Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: a different landscape

After a couple of years living on the plains of Oklahoma (where the wind truly does come sweeping down the plain), our fall vacation to the mountains of southwestern Colorado in 1979 was unquestionably a change of landscape.

Continuing our Tuesday Tour of this area, today my old 35mm film photos of another attraction we visited during that trip so long ago tell the story. Reaching back over 40 years in my memory bank in order to recall details of this trip, these old pictures came to my aid. My photography skills weren’t all that great back then, but the photos do jog my remembrances.

After our day trip on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (click here if you missed that post), we ventured out on another day trip from our little one-bedroom log cabin in the San Juan Mountains to Mesa Verde.

Plummeting caverns like we’d not seen before (this was four decades before we’d viewed the Grand Canyon) and vast views that enable visitors, on a clear day, to see four states located in this “four corners region” – Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah – proved to be a landscape of a different kind.  


Amazing and intriguing sights can be found in Mesa Verde National Park, consisting of archaeological sites that were once inhabited by ancestral Pueblo people.  They built their communities not just on the mesas there but within the overhanging cliffs. Hundreds of these cliff dwellings are some of the best-preserved archeological areas in North America.

The arrow points to a cliff dwelling seen from a distance

For some reason after living on top of the mesas for centuries, the Puebloans moved their community dwellings cliffside, ranging from one-room to villages with numerous rooms.

Getting a little closer to the huge community

According to park information, these ancient people farmed on top of the mesas, but lived in the alcoves of the canyons for almost 100 years. Eventually, they moved into what is now New Mexico and Arizona and by the year 1300, Mesa Verde was no longer inhabited by the ancestral Pueblo people.

It was mind-boggling to view the almost unbelievable structures tucked into the side of steep cliffs from a distance as we drove around the park via winding roads, but when we actually hiked down to view them up-close, we marveled at these ancient people’s ingenuity and adeptness.

Going down the trail to explore Cliff Palace

Because the altitude is rather high at Mesa Verde and it was a scorching hot day, I endured a wicked headache while we visited so we didn’t explore as much as we could have. Since I wasn’t feeling well, we chose to forgo visiting Balcony House which is only accessible by climbing a 32-foot ladder and then crawling through a tunnel. A pounding headache, slight nausea, and no remedy available caused me to nix that idea.

But we did hike down the pathway to view Cliff Palace, which is the largest and most famous of the cliff dwellings, containing over 150 rooms as well as kivas, which were rooms used for religious rituals.

Another area of Mesa Verde is Wetherill Mesa where Long House is located. This area was excavated in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Today you can only visit it by ranger-guided tours. Of course, in the over 40 years since we visited, much has been added to the park including a visitor center, where sightseers can purchase tour tickets.

Papa before he became a papa (just to show scale of the dwellings)

Even though my memory of visiting Mesa Verde is hampered by not forgetting a touch of “altitude sickness,” I’ve never forgotten the sights we viewed in that very different terrain from any we’d seen before. I’m glad I still have those old photographs to catalog that unusual landscape.

“We are a landscape of all we have seen.” ~  Isamu Noguchi 

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: the mountains are calling

It was our first real vacation as a married couple in the fall of 1979. Papa was a military officer; I worked as a newspaper assistant editor/reporter in a place far from our home state. Consequently, our vacations were jaunts back ‘home’ to visit our families.

But we wanted to explore places new to us and after growing a tad weary of seemingly endless flat prairie land, we longed to visit mountains and forests. So that September, we decided to drive from Oklahoma through New Mexico and into the San Juan Mountains (part of the Rockies) of southwestern Colorado.

Luckily for us, one of my co-workers traveled there every summer for a family reunion, so she suggested a great itinerary of spots to visit.

We booked a little one-bedroom log cabin at Silver Streams Lodge near Vallecito Lake, CO in the San Juan National Forest in September and were surprised to find we were the only people there other than the owners/managers. Of course, summers and winters are busier seasons for that area.

View from the lodge

We hiked and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and change of scenery. But the highlight of our vacation was day trips to Durango, Silverton, Ouray, and Mesa Verde. Today on our Tuesday Tour, I’m showcasing the Durango-Silverton area.

Even back then in his 20’s, Papa was a railroad enthusiast, and he was excited for us to embark on a day-long excursion via the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a train with both steam and diesel locomotives that has continued operation for almost 140 years to date.  

What an amazing trip! Boarding the train in the historic town of Durango, passengers travel 45 miles up the mountains for 3½ hours and arrive in the old mining settlement of Silverton.

In 1880, Durango was founded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. Once the railroad was established there the next year, construction on tracks up the mountain to Silverton began and were completed by the summer of 1882. The train hauled both passengers and freight, especially silver and gold ore mined in the San Juan Mountains.

We departed in the morning and arrived in Silverton, nestled in the valley of the mountains, where we ate lunch and enjoyed a couple hours browsing the shops there. Of course, Papa posed in front of the train’s engine on our arrival, and I posed in the open rail car, our choice on the way back down the mountain to Durango on another 3 ½ hour trip.

Arrival in Silverton
Departure from Silverton

The magnificent views we experienced, inaccessible by highway, awed us. My old 35mm film photos and my not-so-great photography skills back then don’t do them justice, but you get the idea.

