By Mark Wineka
Though the price tag would be steep -- millions of dollars steep -- building a replica of the 1818 Lewis Beard Bridge over the Yadkin River carries historical significance.
It wouldn't be just any covered bridge.
The Beard bridge was the first to cross the Yadkin River, joining today's Rowan and Davidson counties. It also was North Carolina's first covered bridge.
But maybe most important, it represented the first Town lattice truss bridge ever, a structural engineering design that became one of two standards in bridge and building construction for decades to come.
The lattice truss design made its inventor, Ithiel Town, a rich man.
The good news, Cary engineer David Fischetti told a gathering at the Rowan Public Library Thursday night, is that the Beard bridge could be recreated. If that were ever accomplished, its 660-foot span would make it the country's longest covered bridge.
Asked about the price tag, Fischetti said sound estimates put the cost at $6 million to $8 million.
The Trading Ford Historic District Preservation Association, headed by Salisbury historian Ann Brownlee, invited Fischetti to speak on covered bridges Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, he and Brownlee took to a boat to inspect the six stone piers (pillars) that still remain in the Yadkin River from the original Beard bridge. The Beard bridge spanned the Yadkin just upriver (west) from today's Wil-Cox bridge, which carries U.S. 29 traffic.
Brownlee described three of the piers as being in "almost perfect condition," while the other three would need to be repaired.
A tall tree grows out of the top of one of the piers. Someone in Davie County suggested attaching battery-powered Christmas lights to it, Brownlee said.
Led by Brownlee, the Trading Ford association has fought vigorously to protect this Yadkin River area, the history of which dates to Indian settlements, crossings and trading paths of thousands of years ago.
Trading Ford also has played significant roles in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and has been instrumental to the Piedmont's transportation history.
In recent years, Brownlee has fought to protect the area as much as possible, challenging construction plans of the N.C. Department of Transportation, Duke Power and the proposed High Rock International Raceway.
She also has followed closely Alcoa's relicensing process for the Yadkin Project, which includes High Rock Lake and the Trading Ford site.
Brownlee acknowledged Thursday that rebuilding the 1818 Beard Bridge could be a rallying point, a logical first step toward protecting this valuable cultural landscape.
She said federal Transportation Enhancement Funds could make a significant dent in the covered bridge's price tag. Corporate and private foundations also would be interested in such a project, she predicted.
Brownlee laid the groundwork Thursday for a committee to look into fund-raising, a budget and initial planning.
While Fischetti guessed that the bridge's actual construction would take about two-and-a-half years, he said possibly more time would have to be devoted to fund-raising, archaeological studies and various approvals from local, state and federal agencies.
Brownlee also noted that Alcoa, as the federal licensee of the Yadkin Project, would have to approve the span in relation to its shoreline management plan.
Getting Alcoa's approval would be key to the project's ever getting off the ground. The company owns virtually all of the land on both sides of the river at the spot in question.
Access on the Rowan County side also might present a problem. Users would have to pass through the proposed raceway's property to get to the bridge on the Rowan side.
Brownlee said the bridge would not be designed for vehicle traffic. Rather, she envisions pedestrians, cyclists and horse owners using it as a focal point for trails along the river and a greenway linking the two counties.
No paved roads exist now that would lead to either side of a rebuilt Beard Bridge.
Historic Salisbury Foundation, the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and Rowan Museum also sponsored Fischetti's visit Thursday.
Before bridges were built across the Yadkin, people crossed in fords and ferries, many of which existed in this Trading Ford area.
Rowan County petitioned the state for a bridge in 1814. Lewis Beard then employed Town, an engineer from Connecticut, to design and build the bridge, completed by September 1818 at a cost of $30,000.
After this first Yadkin River bridge was built, Town patented the lattice truss design and licensed its use across the nation. It appeared, for example, in many significant bridges and buildings in North Carolina that were engineered by Town and his partner, Alexander Jackson Davis.
That partnership, one of the nation's first engineering consulting firms, designed the State Capitol Building in Raleigh.
Fischetti's investigation of the pillars Thursday leads him to believe the all-wood Beard Bridge had a double-barrel design, meaning it offered separate north and south lanes, much like today's U.S. 29 and I-85 bridges.
The bridge fell into disrepair after the Civil War. The last documentation of its existence is from 1868, Brownlee said.
In 1899, the Piedmont Toll Bridge, a steel-truss structure, was constructed on the pillars of the Beard Bridge. It operated until the state built the free Wil-Cox Bridge in 1922, ending the need for the toll bridge, fords and ferries.
The toll bridge was dismantled and moved elsewhere.
Fischetti spent much of the evening going over the lattice-truss covered bridges he has been involved with, from New Hampshire to Georgia.
North Carolina's Bunker Hill Covered Bridge in Catawba County dates to 1894. It was refurbished in 1994 at a cost of $69,000 and is owned by the Catawba County Historical Society.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.