120-year-old Covered Bridge gets attention

John Thompson • Mar 13, 2012 at 10:58 PM

ELIZABETHTON — After a winter of replacing boards and timbers, tightening bolts, replacing the cedar shake roofing and applying a fresh paint job, the work on the 120-year-old Elizabethton Covered Bridge should be completed in a couple of weeks.

The work was directed by Jon Smith of Allegheny Restoration and Builders of Morgantown, W.Va. He is an experienced hand at restoring covered bridges, having restored eight in West Virginia and others across the Northeast.

In addition to restoring old bridges, Smith has been involved with many other important restoration jobs, including a restoration of the West Virginia Capitol in 2009-10. He also helped restore Woodburn Hall, the most iconic building at West Virginia University.

“That probably doesn’t mean a lot down here, Smith said, “but those are the two most well-known buildings in West Virginia. He also worked on some big projects outside of West Virginia, including the impressive Edith Horton mansion in Lennox, Mass.

“We were really fortunate to get Jon,” said Gary Tysinger of the covered bridge project’s engineering firm of Tysinger, Hampton and Partners.

Smith found out about the bridge project from a previous restoration project in the area. He worked on the restoration of the Eureka Hotel in Jonesborough. During this project, he became friends with Alan Robins of the Lowe’s hardware store in Johnson City.

When Robins’ son, John, was a teen, he asked Smith for a job on a covered bridge restoration project in Pennsylvania and the master carpenter agreed to let him do odd jobs and clean up. Smith said the young man caught the building trade bug and enrolled in construction management at Appalachian State University. When he heard about Elizabethton’s project, Robins quickly informed his old employer.

Smith has been working as a carpenter since the early 1970s. He explained it was a quick decision. He had just completed a hitch in the Coast Guard where he served on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea. He had not been home very long before his father asked him what his plans were for the future. His father said he would help him if he wanted to go to college or he could get a job. Smith said he told his father he would think about it. His father told him that would be fine and he could tell him his decision over supper in 15 minutes.

Smith told his father he thought he would like to be a carpenter. It was the time of urban renewal and Smith quickly found work, but he soon grew unhappy with modern methods and power tools.

He was fortunate to find Bob Wier, whom he described as an “old school” carpenter. From him, Smith learned the skills he still practices, such as the art of fine tuning a covered bridge to handle the forces of tension and compression.

Smith said the bridge was designed to use tension and compression to spread out the load crossing the bridge. As the weight of a vehicle reaches one point, vertical tension cables are stretched, causing diagonal timbers to compress, transferring part of the load to other sections of the bridge.

“You have to feel the bridge,” Smith said. By that, he meant the tightening of bolts that control the tension. Large wrenches are used, and the bolts are tightened until it is difficult to turn the bolts anymore. The bridge is allowed to adjust to the new tension and then the bolt turns freely again. The tightening continues until the feel of the bridge and the experience of a master carpenter determines it is tight enough.

Like any good craftsman, Smith has his own tools on the job site. As a rehabilitation expert, most of his tools are from an earlier century when the only power was in a worker’s arm. Some of his tools are handmade, the others are heirlooms. He is an admirer of well-built tools and includes Mayes Brothers levels made in Johnson City among the best.

Most of the work on Elizabethton’s bridge is now complete. It included replacing a broken lower cord. Some of the most noticeable work was the replacement of some of the exterior boards. Smith said most of the replaced boards were not original pieces of the bridge.

He said the original boards were made of poplar and the 120-year-old boards are holding up well. Those that have been replaced because of vandalism or other problems were replaced by modern cedar boards, which have not lasted. When an original piece has to be removed, much of it is salvaged for use in other locations.

When Smith is not working on a project, he is teaching his knowledge to the next generation. He is an adjunct professor in the Building Preservation and Restoration program at Belmont College in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Some of his students worked with him on the project. The students and former students included Carl Smith, Nakita Carin and Michelle Morrison.

Much of the work was done by local contractors, such as Dale Baker of Quality Roofing in Roan Mountain. Local electricians wired the sophisticated fire alarm and security system. The painter was not quite so local. Paul Tickle is from England, but he now owns a restoration and painting business in Arden, N.C. He has painted many of the more photogenic rides at Dollywood, among his endeavors.

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