Animas River Gorge as seen from the train

Even back in the late 1970’s, both Durango and Silverton (watch a nice video here) had plenty of restaurants and shops to visit and now even more so (500 shops in the Durango area), but nature and outdoor activities as well as the narrow gauge train trip are the true gems and tourist attractions of that area of Colorado.

Next week on our Tuesday Tour, I’ll show you other spectacular spots we visited on our trip to southwestern Colorado including Ouray and Mesa Verde.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ~ John Muir

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: home on the range

Since my series of Tuesday Tour highlighting covered bridges ended last week, I’ve been contemplating where to venture next. Unfortunately, since travel was restricted for so long during the you know what, Papa and I haven’t hit the road as much as we usually do in search of new adventures.  

Hopefully, that changes soon but, in the meantime, I reminisced about past excursions we’ve taken in our 40+ years of marriage. Because, you know, that’s what you do when you can’t move forward, you look back to the past.

With hopes that I don’t bore my readers (please excuse me and let me know if I do), just yesterday on one of those rainy, dreary, is it Monday already moments, I decided to continue Tuesday Tour highlighting places we’ve visited in the past.

Maybe it’s desperation for something to blog about, but it’s also a bit of fun to see how far Papa and I have come in our travels as well as how my photography skills have fared.

So with photos I shot in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s with a 35 mm film camera, here goes…

Way back when we were newlyweds, Papa and I said goodbye to our native land and headed for the OK state – Oklahoma. Some folks claim this panhandled place sandwiched in between Kansas and Texas is a southwestern state, others categorize its location as Midwest.

Whatever it is, Oklahoma seemed like a foreign country to two young’uns born and raised in a hilly, mountainous (Allegheny Mountains), and forested northeastern or middle Atlantic state as it is sometimes called. 

The area of Oklahoma that we landed in for a four-year sojourn was a flat prairie, mostly treeless, with a heap of huge boulders they call mountains.

The scenario was like the old cowboy folk song, “Home on the Range,” originally written as a poem by Dr. Brewster M. Higley in 1872 or 73, came to life.

“Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day.”

I vividly recall one of the first times Papa and I explored our surroundings when we were in search of Geronimo’s grave (a famous Native American leader from the Apache tribe).

Geronimo’s gravesite

Driving out onto the flat plains where there were no signs of civilization and the horizon seemed to spread out for eternity, I felt not just awestruck but a bit frightened as well.

Right then, I decided I never would have been a pioneer heading west in a covered wagon into uncharted territory. Nope, this gal would have stayed back east in civilization with hills, wooded areas, and people. That expanse of uninhabited prairie kind of scared me.

One of our favorite pastimes in the five years we lived in that area of Oklahoma was visiting the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge which was practically at our back door.

The most prominent aspect of the national refuge, established in 1901 to provide a habitat for an assortment of native animals, is Mount Scott. Visitors can drive a winding, curving road (which can provide a nail-biting experience for some) to the mountain’s top 2,464 feet above sea level, where a parking lot is located.

View from Mount Scott

From that spot, one can gaze out forever it seems, viewing the grassland prairie and plenty of rocks. It’s a windy place reminding visitors what those song lyrics from the musical Oklahoma, “where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” are all about.

Even more astonishing for us while motoring through the 59,000+ acre refuge was meeting free range American bison roaming about, crossing the road in front of our car, and staring at us while we stared at them, worrying they might charge at us. And believe me, when bison want to cross the road, you stop and let them!

Rocky Mountain elk and white-tailed deer also abound there as well as Texas longhorn cattle (in photo at beginning of this post). We managed to see them all on our visits, as well as get our first look at tarantulas in their natural habitats.

We distinctly remember stopping for a “tarantula train” crossing the road. They were huge and caused me to shudder quite a bit as I’m definitely not fond of spiders of even the tiny kind.

Rocky Mountain Elk

The refuge offered lots of opportunities for watching wildlife, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, rappelling, and rock climbing and still does. But watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions!

We enjoyed many picnics there as well as visiting the nearby Holy City of the Wichitas, site of a long-time running Easter pageant, and some interesting restaurants that I’m surprised to say still exist now.

The Old Plantation restaurant was a great place to dine on steaks and view the eclectic and unusual décor, while we could feast on delicious, gigantic hamburgers the size of a dinner plate at Meers Store and Restaurant.

One of my favorite aspects of the wildlife refuge was the prairie dog town. Prairie dogs are rodents related to squirrels, can be up to 15 inches long, but they live in underground colonies of tunnels that can spread for many miles.  They also emit a noise that sounds like the bark of a dog.

Watching them pop in and out of their underground homes was a source of amusement and I loved watching these cute critters.

For over five years, we called the Lawton-Fort Sill area of Oklahoma home. After over 40 years, memories of those home on the range places still bring a smile to my face. Maybe you’ll smile too and visit there someday.

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” ~ Pascal Mercier

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: loop’s end

And so, we reach the end of the loop – the Ashtabula Covered Bridges Trail or the “Covered Bridge Loop” in Ashtabula County, Ohio – as this is my last post about historic covered bridges on my Tuesday Tour. Hopefully, Papa and I will uncover some more of these picturesque bridges in future travels.

