By Charley Githler
A little less than 10 miles south of Ithaca, in the village of Newfield, is the oldest surviving covered bridge (in New York state) that is still open to daily vehicular traffic.
Built for horse carriages and ox carts, before there were cars, movies, electric lights or Cornell University, before Minnesota, Kansas or Oregon were states, it is, in a sense, a living link to the past. It’s worth a short trip.
The Newfield Covered Bridge was built between 1851-1853. It crosses the west branch of the Cayuga Inlet in the heart of Newfield village as a single span, 115-feet long and 16-feet wide. Of some 250 that were once scattered across New York, only 24 authenticated covered bridges still exist, and Newfield’s is one of the finest examples. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, it’s the only standing bridge of its type in the Finger Lakes Region.
Nobody is more knowledgeable about the history of Newfield, New York than Town Historian (since 1973) Alan Chaffee, whose ancestry goes back six generations to the township’s earliest settlers. He says that the covered bridge was built on the site of at least one, and possibly two previous more modest bridges dating back to 1812. At that point, a number of mills and businesses had been erected on the south side of the creek, and the population (400 in 1810, 1,000 by 1814) was growing rapidly.
“We don’t know the specific details behind the decision to build the bridge at that location, but we can reasonably see some of the logic used in selecting that site,” Chaffee said. “Traveling along the banks of the creek, the site of the covered bridge is a place where the banks are closest, most level with each other and close to the level of the business area to the south of the creek.
“While we can’t know the details behind the relationship between the building of the first bridge and the starting of the first businesses,” he added, “we can expect that they were somewhat dependent upon each other.”
It’s no longer possible to locate any definite information about the original bridge(s), as all the records of the town, excepting the 1811 town minutes, were destroyed by fire in 1875. Still, Chaffee, never short of stories, has one.
“Mary ‘Polly’ Linderman was born in a log cabin on the present Burdge Hill Road in 1813,” he said. “Polly told my grandmother of crossing the bridge where the covered bridge is now when she was just a girl.
“She described the experience as being very scary as the bridge floor had such holes in it that she could see the creek below while walking across it,” Chaffee added. “It appears that the first bridge was a rather crude affair.”
Interestingly, those early days of settlement creeks had a much greater and more consistent water flow compared to the present, as virgin forests had a much higher water table than we do now. In any event, uncovered log or wooden bridges could be expected last only 20 years or so before needing replacement, and a covered bridge, though initially more expensive, made economic sense in the long run, especially if there was a lot of traffic. It’s cheaper to replace the roof than to build a new bridge every 20 years.
In the 1850s, an infrastructure project in a village like Newfield was handled by home-grown talent. Local stone masons Benjamin Starr Jr. and Dick Russell laid the abutments for the bridge. The carpenters on the job were Samuel Hamm and his sons, David and Sylvester, as well as David Dassance and Patchen Parsons. Daniel Tunis turned all the wooden pins, called trunnels (tree nails) with which to secure the Town Lattice truss. Several descendants of the men who built the covered bridge are still residents of Newfield today.
At the time of construction, lumber was plentiful and labor was cheap. Men worked from sunup to sundown for $1 a day and lumber cost $6 per thousand board feet. The total cost of the bridge was $800.
Many of the covered bridges still standing are, like the Newfield bridge, the patented Town Lattice type. A lattice bridge is a form of truss bridge that uses a large number of small and closely spaced diagonal elements that form a lattice. It was an easy and relatively inexpensive way to build reliable and enduring bridges, and lighter timbers could be used.
When the bridge was first built, it had solid siding along the length of the bridge, but later diamond-shaped windows were cut to let light in. Originally, the town was going to pay $200 to an artist to paint a mural like ones on the covered bridges of Lucerne, Switzerland, but the artist died and before the committee could agree on a replacement, the Civil War intervened.
It bears noting that Newfield was an independent and self-sufficient community in the 1850s. This was a time when the daily stage left Ithaca for Elmira (via Newfield) at 5 a.m., and the road from Newfield to Ithaca was planked. An 1859 Newfield Village Business Directory, probably incomplete, lists 34 stores, shops, two hotels, churches and professionals (lawyers and doctors). This made the need for a good bridge connecting the village to the north part of the township important.
These days, adjacent to the bridge on the south side, is an overlook named for Grant and Marie Musser. By the late 1960s, because of heavier loads and increased traffic, Tompkins County officials were considering replacing the covered bridge with a concrete and steel bridge. The Mussers were members of the New York State Covered Bridge Society and stepped forward to save the bridge from destruction or replacement. It was their effort that led to a 1972 restoration by New Hampshire bridge experts Milton S. Graton and Sons. The entire bridge was raised a foot, the height of the portal entrances was increased with laminated arches and two additional trusses were added. In 1998, another large scale restoration occurred, including abutment and bank stabilization, new decking and roofing, a pedestrian bridge, the Musser overlook and a picnic area.
It doesn’t take much imagination now, when driving through the bridge, to hear the clop of horses’ hooves or the rattle of wagon wheels. Though reminders of the past abound in Newfield, even in a sleepy village the bridge has seen the advent of automobiles and a span of American history ranging from the whale-oil era to cell phones. Take a few minutes next time you’re driving by Newfield and check it out.