Origins of the West Union Covered Bridge
The featured photograph of the traditional view of Doddridge County’s iconic West Union Covered Bridge was taken by West Union native Armand Brown in 1939. This bridge was constructed by the Northwestern Turnpike Company and spanned the Middle Island Creek for over a century. Although its destruction in the 1950s flood is well documented, until recently, I could find no original documentation of its construction. What I finally found seems to conflict with what is commonly accepted about its origins. The other possibility is that the covered bridge that was destroyed in 1950 was not the first covered bridge at that spot.
Information in the following Wikipedia entry for West Union’s covered bridge has been widely circulated and is generally accepted as being correct:
"The locally celebrated bridge replaced an earlier one built at the settlement then called Lewisport. According to an early resident, A. A. Bee, "The first bridge across Middle Island Creek [at West Union] was of hewed logs with a center abutment of stones. In the great flood of 1835 it was washed away".
In 1842, a contract for a replacement was awarded to the well-known civil engineer Colonel Benoît Claudius Crozet (1789 –1864)....The new covered bridge at West Union was part of a series of public works along the Northwestern Turnpike which stretched from Winchester west to the Ohio River through what was then all the state of Virginia. Ephraim Bee (1802–1888), a local blacksmith, magistrate, and state legislator, made all the bolts and bands for the bridge, which was completed in 1843.
The West Union Covered Bridge was destroyed after 107 years in a long-remembered flood that devastated the region in June of 1950. The inundation also destroyed homes and businesses, killing more than 20 people throughout Doddridge County. The bridge collapsed into the river below, and, because officials feared that it would dam the flood water and create more problems, the still intact wooden structure was demolished.
Bridge Already Built by 1818
Before discussing the covered bridge, it is important to understand that there were earlier bridges of some sort erected over Middle Island Creek in present-day West Union. We do not know if any of them were covered. An entry in a Harrison County Court Minute Book on December 22, 1818, reads, “On a motion of William England it is ordered that John Sommerville, Jasper Newell, Simeon Maxson and William S. Davis mark a road from New Salem to the Middle Island Bridge.”
There was no such place as West Union, or even Doddridge County, in 1818, but the above referenced Middle Island Bridge was located approximately where the covered bridge sat until the 1950 Flood. Perhaps the bridge referred to in the 1818 entry was the bridge that A. A. Bee said was destroyed in the great flood of 1835.
New Bridge Destroyed in 1837
The Northwestern Turnpike was completed through Doddridge County by 1837. A new bridge was built at that time by the Northwestern Turnpike Company to connect the turnpike on the east and west sides of Middle Island Creek. The design of the bridge, whether covered or open, is not indicated. But we do know from a Virginia Legislative Petition that this bridge was destroyed in another flood later that year, in November 1837. The petition was submitted by Squire Sayre requesting compensation for the destruction of his grist and sawmill that was ruined when the Middle Island Bridge washed off its foundation and crashed into his mill in November 1837. Ephraim Bee, whose blacksmith shop was located near the bridge, gave a statement swearing that he was an eyewitness to this event and that he watched the bridge crash into Squire Sayre’s mill. He also stated that he had warned the Northwestern Turnpike Company that the bridge was likely to be washed away just like the old one because it was built no higher than the last.
Covered Bridge Built in 1838
It makes sense that the bridge that was destroyed in 1837 would be quickly rebuilt because it was a major connector on the newly constructed turnpike. I started looking for information about when the Northwestern Turnpike Company built a replacement bridge.
I had learned in earlier research that plans for canals, turnpikes and bridges could be viewed online at the Library of Virginia’s website. While looking for records pertaining to bridges in present-day Doddridge County, I found the blueprint for a covered bridge entitled Plan of a Bridge Over Middle Island Creek on North Western Turnpike. The blueprint was drawn by Ludwell H. Brown and the chief engineer was C. Crozet (Colonel Benoît Claudius Crozet). In his own handwriting, Crozet wrote the following notation on the blueprint: "This bridge was built in November 1838. C. Crozet, P. Engr." Seeing that original blueprint of our covered bridge was a true eureka moment!
Since I have mentioned a lot of dates, here is a timeline of what we have documentation for and what is commonly known:
1818 There was already an existing bridge
1835 Flood destroyed a bridge
1837 Northwestern Turnpike Company built a new bridge
1837 (Nov.) Flood destroyed bridge built by Northwestern Turnpike Company
1838 (Nov.) Northwestern Turnpike Company built a covered bridge engineered by Crozet
1843 When A. A. Bee says covered bridge designed by Crozet was built
Ephraim Bee had warned that the low-sitting bridge built in 1837 would surely wash away like its similarly designed predecessor, and he was quickly proved correct. The design of the 1838 covered bridge rectified this issue because it was built up by stones on both ends, as can be seen on the blueprints. We know that the covered bridge that was destroyed in 1950 was built up at both ends by stones, as can be seen in the many photographs taken of it.
So was our beloved covered bridge, victim of the 1950 Flood, built in 1838 as stated in Crozet’s own handwriting, or in 1843 as recollected by Amos Alonzo Bee (1859-1938)? If in 1843, it would have replaced the 1838 covered bridge, but I have found no record of a bridge built after 1838 or of a flood occurring between 1838 and 1843. I also have found nothing that would explain the basis for the 1843 date. Perhaps the bridge had been built and put into use in 1838 but the finishing touches were made as late as 1843. If so, how would A. A. Bee have known? Because Ephraim Bee was his grandpa!
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)