EATON — Oh, the Roberts! Paraphrasing from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities — This bridge has seen the best of times, the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness.
The Roberts is very well known throughout the world by covered bridge enthusiasts. It would be safe to say that the Roberts is one of the five best known covered bridges in our nation. Covered bridge aficionados from all over the world have made it a priority to gaze at the Roberts’s unique characteristics.
The bridge is unique because it is a “double barrel” covered bridge, meaning the bridge is a two-lane bridge separated by a load-carrying truss in between the two lanes. The design is a Burr truss patented in 1804 by Theodore Burr, an inventor from Connecticut and a cousin of Vice-President, Aaron Burr. The “Burr arch truss”, used two long arches, resting on the abutments on either end, typically sandwiching a multiple kingpost structure. The load-carrying capacities of the truss are said to be “statically indeterminate” and could not adequately be determined until only recently through use of computers. With that being said, the truss is a very compact, stable and strong truss.
A toll road crossed Seven Mile Creek on Orlistus Roberts’ farm three miles south of Eaton. Later, the toll road became a free pike and then part of State Route 127. The bridge was started in 1829, only 26 years after Ohio became a state, by Mr. Roberts, who suddenly passed away in 1830 and was finished by his apprentice, James L Campbell, who later married Mrs. Roberts, 17 years his senior.
Fun Facts about the Roberts:
1. The oldest covered bridge remaining in Ohio.
2. The second oldest covered bridge remaining in the nation.
3. The oldest of the nation’s six remaining double-barrelled bridges.
4. The bridge is built of poplar, beech and oak timber cut and hewn on the Roberts farm.
5. The bolts were forged in Roberts shop.
6. The stone for the abutments was obtained from the Halderman quarry several hundred yards up nearby Rocky Run.
Taking into account this was 1829, well before the nation’s industrial revolution, and all the preparation of the materials were assembled on the Roberts farm; some things that always amazed me were:
1. How did they correctly form the curvature of the10 ft. segments of each of the arches?
2. How did they accurately forge the bolts and nuts used throughout the bridge? The nuts move very smoothly on the bolt.
3. How big and how old were the trees that the structural members were cut and hewn? Take for instance, there are six bottom chord members and each of them were 6”wide x 18”deep and 90 feet long. These trees had to be at least 150 feet tall and well over 150 years old to get enough size to get the timbers. WOW! Truly amazing for 1829…the best of times and the age of wisdom.
Well, let’s move on to Aug. 5, 1986…the worst of times and the age of foolishness. Tuesday evening of the Preble County Fair the bridge was vandalized and heavily damaged by fire; even as its relocation was being discussed because of some unsuccessful attempts of vandalizing the bridge. The Preble County Sheriff’s Office had set patrolmen near the site, trying to catch the person responsible for the failed attempts, but with their services needed at the Fairgrounds, the bridge was unprotected that evening. The fire burnt the roof and the sides off the bridge, leaving the main structural members intact, but the fire consumed about one-inch off all sides of the structural members. I, the community and the nation were sickened by the site of the “grand ole lady” being a “pile of sticks.” This was especially sickening for me as the one-year anniversary of my mother’s passing was the next day. Emotionally, everything happening at once, broke my heart. Here I was as a young county engineer, I didn’t know what to do. Almost immediately the goodness of the fine folks of Preble County surrounded me and encouraged me to re-build the Roberts. To be frank about it, there were a lot of people who said we should just finish the job and burn the rest of her but I just couldn’t do that.
The Roberts Bridge Restoration Committee was formed to raise funds for the relocation and rebuilding of the Roberts in Eaton located just south of the Crystal Lake dam. The committee gave countless hours of their time in making the community aware of the importance of saving the bridge. This was a great group of individuals who would not be deterred from their goal of re-building the Roberts.
On Sept. 20, 1990, using Joe Kramer’s 1911 Case steamroller and Ivan Kramer’s homemade dolly system, the trusses were moved to Eaton. Andy and Bruce Stewart of Architectural Reclamations of Franklin, Ohio were commissioned to do the repair work. There were many volunteers, like Jim Mitchell, Vance Ketron and Leonard Vonderhaar; who gave countless hours to the rebuilding process. It was great seeing a community come together for a great cause.
On Sept. 15, 1991, the restored Roberts Bridge was rededicated at its new location, spanning Seven Mile Creek about two and one-half miles upstream from its original site. The remaining funds from the restoration account were forwarded to the City of Eaton for future maintenance on the bridge.
Since the rededication, many people have utilized the bridge. The bridge is a popular spot for weddings and family gatherings. And lots of pictures…what’s the old saying? I wish I had a nickel for every picture taken of the bridge!
The Model T Club of America hosted the 100th anniversary party for the Ford Model T in Richmond, Indiana in July, 2008. The Roberts was again open to traffic as several hundred Model T’s crossed over and had their picture taken with the “Grand Ole Lady”. I remember that some people from New Zealand had their car shipped to the States for the event and told me the highlight of their trip was having a picture of the Roberts with their prize possession. Amazing!
The Grand Ole Lady has witnessed a lot of activity and made a lot of memories for people over the last 187 years and is willing and able to provide our community and our nation with many more such memories in the next 187 years.
J. Stephen Simmons is a retired Preble County Engineer. Simmons is writing a monthly column for The Preble County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s “Year of the Covered Bridge.” For more CVB and covered bridge information, visit www.preblecountypassport.com.