Today, please enjoy the last four bridges we viewed on our driving tour one day last summer. In addition to the 12 total we located, four more drivable ones exist in Ashtabula County, but we didn’t have time to visit those since this was just a day trip.

As we drove through Benetka Road Covered Bridge, a 138-foot long, single span with a Town truss lattice and arch design, we weren’t aware of its history.  Later, I learned this bridge, located on a road of the same name and crossing the Ashtabula River, was built near a water-powered saw, grist, and flour mill constructed in 1829. Some historians believe the Benetka bridge was erected around 1900, but others claim that the bridge’s timbers have two different kinds of saw marks – some circular and some vertical – most likely created by sash saws powered by the old mill. Some covered bridge aficionados speculate those particular timbers were cut around 1860 or even earlier, so it is possible Benetka was first constructed then and maybe rebuilt in 1900. Either way, it is a nice example of that era of time. The bridge was rehabilitated by the county in 1985 when laminated arches were added to its length. Drivers are warned that a blind spot exists at the bridge’s south approach because of a curve, and local drivers beep their car horns to signal they are coming through.

Our next stop located on Dewey Road in Plymouth Township was the Olin Covered Bridge.  Once known as the Dewey Road Bridge, this 115-foot, single span Town lattice structure also crosses the Ashtabula River, and was repaired, restored and renamed Olin Covered Bridge in 1994. Originally built in 1873, it is the only bridge in Ashtabula County named for a family, the Olins, pioneers who owned property beside the bridge for well over 150 years. Alson and Alvina Olin arrived in Ashtabula County from New York in 1832 and their son, Almon, purchased the land in 1860 beside where the bridge now exists. You can learn more about this historic bridge by visiting a small museum and gift shop located less than a mile away and operated by members of this family. The Olin’s Museum of Covered Bridges, opened in 2003, claims to be the country’s first covered bridge museum, and contains educational displays as well as an Olin family collection.  We didn’t know of its existence in a 100-year-old house when we drove through the Olin bridge, so we did not visit it, but the museum is only open Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 pm from July through October.  

From the old and historic to the modern and amazing, our driving tour included motoring through the longest covered bridge in the United States at 613 feet and the fourth longest covered bridge in the world, Smolen-Gulf Covered Bridge. The engineering and structural design of this Pratt Truss bridge was created by former County Engineer John Smolen with current County Engineer Timothy Martin, providing architectural design. This bridge was dedicated in 2008. An interesting aspect of the structure is it stands 93 feet above the Ashtabula River, is wide and high enough to support two-lane legal weight, modern traffic, and is expected to last 100 years.  

The Smolen–Gulf Bridge cost approximately $7.78 million to build, rests on concrete piers and abutments, and consists of three-foot-thick Douglas fir and yellow pine wood. The siding is constructed of Hemlock and yellow poplar wood.  Features include walkways on both sides of the bridge and a visitor’s pavilion, from which I snapped a number of photos. Below the Smolen-Gulf bridge, a small Riverview Covered Pedestrian Bridge also exists for visitors to amble through on foot.

The last covered bridge we viewed on our driving tour was the Doyle Road Covered Bridge, spanning Mill Creek, a tributary of Grand River. At 94 feet long, this single span Town truss and lattice bridge was erected in 1868 and renovated in 1987. In my research, I did not find a lot of history about this particular covered bridge, except for that fact that the creek it crosses – Mill Creek – was named after a Mills family who were early pioneer settlers in the area. It was a lovely bridge and just as enjoyable to drive through as all the other bridges on the loop tour.

As I climbed back in our vehicle and fastened my seat belt, Papa and I heard the distinct clip-clop of a trotting horse coming through the bridge. Alas, I couldn’t grab my camera fast enough to catch the Amish buggy that came through. But we did see several on all the country roads we traveled upon on our tour.

A fun fact for visitors who want to travel to this area of Ohio: each fall, a covered bridge festival takes place during the second weekend of October in Ashtabula County. The festival includes crafts, entertainment, quilt shows, food, and of course, beautiful fall scenery provided by nature as folks take the covered bridge driving tour through the county. And the festival is free to the public. For those who love exploring these quaint, historic bridges, it would make a great fall getaway trip.

Just like visiting lighthouses, exploring covered bridges provides fun and beautiful scenic sights for this retired, empty nest Mama and Papa to visit on our travels. We enjoy seeking them out, but also are happy to come home to our own little neck of the woods, grateful for the opportunities.

“Never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.” ~ Fannie Lou Hamer

© 2021

Posted in day trip, memories, photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: “bula land” bridges

Sometimes you just stumble onto a treasure by happenstance, and when you do, it develops into a memory – one from the past to remember and revisit in the future.

As often happened during this past year of the you know what, Papa and I were once again grateful for a blessing. What makes us feel so blessed? Living in a rural area.

Even though plenty of travel restrictions prevented us from taking more than one vacation or far-away excursions, living where we do enabled us to venture out on road trips by car, partially satisfying our desire for exploring new-to-us places.

We set out one late summer morning in 2020 for such a trip. We ventured to the state next door – Ohio – for a bit of exploring another rural area we hadn’t visited before and where we wouldn’t have to worry much about social distancing and the like.  

The focus of our destination was to locate covered bridges and on our way back home, catch some glimpses of a couple of lighthouses around Lake Erie. Happily, we accomplished both goals, but the covered bridge excursion truly revealed a treasure for us.

Little did we know that the county we chose to visit in the northeast corner of Ohio is considered the covered bridge capital of that state. Nineteen covered bridges, including the longest and shortest in the entire country (USA), are situated in Ashtabula County. The modern Smolen-Gulf Bridge holds the title of being the longest at 613 feet in length and the touted shortest is the 18-foot-long West Liberty Covered Bridge.

Seventeen of those covered spans are operational and open to vehicular traffic year-round. We managed to see a dozen of them in one trip and I decided to highlight those in three parts for my Tuesday Tour. Look for part 2 next week on May 4 with Part 3 posted on May 11.

The treasure we discovered is that visitors can travel on a 67-mile-long driving tour, called the Ashtabula Covered Bridges Trail or the “Covered Bridge Loop,” via country roads to view these unique bridges by using a self-guided driving map. Five types of construction are visible in the historic Ashtabula County covered bridges: Howe truss, Pratt truss, Town lattice truss, Burr arch, and Inverted Haupt truss.

Our first stop was Netcher Road Covered Bridge, which traverses Mill Creek in Jefferson Township. This bridge, at 110 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 14½ feet high, features a single span of timber arches with inverted Haupt walls and is classified as “Neo Victorian” design. However, it is not a relic from the past but instead is one of the newest covered bridges since it was constructed in 1998 and was funded by a state department of transportation grant. Netcher Road bridge is located about two miles east of Jefferson, Ohio.

Bridge #2 on our driving tour was South Denmark Road Covered Bridge, also crossing Mill Creek. At 81 feet in length, this Town lattice style span was built in 1890.  It’s only 2.7 miles away from Netcher Road Bridge, but because of construction/road closure occurring at the time of our visit, we could not view this bridge.

Another newer bridge, erected in 1986 to celebrate Ashtabula County’s 175th anniversary, is the Caine Road Covered Bridge.  With a single span Pratt truss design, this 124-foot-long structure crosses the Ashtabula River in Pierpont Township and is 6.7 miles from the South Denmark Bridge.

The next stop on our driving tour enticed me even more than previous ones. Sitting in a small park along the south side of Graham Road is the aptly named Graham Road Covered Bridge. Interestingly, this 97-foot Town truss span was re-built from the remains of a damaged bridge that washed downstream during a flood back in 1913. It originally crossed the Ashtabula River in Pierpont Township, but was relocated in 1972 near its original site. Not open to vehicle traffic, a distinguishable aspect of this renovated bridge is the quilt block design painted on its side.

The artwork on the side of a historic covered bridge will remain in my memory and I’ll smile each time I gaze at that photo (at the beginning of this post). Memories of a lovely summer day’s travels and sights are added to yet other special thoughts. That pretty quilt-block design reminds me of my mother, who loved to fashion and create beautiful hand-made quilts.

Memories that last become treasured keepsakes in our minds, don’t they?

“Keep all special thoughts and memories for lifetimes to come. Share these keepsakes with others to inspire hope and build from the past, which can bridge to the future.” ~ Mattie Stepanek

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: The Bridges of Somerset County

Each time I view photos of the covered bridges I highlight today in this Tuesday Tour, a certain title of a book and movie come to my mind.

You see, these structures are three out of 10 remaining covered bridges in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. And each time I think “the bridges of Somerset County,” my mind leaps to a book written in the 90’s, one that became a popular movie in the same decade, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller.

“First you must have the images, then come the words.” ~ Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County

The story involves star-crossed lovers: a professional photographer, who travels to Madison County, Iowa to take photos of famous covered bridges there for National Geographic, and a lonely farmer’s wife. I can honestly say I didn’t care much for either the book or the movie (which starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), but for some reason, that title sticks in my mind.

So here are some of the bridges – not of Madison County, but of southern Somerset County – which we visited by happenstance last summer. In the midst of the you know what, Papa and I needed a get-away, so one Saturday we embarked on a day trip out into nature, one where we wouldn’t encounter a lot of people.

After arriving at the 20,500-acre Ohiopyle State Park, which serves as a gateway into the Laurel Highlands, we hoped to enjoy a view of Ohiopyle Falls, a 20-foot waterfall on the Youghiogheny (pronounced YOK-i-gay-nee) River.

But the place was crazy busy with people who had the same idea, so we nixed that,  shelving it for a week-day another time when it might be less crowded. After finding a quiet spot for a picnic lunch, we meandered down country roads and wound up in Somerset County in search of three covered bridges that all cross the same ribbon of water, Laurel Hill Creek.

The first one we encountered was the Lower Humbert Covered Bridge, near Confluence, PA, about a 25-minute drive from Ohiopyle. Also called the Faidley Covered Bridge, it’s located at an intersection of Humbert and Covered Bridge Roads in Lower Turkeyfoot Township.

At 126. 5 feet in length, 12.3 feet in width, and 8 feet high, the double span bridge was constructed in 1891, using Burr arch truss and King-post design. Maintained by the county, Lower Humbert was rehabilitated 100 years later in 1991 when two steel beams were added in order to support vehicular traffic and a concrete pier, encased in stone, near the bridge’s mid-way point was also included.

