Historic Structures

The Turnpikes Barrackville Covered Bridge West Virginia

After the Revolutionary War, the major coastal cities from Boston to Charleston competed for control of the trade and wealth of the interior. Before the War, the fortunes of these centers had been determined to a large extent in the compromise atmosphere of Parliament and court where relative advantages were traded against one another by influential supporters of each colony. Although temporary market differentials had some effect on rise and fall, appropriations for internal improvements were probably more or less equal in the long run. Another factor which tended to mediate the rivalry between the colonies was the presence of hostile French and their Indian allies on the west. The constant conflict with the French and Indians forced upon the several colonies some measure of cooperation. By 1790, the situation had changed entirely. The French had retreated to the Mississippi leaving the Indians without supplies and more amenable to negotiations. Britain went from being a positive contributor to westward expansion to being a negative one. The threat she posed to American independence was a stimulus to growth. The result was that the restraints were removed from the rivalry of the colonial period and some real incentives were added. From 1880 to 1850, competition between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston for economic supremacy of the new nation led to support of a large number of internal improvement projects, the majority of which were transportation-related.

The history of the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike indicates that the impetus for its construction was mainly on the state and not the local level. Many of the original settlers in the trans-Allegheny regions did not consider the connection to seaboard markets as particularly desirable or beneficial. They had come to to recognize the role played by railroads, steamships and airplanes in the industrial development of western civilization. Few are aware that it was the turnpike that established the pattern which has been repeated so often during the last two hundred years.

The history of the Barrackville Bridge is bound up in the transformation of this geographical area from a frontier society, basically isolated, self-sufficient and familial, to a region more intimately connected to the eastern seaboard. The construction of turnpikes facilitated this transition and this bridge was part of one of them. Its structure shows that the turnpikes brought not only goods and immigrants to the west, but also information and technology. They were essentially routes of cultural transmission and their major institutions were the hotels, inns, and way-stations where such information was exchanged. As examples of the latest in eastern technology, covered bridges served a similar, if highly specialized, function in such transmission. The Burr truss, the major element of the Barrackville Bridge, did not develop as part of frontier society but was brought from the East over the same turnpike of which it was a part.

In 1823, the Virginia legislature authorized the construction of the turnpike from Staunton to Parkersburg on the Ohio River. It directed the State Board of Public Works to have a route surveyed and later appropriated funds for construction. Money was set aside for the revenues of Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Lewis, and Wood counties to be returned to them on the condition that each county provide an equal amount for the road. Construction sputtered through the 1820s because the counties would not come up with their matching funds. Exasperated, in 1830 the legislature authorized the Board of Public Works to raise $50,000 by means of a lottery. In 1832, additional funds were appropriated but, once again, the counties failed to match them. Finally, in 1838, the Board of Public Works was authorized to borrow $150,000 to build the road between Staunton and Dry Branch Gap. Farther west, the eventual route reflected the difficult time the Board had in gathering support for the enterprise. No less than five routes were considered. Wood County declined to support the route which did not follow the Little Kanawha, and the shorter and better route through Randolph County was changed in 1842 to make Beverly a point on the road. In return, the citizens of Randolph agreed to pay $4,200 toward construction, and landowners agreed to relinquish all claims for damages. Subsequent improvements were paid for mainly by the state: $30,000 in 1845 for the section between Weston and Beverly, $5,000 in 1846 for the Beverly Bridge, and $25,000 in 1847-48 for other bridges. Between 1849 and 1853, more than $160,000 was appropriated to macadamize and maintain the road.

While local farmers were not anxious to have the benefits of a new road to the east, merchants who controlled the state government had much to gain from improved transportation. It was patently obvious that the change of agriculture in the west from a subsistence to commercial basis would increase the wealth of seaboard cities and that coastal merchants and industries would be its principal beneficiaries. Increased grain shipments from the west, for example, helped to make Richmond a large flour-milling center prior to the Civil War and filled the holds of the shipping industry with export profits. Of lesser scope, but no less significant, were the benefits to merchants and businessmen along the proposed route. What little support there was at the local level seems to have come from those in newly-established towns. Towns like Beverly, Weston, and Parkersburg stood to gain considerably from an improved connection with the east. In the same manner that towns would later contribute to the new railroads, these communities took up collections to insure being made stops on the road. New roads meant new opportunities for local merchants and tradesmen. Hotels and liveries were needed. Cattle pens, corrals, and blacksmith shops met the needs of traders and teamsters. Retail stores sprung up to market incoming goods, and local authorities expanded to control and regulate these activities.

