Parke County, Indiana
Our Current Weather
°F / °C
View Forecast

Bridge Builders, Plans & Materials

Joseph Albert Britton

Joseph Albert Britton was born in 1838, three miles east of Rockville, Indiana, where he spent his entire life except for a short time in Kansas.

Britton learned the carpenter’s trade at an early age from his father who was a widely known, skilled carpenter in Rockville. By Britton’s admission, his formal education was no more than six months of schooling over a three year period. Despite this lack of formal education, he became well read, being well versed in classical literature, history and philosophy.

He was married prior to the Civil War and followed the carpenter’s trade until the start of the War. At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted in the army and with little training, his company was sent to Kentucky, where in the first skirmish he was captured and later released as a prisoner of war under parole.

After the War, he read law and was admitted to the Rockville bar as a lawyer in 1870. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Kansas for a brief period, but returned to Rockville and resumed the carpenter’s trade, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In 1868, he was awarded the contract for the Narrrows Bridge over Sugar Creek. Due to its location at the east end of Turkey Run State Park, it is probably the most photographed bridge in the State. It was during the building of the Narrows Bridge that he lost his first wife. Of this union, a son, Eugene, was born in 1866. Then followed the birth of Charlton in 1868, Maude in 1887, Scott in 1877, Frank in 1879, and Elizabeth in 1883. These six children constitute what was known as the “first family.” Four years after the loss of his wife, he met and married Bertha Hirsh-Brunner, a gentle lady of Swiss descent.

The “second family” consisted of Lawrence, born in 1887, Edgar, born in 1891, Ralph, born in 1894, and Joseph Walter, born in 1896. Education was a must, especially in the “second family” resulting in college training and master and doctor degrees. The young men in these two families helped their father with bridge building during school vacation time. Thus, with seven sons the Britton bridge-building enterprise became very much a family affair.

Wayne M. Weber, Covered Bridges in Indiana (Midland, Michigan: Northwood Institute)


Joseph J. Daniels

Joseph J. Daniels was probably the greatest single bridge builder in Indiana. Throughout his career, he built 60 covered bridges in Indiana, some of which were railroad bridges. Of the 27 covered bridges he built in Parke County 11 are still standing today.

He was born in Marietta, OH in 1826. His father and older brother were both carpenters and bridge builders. He learned the trade from then and as we can tell, they taught him very well. J.J. Daniels was self-educated and very well read for the times. He liked to memorize Shakespearean plays.

Daniels learned the carpenter’s trade as a young man and worked with his father and elder brother for a period of time in Cincinnati. He built his first bridge on a section of the Rising Sun-Versailles Turnpike, and at age 25, built a bridge across a fork of the White River for the Evansville and Crawfordsville Railroad. In 1885, at 29 years of age, he was made General Superintendent of the Evansville and Crawfordsville Railroad where he remained until 1861, leaving Evansville for Rockville, where he spent the remainder of his life. Little known about his married life, but had a daughter who died in infancy, one son and a grandson who became a well-known Indianapolis attorney.

In 1861, he was awarded the contract for the Jackson Bridge over Sugar Creek. This 207 foot single span bridge with double trusses on each side was without a doubt the crowning achievement of his career. It is the only Daniel’s bridge to have a cornerstone. He must have been very proud of this bridge! Daniels also built many railroad bridges, bridges in Ohio and many Indiana counties, several more than 100 miles from Rockville.

All of his Parke County bridges used the Burr Truss; however, he used the Howe truss on occasion in other counties when specified. Many of Daniels bridges were of multiple span and of great length, as the four span 458 foot bridge at Medora in Jackson County.

Daniels was very progressive, using iron tie rods with cast iron seats for bracing in the top chord, resulting in a minimum of carpenter work in fitting the timbers of the top chord bracing. He also developed a splice for the bottom chord members, requiring great skill to make, which he called the “double headed hook.”

In the majority of his bridges, the entrance portals were plain, having a long radius curve at the head of the opening. There were a few exceptions, one being the Jackson Bridge.