Today, this covered bridge, is in good condition and we enjoyed driving through it. Research revealed that it was not the only covered bridge that existed in that area in the past. One called the Upper Humbert Bridge, which also had a King-post design, once stood about one mile upstream from the Lower Humbert. Unfortunately, an arsonist destroyed that bridge in 1969 and it was not rebuilt. 

We next found King’s Covered Bridge, also located in Middlecreek Township just off Route 653 about 12 miles southwest of Somerset.  We appreciated the fact that there were ample parking spaces in a park-like setting so sightseers can walk through the bridge, which is not open to vehicular traffic, and that a picnic pavilion is adjacent to it. The site is owned and maintained by the township.

The date this 127-foot long and 12-foot-wide bridge was constructed is not certain. At one time, King’s Bridge was believed to have been built in 1802, but that conflicts with the fact that covered bridges were not erected in that area until the late 1800’s. Research on covered bridges indicates that the first confirmed American covered bridge was bult in 1805 in Philadelphia, PA across the Schuylkill River.

So more than likely, a bridge (not covered) may have been erected there in 1802 but was replaced by King’s Covered Bridge using multiple King-post trusses. Then in 1906, the bridge was rebuilt using Burr arch trusses.

After being bypassed in the 1930’s by a modern, steel bridge, King’s Covered Bridge fell into disrepair and actually was used as a livestock barn for several decades, Thankfully, it was rehabilitated in 2008.

It is beautiful from the outside. However, what disturbed me most about this link to the past was, after waiting for a couple of bicyclers to pass through the bridge (photo at beginning of this post), we walked inside to find its interior walls covered in spray-painted graffiti. What a shame.

King’s Covered Bridge is not far from the ski resort areas of Seven Springs and Hidden Valley. It’s also a short distance from Cole Run Falls, which is a popular set of waterfalls.

Just a few minutes away from King’s Bridge, we located another covered bridge, which I think is my favorite of the three.  (Maybe because there were old-fashioned roses and daisies in bloom beside it.) Barronvale Covered Bridge, the longest of the 10 remaining covered bridges of Somerset County at 162 feet in length, is also known as Barron’s Mill Bridge.

This nearly 14-foot wide, two-span Burr truss structure is not open to vehicular traffic and can be found in Middlecreek Township in a beautiful setting. It is in very good condition, but it is privately owned so visitors need to be respectful of that. Sightseers can park and walk through the bridge though.

A placard at the bridge details its history, stating that a miller named Peter Kooser petitioned county commissioners in 1828 to build a bridge near his gristmill for his patrons. By 1830, Barronvale’s construction was completed by builder Cassimer Cramer at a cost of $300.

In 1845, the two-span bridge needed repairs to strengthen it so heavy Burr arches were installed, which allegedly cost the county $750. Repaired again in 1907, stone supports, which came from a nearby quarry, were installed.

All three of these historic covered bridges were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. They serve as reminders to the past and are worthwhile remembering and visiting.

“The heart never forgets, never gives up, the territory marked off for those who came before.” ~ Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County

© 2021

Posted in Life, photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: to safely cross

It may seem like a silly question, but why does one cross a bridge? Drum roll please….to get to the other side. Much like the chicken who crossed the road.

But there’s more to it. One crosses a bridge also to arrive on the other side in a safe manner, especially when the river, stream, or other waterway that’s being traversed is dangerous.

Years ago, back in my career days, I worked as a newspaper reporter/editor for a twice daily newspaper in a southwestern state. When my co-workers learned I was from the keystone state of Pennsylvania, I found myself answering some silly questions like “What exactly is a Nittany Lion?” and “Is there really a place called Slippery Rock?”

The city editor, a college sports fan, teased me mercilessly about two Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning:  Penn State University and its mascot, the Nittany Lion, and Slippery Rock College (now Slippery Rock University). Those schools amused him to no end and he was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t attended either college but instead graduated from another university.

He just couldn’t imagine why a college was named Slippery Rock or as he called it, Slimy Pebbles. Well, for one reason only – the college is located in the town of Slippery Rock and there actually is a Slippery Rock Creek, named thusly because the rocks in the creek were exactly that – slippery.

Today on our Tuesday Tour, come along with me to an historic, wooden, covered bridge that crosses over Slippery Rock Creek in Slippery Rock Township, near Portersville in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Papa and I visited this landmark on a day trip back in August 2013.

You’ll find McConnells Mill Covered Bridge located in a state park by the same name, McConnells Mill, named for Thomas McConnell who purchased a gristmill for grinding grains – corn, oats, wheat, and buckwheat – back in 1875.  The first mill on this site beside Slippery Rock Creek was constructed by Daniel Kennedy in 1852. After fire destroyed the mill, he rebuilt it in 1868.

In 1874, McConnells Mill Covered Bridge was erected on stone foundations over the slippery rocks of the creek to transport shipments to and from the nearby mill. However, while the gristmill once was an important part of the surrounding community, it closed in 1928.

The old mill and property surrounding it, including the bridge, was transferred to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to be preserved in the 1940’s. Eventually, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired ownership and the area became a state park dedicated in 1957.

