighsburgh, built in 1857, demolished in 1959.
Photo credit : P020 E.T. Heritage Foundation fonds
The Rexford Bridge in Sainte-Catherine-de-Hatley was among the last covered bridges to be built in 1948. It was destroyed by fire in 1985.
Fight for Survival: Covered Bridges in the Eastern Townships
June 21st, 2019
Jody Robinson