Mr. Daniels maintained a work yard in Rockville where he precut much of the timber for his bridges. At the age of 78, he built his last covered bridge, the Neet Bridge in 1904. He lived to be 90 years old and passed away in 1916. He is buried in Rockville, Indiana.

Wayne M. Weber, Covered Bridges in Indiana (Midland, Michigan: Northwood Institute)



Some early advertisements gave only the time and place for receiving bids, location of the proposed bridge, span, surety bond requirements, and in some instances, the type of patented truss required.

This type of a specification, except when a type of truss was specified, gave the builder complete freedom in the design of portals and construction details for framing the structure. This freedom in design is evidenced by a comparison of portal design and framing details between the bridges of different builders.

Joseph J. Daniels prepared his own plans, specifications, and bill of materials for many of his bridges, which were submitted with his bid. Several of his original plans, specifications, and bill of materials are on file in the William Henry Smith Memorial Library of the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

After the turn of the century, plans and specifications for the abutments and piers were generally prepared by the county engineer, and in some instances, the plans included a full-length side view of the truss, top and bottom chords, floor framing, sizes of the various members, and, on occasion, details of the lower chord splices. This type of a general plan and specification gave the builder considerable freedom in portal design and methods of framing.



Early bridges, built before sawn timber was available, were built of timber cut at or near the bridge site. The timbers were hand-hewn with the broad axe and adze, cut to size and drilled for fastening together with wooden dowels. About 1870, Michigan pine was shipped in and widely used. The arch rings for the Burr truss were cut from poplar which was easy to work, and the wide boards were cut in the segment of a circle, Oak, being very hard and durable, was used for the floor boards. Poplar was used for the siding as it has the ability to form a pulpy surface coating which is resistant to weathering. The roof was covered with hand-split wood shakes before wood shingles became a standard mill product.

The basic materials used were stone for the abutments and piers and timber for framing the structure. Later, iron rods were used in many of the bridges to tie the trusses together and bolts replaced the wooden dowels for joining the members. Concrete for building abutments and piers did not come into general use until the 20th century.

The first step in building was the construction of the abutments at each end of the span and piers in the stream for multiple span bridges. Abutments and piers were built of stone, quarried and shaped in large blocks and hauled to the site for erection. Excavation for the abutments and piers was carried to below the low water level of the stream to solid earth so the timber and wood piling, when required, would not rot.

A grillage consisting of two or three layers of heavy timbers placed crosswise to each other and covered with a layer of heavy planks was placed in the excavation to form a platform for the stone work. When poor soil was encountered, wood piling was driven to solid bearing and the grillage set on the piling. Contracts were awarded for the entire structure, or separate contracts were awarded for the abutments and the structure.

When they were awarded for the entire structure, the builder had the option of building the entire structure or awarding a subcontract for the masonry work to contractors skilled in this type of construction.

The timbers for the trusses were either laid out on the ground at the bridge site in the general shape of the truss, then scribed to proper size and cut, or this work was performed in the builder’s work yard, and the timbers hauled to the site for erection. Trusses were built with a slight comber to prevent the floor from sagging. This was done by forming a slight upward curve in the bottom chord of the truss so that when the loads were applied, the floor would deflect to nearly level.

Before the erection of the bridge, "false work" was erected between abutments. This "false work" consisted of poles cut at or near the site, or hauled from the builder's yard, driven into the stream bed, braced and covered with planks, providing a working platform for erecting the bridge. The bridge was then erected, and upon completion the false work was removed.

A bridge of approximately 100 ft, span, after the abutments were in place, could be built in approximately three months, using three to four skilled carpenters and one or two unskilled helpers. If the site was too far to travel back and forth, the men boarded with a nearby farmer or pitched a tent and did their own cooking.

Numerous bridges built at a curve in the road had a window at the end in order to see oncoming traffic and windows built into the side to let in light. An open space was left between the top of the siding and the eaves of the roof to let in light and to relieve the air pressure of the tunnel effect of the bridge. Various theories have been advanced as to why bridges were covered. The real reason was that as long as the timbers were kept covered, they were protected from the elements and would last for many years. This is evidenced by many bridges over 100 years old still in daily use. J.W. Britton (deceased], Midland, Michigan.


Back to top


This site designed by Lunar Cow.