Both the mill and the covered bridge are well-known historic landmarks in the Slippery Rock Creek Gorge, also in McConnell’s Mills State Park. If you visit this scenic park, you can explore both sides of the gorge, view Slippery Rock Creek as it gushes through the ravine or whitewater kayak on it, go climbing and rappelling, or hike on trails, one being a pretty steep, challenging six-mile hike that’s part of the North Country National Scenic Trail.

For those who prefer safer outings, you can visit the two man-made sites: tour the old gristmill and drive through the quaint covered bridge.

McConnell’s Mills Covered Bridge is one of only four Howe truss designed bridges still in existence in Pennsylvania. To understand a Howe truss form of bridge construction, you can read this.

This bridge is also the longest, at 101 feet, of the four which had not been rebuilt, but it was repaired and revitalized in 1957, when steel girders were added to give better support.  Several years ago, the historic bridge sustained damage from a fierce storm, but  refurbishment, costing over $100,000 with many replacement pieces made by hand, restored it. Reportedly, some original bridge lumber is over 140 years old.

An interesting fact is that covered bridges were not prominent in Lawrence County, unlike the rest of the state’s counties. It is speculated that only five covered bridges were ever built in that particular county and McConnells Mill is one of two that remain today. The other one, Banks Covered Bridge, stands near Volant, Pennsylvania (a small, picturesque town that is an antique and specialty shop haven).

Today, you can tour the historic 19th century mill and drive through the bridge, which is open for vehicular traffic. McConnells Mill Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

No doubt this bridge was built to provide safe crossing from one side of a rushing, slippery creek to another. Perhaps we need to take a bit of inspiration from this old bridge. To avoid being swept away down slippery slopes into a rapid torrent of turbulent waters, we need to begin building bridges of respect and understanding instead of tearing others down.

“Bridges are built not to cross over it but it is built to lift you to the other side safely.” ~ Edwin Lawrence

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: hard work and effort

You met me at the bridge today!

Last week, I announced my intention of taking Mama’s Empty Nest readers on another excursion of sorts via a few of my photographs.

Last year, we traveled on my Tuesday Tour of lighthouses I’ve photographed. Today begins our new tour of historical covered bridges.

I’ve often viewed covered bridges, particularly because we live in a state where we have a plethora of them still existing. But I didn’t capture photos of them until July 2012. Back then, one of our chicks, our eldest, had flown back into this empty nest while planning her upcoming wedding.

On a whim, the three of us hit the highway on July 4th for a day-long road trip to Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Our main stop was to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville (site of the third plane downed on that fateful September 11, 2001 day), since our daughter had never seen the site and we hadn’t viewed new landmarks added there since our previous visit several years before.

After our somber viewing of the memorial grounds, we climbed back in the car to meander around some country roads.  Less than two miles from the memorial, we found the Glessner Covered Bridge, north of Shanksville in Stonycreek Township.

This historic two-span structure is one of 10 remaining covered bridges in Somerset County. Originally constructed in 1881 by Tobias Glessner, the 90-foot-long and 12-foot-wide bridge crosses over the Stonycreek River, a tributary of the Conemaugh River.

When Glessner built the bridge at a reported cost of $412, multiple kingpost and burr arch style trusses were utilized in its design. Now that didn’t mean a thing to me so I had to research what those terms meant.

I found that a kingpost style, considered to be a simple truss form, is often used for short-span bridges and roof trusses. It consists of two diagonal lengths of wood meeting at the apex of the truss, one horizontal beam tying the bottom end of the diagonals together, and a king post connecting the apex to the horizontal beam below.

For a bridge, the builder would need to use two kingpost trusses with the driving surface between them. Covering the bridge with a roof would require side by side trusses where the diagonals are rafters, and the horizontal serves as a ceiling joist.

A burr arch truss is a combination of an arch and multiple kingpost trusses. Burr arch trusses were devised by Theodore Burr in 1804 and used especially in covered bridges. If I understand it correctly, the arch truss along with a kingpost truss makes the bridge more stable and capable of supporting a greater weight.

If you’re architectural/construction deficient like me, that is as clear as mud, so I needed a visual to understand that. You can see the trusses on the inside of the bridge, which is covered with a tin gable roof, in the photos below. Two-thirds of the bridge’s exterior is covered with vertical wood planks and one-third of the interior is also planked.

Years took their toll on the Glessner Covered Bridge by 1969, so a concrete pier was added and abutments were reinforced with concrete. However, by 1995, the structure had deteriorated so much, it was closed to traffic.

A major rehabilitation project consisting of a new concrete pier and abutments, replacement of some of the wooden components, and the addition of steel beams underneath the deck were accomplished by 1998.

Currently, Glessner Covered Bridge is in good condition, open to vehicular traffic, and owned and maintained by Somerset County. In 1980, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the aspects of this particular covered bridge striking me most is the amount of know-how and hard work the builder must have put into constructing it. Maybe these old covered bridges can teach us a lesson – a lesson from those days of yore that we should utilize now during our uncertain times and into the future.

When we exert a good deal of effort and we work hard at the task before us, our dreams can become reality.

“Effort and hard work construct the bridge that connects your dreams to reality.” ~Daisaku Ikeda

© 2021

Posted in pandemic life, photography, travel

Meet me at the bridge

In this time period of you know what, (my euphemism for pandemic) when one day is much like the one before and when travel too far away from home is restricted, I’m a bit stagnant when it comes to ideas for blog posts.

