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Alabama opens work on covered bridges

Doug Orr, of Bob Smith Construction, blows dirt off the Swann Covered Bridge on Dec. 13 in Blount County. Prep work is starting on all the covered bridges in Blount County so repairs can be made. (AP photos by Linda Stelter/Birmingham News)

Thomas Spence
The Birmingham News

Orr walks over the Swann Covered Bridge. The bridge is the longest existing covered span in Alabama and one of the longest in the United States.

Cleveland, AL (AP) — It’s unnerving to look down through the exposed timber framing of the Swann Covered Bridge in Blount County and see the rushing waters of the Locust Fork River about 30 feet below.

But it’s also fascinating to John Friedberg of Bob Smith Construction, the company leading a project to rehabilitate Blount County’s three landmark covered bridges.

The removed decking and exposed beams on the bridge show just how difficult it must have been for people working in 1933 without modern machinery and materials. Still, they assembled a 364-foot-long wooden structure across a river.

“It’s amazing to see how it was built,” Friedberg said.

The bridge, which is just north of Cleveland and off Alabama 79, is the first set for rehabilitation as part of the project to restore Blount County’s bridges with the backing of two federal grants and local matching money.

Next will be Easley Bridge. Built in 1927, the bridge is the shortest of the three but probably will require the most rehabilitation work.

The final challenge will be the Horton Mill Bridge. Built in 1935 near Oneonta, that bridge is a dizzying 70 feet above the water.

Bob Smith Construction builds bridges, having just completed the new bridge over Birmingham’s Lake Purdy. But these projects are going to be a learning experience.

“We like a challenge,” Friedberg said, adding the company founder is a Blount County native. “Besides, this a beautiful place.”

A great stone bluff rises in the distance, and the river runs clear through the narrow valley it has carved. And, as Friedburg pointed out, there are not many covered bridges left.

After inspections raised safety concerns in 2009, Blount County’s bridges were closed to vehicular traffic. Friedberg said the decking has been removed to allow for a closer examination of all the support structures.

A third-party inspector will come in and examine the entire structure to help determine what needs to be replaced and what needs to be reinforced.

With the decking up, the bridge shows virtually no rot or decay on unpainted wood that has spanned the river for almost 80 years. Friedberg said the heart pine wood came from trees that had grown slowly for hundreds of years. To get comparable wood, the company will have to special order it and have it treated.

“You can’t just go to Lowe’s and get this type of wood,” he said.

The job also will involve putting new tin roofs on the bridges. The roofs are a key factor in the long life of a wooden bridge, keeping moisture from soaking through the wood structure.

When completed, the bridges will reopen to traffic, though they will have weight limits of 3 tons.

Friedberg pointed out the bridges probably have been bearing more weight than they ever were supposed to bear in recent years as the size and weight of cars increased.

Blount County engineer Richard Spraggins said he is glad work has begun. The bridges are symbols of Blount County, and residents have been impatient to see them restored.

In some cases, the bridge closures have posed significant inconveniences for people living in communities they serve.

“The people are beginning to see that we are working at it,” Spraggins said. “Hopefully, we will have a lot more progress made.”

The contract for the project came in at $469,110. The repair money will come from the federal National Historical Covered Bridge Preservation program and from transportation enhancement money.

Alabama Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Harris said the agency is pleased to participate.

“Covered bridges are beautiful and historic and an asset to the state,” Harris said. “This project will add to the life of those bridges and preserve them as a piece of history for posterity, and it is important that we do that when we can.”

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