Historic Structures

Bells Ford Covered Bridge, Seymour Indiana

Date added: January 1, 2021 Categories: Indiana Bridges

In 1834, Indiana's first covered bridge was built on the National Road near Straughn. Historians estimate that at least 600 covered wooden bridges were built in Indiana. Over time, most of these bridges were lost to floods, replacement, neglect or arson. In 1930, when the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana Highway Department formed the Covered Timber Bridge Committee to document the state's surviving covered bridges, there were less than 200 remaining. Today, there are ninety covered bridges in Indiana.

The Bells Ford Bridge is the only surviving combination Post truss bridge in the United States. It symbolizes the significant role railroads played in the development of bridge truss technology in the mid-nineteenth century. It is an excellent example of the work of McNairy Claflen & Company of Cleveland, Ohio, an important nineteenth century bridge fabricating firm.

Originally known as "Mules Crossing," the present-day community of Seymour, Indiana, was settled by James Shields in 1816. His son, Meedy W. Shields, platted the town in 1852, when the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad was completed and the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad was proposed. Located at the intersection of north-south and east-west railroad lines, the town quickly became a center of commercial activity and in 1864, with a population of 1,533, Seymour was incorporated as a city.

In 1867, a group of prominent residents formed a citizen's association to encourage local improvements, including construction of a bridge across the White River west of town. Debate over the proposed location for the bridge led to the formation, in 1868, of three companies authorized to finance and build toll bridges. The Seymour Bridge Company was the first of three companies formed. Two weeks later, a "Notice to Bridge Builders" appeared in the local paper:
Bids will be received for the superstructure and masonry of a Bridge across White River near Bells Ford, Jackson County, Indiana until 2 o'clock, p.m. July 23, 1868. Plans and specifications can be seen at the store of Thomas L. Ewing, in Seymour, Ind. Bids for the construction of other plans, iron, wood, or combination, will also be received and considered. Bids must cover the entire cost.
John H. Blish, President Seymour Bridge Company

The Seymour Bridge Company awarded the bridge contract to railroad engineer Col. Robert Pattison (1825-1885). The contract specified a masonry pier and abutments, a 200' timber trestle approach on the east end, and a "Post Patent Combination Bridge" superstructure. McNairy, Claflen & Company of Cleveland, Ohio, fabricated the superstructure, which was then shipped to the site by rail. Construction began in August and was completed in December 1868. The bridge officially opened to traffic on January 2, 1869. The newspaper reported this milestone as follows:
This structure, the successful completion of which was looked forward to with so much interest and anxiety by our people, is at last completed. By Saturday White River can be crossed in a moment without asking any favors of its turbid waters. This is an achievement of which our citizens may well feel proud, as showing their enterprise and liberality. The Bridge Company awarded the contract to Mr. Robert Pattison, and to his energy and ability, is due in a great measure the rapid completion of the work.

The bridge cost $20,000, plus an additional $1,871.37 for earthwork and approaches. W. L. Hull was paid $35.00 for plans and specifications. The Board of Directors accepted the bridge on January 6, 1869. The Board of Directors appointed John Bowman toll keeper and set the rates of toll as follows:
For each Four horse vehicle twenty five cents
For each Two horse vehicle fifteen cents
For each One horse vehicle ten cents
For each horseman Three cents
For each footman Three cents
For Cattle Horses and Mules each three cents
For Hogs and Sheep each one and a half cents
For each Six horse vehicle twice as much as for each two horse vehicle

In 1874, the Seymour Bridge Company, along with the Rockford Bridge Company and Brownstown Bridge Company, turned over their stock to the county, and the three bridges across White River were made free. The Seymour Times reported, "The Seymour, Rockford and Brownstown bridges over White river have been thrown open to public travel free. This is right."

As originally built, the Bells Ford Bridge was not covered, except for the upper chords. During routine repairs in 1876, the discovery of some rotten timbers sparked a campaign to cover the bridge. Items like this one ran in the local newspaper: "That bridge will soon rot down if not covered. ... It is of far greater importance to take care of and protect the bridges we have than to build new ones." The Bells Ford Bridge was covered in the late 1870s or early 1880s, although the exact date is not known. The bridge was made free and turned over to the county in 1896.

The bridge carried vehicular traffic for a century, until it was bypassed in 1970. In 1999, the westerly span of the bridge collapsed in a windstorm. In 2004, the Jackson Parks Department obtained a grant to reconstruct and rehabilitate the bridge.