So, I resort to a process I’ve often relied on in the past – photographs. Photographs speak to me, they inspire me, they conjure up ideas to ponder upon because I am a visual kind of person. Although I adequately use words to express myself whether thinking, writing, or speaking, I also often think in pictures.

When my blogging fodder is running low, I scan back through the myriad of photographs I’ve taken over the years in hopes an idea will percolate, permeate, and present something new to write about.

My photo cache didn’t fail me this time either. A few Mama’s Empty Nest readers shared with me that they enjoyed the Tuesday Tour series I wrote this past year on lighthouses Papa and I visited on various sightseeing trips/vacations in the past. Searching through pictures and researching each lighthouse certainly gave me something enjoyable to occupy my time during this you know what.

So, I’m planning to venture again on another Tuesday Tour and I do hope you join me on this journey. Each Tuesday for the next few weeks, I will showcase other gems, some historical landmarks worthy of viewing. Covered bridges.

Although they are not quite as alluring to me as lighthouses are, covered bridges still intrigue me and cause me to pull out my camera to capture them in their usual scenic surroundings. And they are situated by water, which always seems to draw me near.

At one time here in the United States, almost 14,000 timber-trussed structures covered by a roof, deck, and siding and often completely enclosed, spanned creeks, streams, and rivers. Most of them were one-lane bridges originally designed for wagon, carriage, and foot traffic, but eventually automobile traffic could also be accommodated as well.  

A multitude of covered bridges were built between 1820 and 1900. But time, weather, and even technology caused them to fall into decay and disuse. Currently, less than 900 such structures still exist, but grants for restoring and rebuilding some of those have been available.

About 550 authentic, wooden covered bridges, some over 150 years old, exist in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Vermont. Papa and I are fortunate enough to live in Pennsylvania where the most covered bridges still stand – around 200 located in 37 counties – and the state next door to us has the second most. We have not visited all those sites, that’s for sure.

Before we set off on our tour, maybe you’ll find a few facts establishing background information about these quaint historical landmarks from another time period interesting. You may have wondered, as I did, why these bridges were covered in the first place.

According to research, I discovered the answer is simple: wooden bridges exposed to the elements are exceptionally vulnerable for deterioration. In other words, they rotted easily so covers protected them from weather and resulted in the bridges lasting longer, since, according to bridge engineers, a covered truss made of timber possessed a three times greater life expectancy than an uncovered one.

Uncovered wooden bridges usually only lasted about 20 years and then needed repaired or replaced where covered ones could and have lasted as long as a century. Another fact was that a roof over a bridge would strengthen the entire structure.

Some other explanations for covered bridges have also been offered. Some believe that because the covered spans resembled barns, it was easier to drive farm animals through the structures since they wouldn’t be frightened and possibly stampede. Other theories are that coverings were simply to keep the oiled planks from becoming slippery in rain or to just keep trusses from view because they were unsightly.

Yet other explanations were that covered bridges provided a shelter from storms for travelers and, the most romantic reason of all – that a young man could court his young lady there in private and secretly kiss her, which provided a nickname for covered bridges as “kissing bridges.” I’ve even heard stories of couples getting engaged in modern times inside a covered bridge.

Philadelphia became the first known site of a covered bridge, constructed in 1805, with a length of 550 feet, and crossing the Schuykill River. A nearby land owner suggested that bridge be roofed, sided, and painted. From that suggestion, covered bridges become a popular and common sight on American roads spanning the country.

Eventually with the onset of iron production after the Civil War, wooden bridges were replaced with iron and steel beamed bridges because, of course, metal was more durable than wood. During this time, covered bridges were considered old-fashioned, yet we Pennsylvanians must have still appreciated their charm because at least 1500 covered bridges were newly erected in the state from 1830-1880. And many of those still stand today in 2021.

I do hope you meet me at the covered bridge next Tuesday. (I promise, by the way, there will be no kissing!) That’s when I’ll begin another Tuesday Tour spotlighting my pictures of covered bridges here in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Ohio. Someday soon, we hope to resume longer road trips to visit more of these picturesque structures.

“A bridge is a meeting place. a possibility, a metaphor.” ~Jeanette Winterson

© 2021

Posted in photography, travel

Tuesday Tour: Sea, what sea?

Some folks say the end is the best part of any story. The Tuesday Tour of lighthouses is complete for now, at least until Papa and I can embark once again on our empty nest travels. As I’ve promised in earlier posts, I believe I have saved the best for last in this series.

When you view the photo below, you may think I’m off my rocker.  But hang on, this one is just the sidekick of a more spectacular one. I almost missed catching a glimpse of Ram Island Ledge Light, an unobtrusive and almost forlorn looking tower, located about a mile offshore from a more famous lighthouse on the coast of Maine.

This particular navigation aid was erected first as an iron spindle in 1855 to mark dangerous ledges near the entrance of the Portland harbor, and later became a 50-foot wooden tripod.

Shipwrecks abounded in the area for many years and when a large transatlantic steamer ran aground during a snowstorm in 1900, the necessity of a lighthouse there became most apparent.

