Missouri State Parks invites you to explore the world of nature our state has to offer. Read our stories and find a state park that's close to you.

Bridging a gap through history: Our covered bridges

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks

A traveler on foot was three cents. A horse, mule or ox was nine. A one-horse wagon was 37 cents. And crossing faster than a walk brought a fine of a dollar.

The Burfordville Covered Bridge, in Cape Girardeau County in southeast Missouri, was a toll bridge. The oldest of Missouri’s four remaining covered bridges, the Burfordville bridge is part of the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site, which is named for the stately four-story, brick-and-stone mill that sits just downstream on the Whitewater River.

“That’s very rare,” Lesley McDaniel, the park/site specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said of the side-by-side structures.

“Across our cultural landscapes, you don’t find a mill and covered bridge in such close proximity,” she said. “It’s a real gem.”

From the 1820s to the turn of the century, some 30 covered bridges were scattered across the state, most in northern Missouri. Only five were left when the General Assembly passed a law in 1967 protecting the bridges as state historic sites. One of those, the Mexico Covered Bridge, was washed away by floodwaters that same year.

Sandy Creek Covered Bridge State Historic Site

But all was not lost in that disaster. Beams from the Mexico bridge were salvaged and used to repair the Union Covered Bridge, to the north near Paris, Mo., in Monroe County.

Time, traffic and, in one case, the river, have passed these four surviving bridges by. They reflect a period in American history when traveling, and life, in general, moved at a much slower pace.

Replaced by iron bridges that could handle the heavier traffic, the covered bridges today stand like wood sculptures, attracting visitors who marvel at their workmanship and relax in the serenity of their park-like settings.

“It’s a pretty spot for a picnic,” said Vince Fitzgerald of Kirksville, who on this sunny afternoon was sharing a champagne lunch with his wife, Susan, on the rock wall leading to the Union bridge.

The two other bridges are the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge, north of Hillsboro in Jefferson County, and the Locust Creek Covered Bridge, in Linn County in north-central Missouri.

Nancy Brown, the site administrator for the Sandy Creek bridge, could have been speaking of any of the final four when she said: “There’s something about the smell of the wood, the sense of being somewhere that you don’t see every day. It’s a quiet spot for reflection on the past.”

While each of the four has similarities in architecture, they retain their own personalities. Visiting all is like a treasure hunt through the Missouri countryside.

Burfordville: A favorite swimming hole

Construction began on the Burfordville bridge in 1858, and it was completed around 1868 after the Civil War. The 140-foot-long bridge was built by Joseph Lansmon as part of the Cape Girardeau Macadamized Road Co., a planked toll road used by farmers to drive wagonloads of grain.

A flood in 1986 moved the bridge a bit off its abutments, and sparked a major restoration that was completed in 1997.

Like the other surviving bridges, Burfordville is open only to pedestrian traffic, and the occasional dismounted horseback rider. But McDaniel, the site specialist, said visitors recall driving across the bridge as youngsters.

“They remember the times when they rode school buses across the bridge, or when their family brought grain to the mill,” she said. “Their favorite swimming hole was beneath the covered bridge.”

Sandy Creek: A barn-red bridge

The Sandy Creek Covered Bridge was built in 1884 by John Hathaway Morse and carried traffic until 1984. The bridge was one of six on the primary road that linked Hillsboro, the county seat, to St. Louis.

Covered bridges were favored over open bridges because they were stronger. A wood bridge exposed to the weather lasted about 10 years, these covered bridges still stand after more than 100. Skittish horses and livestock also were easier to move over rushing water on an enclosed bridge.

The original 76-foot bridge was destroyed by a storm, but many of the original timbers were used to rebuild it. The bridge was totally restored, including removal of a corrugated metal roof in favor of wood shingles, in 1984.

“It’s painted barn red and is a little more quaint that the others,” said Brown, the site administrator. “There are shaded picnic areas and Sandy Creek has a sandy bottom where the bridge is. In summer time, there are some good swimming holes to jump it.”

Locust Creek: A lovely, lonely location

Locust Creek cuts through the middle of the pastures and farm fields of north-central Missouri on a route channelized by agriculture. At Pershing State Park, the creek retains its natural meanders and feeds a rare remnant of wet prairie.

To the north of the park, on the other side of U.S. 36, a gravel road leads to the creek, which can be unruly in spring. A footbridge goes over the creek, and a quarter mile walk through the bottomland forest takes you to Locust Creek Covered Bridge, which sits high and dry in the woods.

“They straightened the creek out after World War II, and bypassed the bridge,” said Denzil Heaney, site administrator. “The ravine under it then filled in with silt.”

The bridge was on old Route 8, the first transcontinental highway. Built in 1868, the bridge is the longest of Missouri’s four at 151 feet and is remarkably well preserved, thanks to a restoration in 2003.

Perhaps because of its remote location, the bridge is not marred by the graffiti that is a problem at Sandy Creek and Union covered bridges.

“We get bridge enthusiasts and people staying at the park,” Heaney said. “And we’re close enough to the highway that we get folks traveling across 36.”

 Union: An incredible structure

Union Covered Bridge is unique among the four for two reasons. The three others are of Howe-truss design, while the Union bridge has a double Burr-arch truss of curving wood for structural strength. The siding also is horizontal, like a house, while the others have vertical planking, like a barn.

The bridge was built in 1871 to replace a dilapidated open bridge spanning the Elk Fork of the Salt River near Union Church. It carried vehicles on the Paris-to-Fayette road for 99 years.

The bridge had an extensive restoration in 1987, but is in need of minor repairs today. Sections of the siding were removed in 2008 to allow floodwaters to pass through, and have yet to be replaced. And its handsome interior of massive wood beams is sprawled with spray-painted graffiti.

Union Creek Covered Bridge State Historic Site

“Different options are being considered to remove the graffiti and keep it from being replaced,” said Matt Carletti, facility manager. “Our challenge in the future is to educate people so they give more thought before defacing it

“Structurally, it’s in good shape. When you start contemplating these oak beams, how they put those joints together with wood pegs, it’s incredible.”