The difference in the level of support between the farm population and the town dwellers is an important distinction because it helps to clarify a common misconception concerning turnpikes and covered bridges. In fact, neither turnpikes nor their bridges were conceived, supported or built as a result of the felt need of the frontier farmer to get his goods to market. Except among historians of bridge engineering, the covered bridge is generally considered to be a product of folk culture, that is, of oral tradition. In fact, most covered bridges were not products of an oral tradition nor were they derived from traditional forms by rustic, native geniuses. Rather, they were well-articulated structures developed for profit and publicized in the popular press. The construction of turnpikes and the bridges associated with them was supported by the groups tied to the dominant culture of the towns not that of traditional, subsistence farming.

In 1848, construction began on the Fairmont-Wheeling Turnpike, a northwesterly branch of the Staunton-Parkersburg route. Originally conceived to develop on a commercial basis, the newly settled area north of the Staunton-Parkersburg road and south of the Northwestern Turnpike, this road was extended to Wheeling when that city took on new importance in the 1840s. At least part of the intention of the promoters of the project was to provide a route in competition with the Northwestern Turnpike (Winchester to Parkersburg) the National Road from Cumberland to Wheeling, and the newly opened B&O Railroad, all of which served to connect Wheeling to Baltimore and Philadelphia at the expense of Richmond. Like the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike, the new road was financed almost completely by the State of Virginia - an indication of Richmond's feeling that it was losing touch with the northwestern part of the state. By this time, the legislature had virtually given up trying to finance construction with local funds. No contributions were required from the counties except for rights of way. The act of the Assembly, January, 1848, authorized the Board of Public Works to borrow $24,000 and to hire an engineer to begin work immediately. By 1852, construction of the Fairmont-Wheeling extension had proceeded to the point where contracts could be let for the the bridges on the route.

The contract for the Barrackville Bridge was granted in April, 1853 to Lemuel and Eli Chenoweth, residents of the town of Beverly. At that time, they had built or were completing at least five other bridges on the older Staunton-Parkersburg road. The contract, signed by Superintendent Austin Merrill, was approved in Richmond on July 6, and called for completion of the bridge by December 1 on the condition that the masonry be ready by the 15th of September. The Chenoweths were to receive twelve dollars and fifty cents per lineal foot for the finished work - a total of $1,650 for the 132 foot span.

Like many of the contractors who worked on the road, the Chenoweths were participants in the town culture which developed on the frontier. In contrast to the simple agricultural existence which characterized the life of most settlers, they combined farming with business and civic affairs. Descended from a family of blacksmiths who settled near Baltimore in 1715, the Chenoweths were carpenters and cabinet makers in Beverly. Their grandfather, 3ohn Chenoweth, first settled in Beverly in 1800 and served four terms as county sheriff. Lemuel himself was a county commissioner in 1841, county coroner in 1855 and later a member of the state legislature. When, in 1842, the citizens of Beverly took up a collection in support of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, Lemuel Chenoweth contributed $100. In addition to their political and civic activities, the Chenoweths were carpenters and builders of considerable local reputation. The local housing boom which accompanied the formation of towns in this area gave them ample opportunity to exercise their trade. As agriculture flourished, they also benefited from the new demand for carriages and wagons. Their products became widely known for quality and durability. The Chenoweths were many-faceted individuals whose activities spanned the spectrum of town life on the developing frontier. The advent of the new highways provided them with another opportunity to illustrate the degree to which these elements were integrated in that culture.

Lemuel and Eli Chenoweth began their careers as bridge builders in the 1840s on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. They were granted contracts to build five bridges on that road, and their performance resulted in subsequent contracts for the major bridges on the Beveriy-Fairmont-Wheeling Branch. In retrospect, it is obvious that the criteria for letting such contracts was not innovative design but rather quality of construction, proven administrative ability, and low cost.