New Brunswick

Save what remains of New Brunswick's covered bridges, new group pleads

New Brunswick is down to 58 covered bridges. In 1953, there were 340 spanning rivers and streams across the province.

Transportation minister defends care of historic bridges, saying province isn't trying to get rid of them

The Maxwell Crossing Covered Bridge, about four kilometres north of St. Stephen, was built in 1910. It spans 18 metres across Dennis Stream and remains in use after 108 years. (Photo submitted)

New Brunswick is down to 58 covered bridges.

In 1953, there were 340 wooden structures spanning rivers and streams across the province. Boucher said 

Damage from flood waters, vehicle accidents and industrial mishaps have battered the bridges in recent years, but a newly formed group is troubled by the lack of care and attention made to their repairs.

It's a crime. These are heritage structures that should be preserved as heritage buildings.- Ray Boucher

The newly formed group, Covered Bridges Conservation Association of New Brunswick, is now standing guard over what remains of the province's covered bridges.

Ray Boucher, the group's president, said it feels as though the province wants to get rid of them all. 

"They don't seem to know how to repair them properly," Boucher said Thursday in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.

"They don't seem to have an interest in actually preserving them."

But Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Bill Fraser disagrees.  

"Let me be clear, our government is not trying to get rid of covered bridges," Fraser said in an interview Thursday.

"Covered bridges serve as a critical transportation link to many of our communities in New Brunswick."

Fraser said his department is working with the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture to develop a covered bridge policy to preserve the structures.

"Our government recognizes the cultural importance of covered bridges as heritage icons in our province."

The provincial government website says Fraser's department maintains 54 of the remaining bridges.

Built in 1929, the Hasty is the last covered bridge spanning the Petitcodiac River. Ray Boucher notes the bridge is twisted and leaning to the right because of the use of steel beams in repairs. (Photo submitted)

Boucher is author of A Photo Tour of Covered Bridges of New Brunswick and has become familiar with what it takes to reinforce these historic bridges.

Boucher said that can't happen without a wooden bridge engineer on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure's payroll.

"Steel concrete is fine, but they don't have anybody to look after the wood side of things," Boucher said. "And there are few, if any being trained at the university level for temporary construction.

"It's a shame because it's a means of building bridges. It lasts twice as long as steel or concrete, costs half as much as steel and concrete to put up, and believe it or not, it's easier to maintain."

But Fraser said his department does have the expertise on staff to work with timber structures, adding there are many wooden bridges in the province.

The Clark covered bridge was lost to flooding in 2014 after serving the community since 1927. Boucher believes it could have been saved, noting it floated downriver and remained intact for 20 kilometres in rushing floodwaters. (Photo submitted)

Near Saint John, the Hammond River No. 2 covered bridge in French Village, which fell victim to a heavy excavator and was found to have wood rot, could have been salvaged had the ends of the bridge been properly repaired, Boucher said.

"That bridge could have been saved if they knew what they were doing," he said. "They didn't need a bailey bridge."

Fraser said that each time a covered bridge was removed, it was because of the priority of restoring a transportation link.

"The community spoke loud and clear and their decision was they wanted the transportation link restored as quickly as possible," Fraser said.

The Clark bridge was replaced by a concrete structure, shown here. Boucher claims 80 per cent of the wood was used in the skeleton of this bridge. (Photo submitted)

Since 1953, the province has lost 281 covered bridges. That's about four a year, and the numbers will get worse if something isn't done soon, Boucher said.

The Clark bridge in Cherryvale, lost to flooding in 2014, remained intact in rushing floodwaters for 20 kilometres. It had served the community since 1927.

"If that thing was in such poor shape, how the heck did it stay together for 20 kilometres," Boucher wondered.

"It's a question you've got to ask. Somebody's not doing something right."

'It's a crime'

Boucher predicted a loss of an additional 10 to 12 bridges in the next five years.

"It's a crime," he said. "These are heritage structures that should be preserved as heritage buildings."

The wooden covered bridges of New Brunswick are an iconic symbol of the past, and they have become an important tourist attraction.

Covered bridges became popular when large wooden trusses began to be used for long spans. They were covered to protect the stressed trusses from weather damage.

Increase weight limits

Boucher said it may be too late to save all of them, but his group hopes to save the biggest portion of what remains.

"If the government would just realize a covered bridge is an asset. … Tourists come here specifically for the covered bridges."

The Hammond River No. 2 covered bridge was torn down after an excavator went through the flooring and extensive wood rot was found. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Boucher will speak at the meeting of the Kings County Historical and Archival Society on Saturday. The meeting will be held at the Millstream recreation centre on Route 880 at 2 p.m.

Boucher hopes to generate more interest into conserving these bridges into the future.

"A covered bridge, properly maintained, was originally built to hold 20 tonnes," he said. "Because they're a little bit sick, why not remedy the situation and increase their weight bearing load?" 

"With modern technology you can increase their weight bearing load tenfold from the original, and that could have their life span increased by a minimum 15 years.

"What a savings to the taxpayer."

Ordered a review

Fraser has offered to set up a meeting with Boucher and department engineers to provide him with first-hand information that would help preserve this part of the province's heritage while ensuring there are safe, reliable links.

As for policy, Fraser said his department has been mandated to do a complete inventory of covered bridges and a structural review.  

Of the nearly dozen reviewed to date, issues were found and weight restrictions were put in place or the bridge was temporarily closed.

After all are reviewed, Fraser said, the two departments will work on a strategy.

With files from Information Morning Saint John