NEWPORT TWP. – Just off of Hills Branch Road, snuggled in between Zion Ridge Road and Ohio 26, rests a 19th century beauty suspended over the Little Muskingum River.
Constructed in 1878, the Hildreth Covered Bridge, better known as the Hills Covered Bridge, stands as part of Ohio’s rich covered bridge history.
The bridge features vertical, high-boarding siding, a metal roof, portals finished with battens and cut stone abutments and piers.
The bridge was once used as a passageway that carried Hills Bridge Road over the Little Muskingum River. It was bypassed in 1990, turning the 112-year-old relic into a pedestrian bridge.
The Hills Bridge is one of three covered bridges that remain standing over the Little Muskingum River, making the bridge a unique piece of history in the area. The structure of the bridge also allows it to stand apart from the rest of the covered bridges in the county.
The bridge has what historians believe to be an outstanding Howe truss system. The Howe truss, which was patented by William Howe in 1846, uses metal tension rods in place of wooden truss verticals which are characteristic of Long truss systems.
“It’s a very unusual truss type,” said David Simmons, president of the Ohio Historic Bridges Association.
Howe truss systems were typically used for railroad bridges and highway bridges because of their space for storage of extra pieces and equipment that could be used for replacements, he said.
“It’s because anything made out of wood changes over time,” said Simmons. “Pieces shrink, and iron rods need tightening up.”
Because of the heavy and constant traffic over these bridges, fast repairs were a necessity, and these structures made them possible.
It is likely that the bridge was built as a Howe truss due to its close location to Marietta.
“Because it’s near town, it would have heavy trucks using it along with the local traffic,” said Calvin Becker, superintendent of the Washington County Highway Department.
The highway department is responsible for checking and tightening bolts, fixing loose or broken boards and grounds keeping around the bridge.
The Hills Bridge was constructed by August Borneman of the Hocking Valley Bridge Works, a popular bridge company in the late 19th century. While Borneman’s company built the bridge itself, the abutments were constructed by Ebenezer B. Henderson, another prominent bridge crafter in the area.
Borneman, a Prussian immigrant who moved to Fairfield County, has four covered bridges that still stand today, including the Hildreth Covered Bridge, the Kidwell Covered Bridge in Athens County, the Johnson Covered Bridge and the John Bright Bridge 2#, both of which are located in Fairfield County.
Although the bridge no longer has vehicular traffic traveling across it, the Washington County Engineering Department is still responsible for annual bridge inspections.
“We still carry the bridge on our inventory as the owner,” said County Engineer Roger Wright. “It’s still a public structure.”
Wright pointed out some of the issues with the bridge, such as some deterioration due to shrinkage, cracking and missing sway bracing underneath the bridge, which was taken by flooding. In fact, bridges spanning the Little Muskingum River are known for their unusually tall abutments because of the river’s extreme proneness to flooding.
Wright also explained the 1-10 scale that the department uses for bridges, ranking Hills Bridge a 4.
“Covered bridges are typically between 4 and 6, sometimes 7,” said Wright, which he explained depends on their use and structural damage. Despite the seemingly low rank, these factors do not present a hazard for pedestrians.
The bridge was rehabilitated in 2002 and Wright said another rehabilitation project will be considered within the next five to 10 years.
“We hope we get more life out of it,” he said. “Covered bridges are very pretty and I know people in the county enjoy them.”
One young resident who already enjoys the bridge is Sophia Morris, 5, of Marietta. Morris likes to walk across the bridge because of its suspension over the river below. Morris particularly enjoys walking over the bridge with her mother, Carrie Morris, 28, of Marietta, and their dog Chloe.
“I love the bridge,” said the younger Morris. “And so does Chloe.”