Construction began on Ram Island in 1903 and completed the next year, but the 90-foot tall tower was first illuminated in January 1905 with a fog bell added later that year.  Keepers lived inside the tower for two weeks at a time working 12-hour shifts daily and then were granted one week shore leave.

By 1959, keepers no longer were required since the light became automated and on 2001, it was converted to solar power. Eventually, this light tower was placed on the auction block and a private owner purchased it simply because he wanted to preserve this historic place.

Ram Island Ledge Light might be lone and forgotten possibly because it’s almost hidden in the shadows of a famous lighthouse, actually New England’s most visited, photographed, and painted landmark – Portland Head Lighthouse.

Situated in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on the dramatic coastline, Portland Head is rich in history since it is Maine’s oldest lighthouse dating back to 1791 and is noted as the first lighthouse completed by the U.S. government. When we visited in early summer 2017, it didn’t take long to realize this is a popular sightseeing destination.

Cape Elizabeth’s history can be traced back to Revolutionary War times when, in 1776, the newly established town posted soldiers at Portland Head in order to warn of British attacks and protect the harbor. By 1787, partial funding was provided to build a lighthouse there and three years later, the U.S. Congress added enough funds to complete the construction of a 72-foot tower and a small keeper’s dwelling. President George Washington requested that local rubble stone be used to build the lighthouse itself.  

Illuminated by 16 whale oil lamps, Portland Head was first lit on January 10, 1791 after its dedication by none other than Marquis de Lafayette. A Revolutionary War veteran, appointed by President Washington, became the first lighthouse keeper there. His salary? The right to live in the keeper’s dwelling, fish, and farm in the area. Finally, after two difficult years, the keeper received $160 per year. 

Winter was perilous at Portland Head especially when the trek from the keeper’s dwelling to the lighthouse was steep, rocky, and frozen when ocean waves washed over it. By 1816, a new two-story keeper’s quarters was built and part of the former structure was joined to the tower.

During the Civil War era, the tower was elevated another 20 feet after a 295-foot ship wrecked taking 40 lives into the sea with it. Later, on Christmas Eve in 1886, yet another sea vessel crashed at Portland Head. When the lighthouse keepers heard the impact, they formed a gangway with a ladder set between the rocky ledge and the shore and rescued all 14 people on board.

The peculiar aspect of that shipwreck was that visibility was good that night and the ship’s crew stated they saw the Portland Light clearly. So what caused the ship to strike a ledge and be lodged against it?  

Yet more unusual occurrences happened at this famous lighthouse. As the wife of one keeper sat knitting in a chair next to a window one evening, their dog began growling so ferociously, she got up and moved to another area. Immediately afterwards, an enormous wave crashed into the keeper’s dwelling, breaking the window and blowing glass shards over the chair where she had sat.  

Visitors to the lighthouse roamed freely about sometimes startling the keepers and their families. In the 1950’s, a woman entered the house, sat at the kitchen table, and declared that the keeper and his wife serve her since they were government employees.

And in the 1960’s, keepers’ families learned that downstairs doors and windows should be locked at all times after tourists with cameras barged into the bathroom in the keepers’ home and caught a coastguardsman’s wife in the tub.

After the lighthouse was automated, an apartment in the keeper’s dwelling was rented and several occupants over the years reported a feeling that they weren’t alone there. One couple said a motion-detector alarm often went off when no one was there at night. Other residents thought there was a spectral presence in the basement but felt it was a friendly ghost who “just needed to be told that his keeper days were over and he could rest in peace.”

One keeper named Joshua Strout is noted as Maine’s oldest keeper. At 79 years old, he retired in 1904 after being Portland Head’s light keeper for 35 years and had served 17 of those years without any time off.  Strout’s son Joseph became head keeper serving until 1928. His career at the light station was over 50 years.

Another interesting story about Portland Head Light is that a very famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, became a frequent visitor there. It’s highly suspected that he was inspired by this lighthouse to pen his poem entitled The Lighthouse:

“Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,

Year after year, through all the silent night,

Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,

Shines on that inextinguishable light!”

– excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Lighthouse

That inextinguishable light actually was extinguished though from June 1942 to June 1945 in order to prevent aid to German submarines.  During World War II, unauthorized visitors were also forbidden there.

During its long service, Portland Head Light was first the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Treasury from 1790-1852 when the U.S. Lighthouse Board took over management. By 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard became responsible for navigational aids including Portland Head. In 1989, the lighthouse was decommissioned and the town of Cape Elizabeth now owns and manages it with the U.S. Coast Guard still controlling the light and fog signal.

We first viewed Portland Head from adjacent Fort Williams Park, where visitors can utilize picnic areas, go hiking, engage in sports and recreational activities, and enjoy beautiful ocean viewpoints from its 90+ acres. When visiting the lighthouse itself, the public also can tour an award-winning museum in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters as well as a gift shop.

In my estimation, Portland Head Light is one of the most beautiful lighthouses we’ve viewed thus far. I fell head over heels for this lighthouse (although not literally because that would have been a disastrous fall!) and took more photos of it than any other. I just couldn’t stop taking pictures, as you can tell from this post, and I thought every picture this amateur photographer captured looked amazing.

“Once the lighthouse is seen, the rest of the sea is ignored.” ~ Terri Guillemets

© 2020