Leaning on a walking stick after an ankle sprain, eighty-year-old Arnold Graton stood near one end of the 152-year-old Beech Fork Covered Bridge in Washington County last week, taking a break from renovation work just long enough to answer a few questions.
“We’re getting very close to completion,” Graton told Kentucky Living. “It will be completed on Christmas.”
Also known as the Mooresville Bridge and the Mount Zion Covered Bridge, the 210-foot-long span is the longest covered wooden bridge in Kentucky, and one of 13 surviving covered wooden bridges in the commonwealth. It is estimated that Kentucky once had more than 700 of the structures. The Beech Fork Covered Bridge is located in Salt River Electric territory.
“We’ve done a pretty extensive restoration,” Graton tells Kentucky Living. Indeed. Graton and his wife, Meg Dansereau, relocated to Kentucky from their native New Hampshire a year and a half ago to work on the bridge. Like his father before him, Graton has made a career of saving and building covered wooden bridges.
The painstaking work involved shoring up the bridge with a temporary steel truss threaded like a needle into the bridge “to make a backbone to work from so that we can dismantle all the parts of the bridge and repair them and put them back into place,” Graton said.
Bundled in several layers of clothing, Graton and Dansereau stood about ten feet from an opening in the bridge floor, the cold and calm Beech Fork River below them. Other craftsmen continued hammering while the couple provided an update.
“We have mostly the floor to replace now, to re-lay,” Graton explained, “and a few odds and ends like knee braces and whatnot that were hard to get at when the steel truss was in.”
Last year, Graton told Kentucky Living’s Byron Crawford that he would re-use or leave in place about 70 percent of the original poplar and oak timbers.
Decades of graffiti cover many of the timbers inside the bridge structure, a testament both to its many visitors and years of neglect over the years.
The bridge has been closed to vehicles since 1977, when a bypass of KY 458 was built.
Dansereau said local officials hope to make the bridge a meeting place for dinners, dances and other community events.
“I think there is a renaissance with these treasures,” says Lori Ulrich of the Buffalo Trace Wooden Bridge Authority. Ulrich is Marketing & Public Relations Manager at Fleming-Mason Energy.
“We want to encourage knowledge and awareness,” Ulrich says. “It’s just a very beautiful scene and something in touch with Americana.”
Ulrich is part of the movement to create a “Kentucky Covered Bridge Trail” to promote tourism and an appreciation of the historic architecture.
Since 2004, when Graton first came to Kentucky to help with restoration work on the Goddard Covered Bridge in Fleming County, he has returned to Kentucky to work on the Cabin Creek Bridge in Lewis County and the Johnson Creek Bridge in Robertson County.
“Our team of people from the commonwealth were really good to us,” Dansereau said, explaining that Kentucky policies allowed them flexibility as they discovered what repairs were needed.
“This is a ‘design-build,’ which is different than other states do it. And, Kentucky is actually a forerunner in that, that they do a design-build,” Dansereau said. “With an historic building, that’s a wonderful thing to do, because that’s what you don’t know what you’re going to find when you take it apart.”
“We’ll be finished Christmas Day,” Dansereau reiterated. “Probably, Arnold and I will be out here Christmas Day, we’ll be working and finishing up and getting ready to open the gates so that we open for the next day for people to come in.”
But their work in Kentucky will not end there. Next on their list is repair work to the oldest bridge in Kentucky. The Dover Covered Bridge in Mason County was damaged by flash flooding in July. The 61-foot span was built in 1835 over Lee’s Creek.
The conversation behind them, it was back to work for the pair, Graton lowering himself to the bridge floor, then hammering floorboards back into place.
A look at some of Kentucky’s other covered bridges: