There's something about old New England post and beam construction that can turn a ordinary barn into a soaring cathedral, transforming a functional structure like a covered bridge into an almost holy place that fires the imagination. This is a view from inside the newest covered bridge in Massachusetts, spanning the Housatonic where the oldest had stood 140 years until a real fire in 1994. Selectman Thomas Leigh was quoted at the time in the Boston Globe as saying: ''All that's left of Sheffield's most historic spot is a pile of charred rubble at the bottom of the river.'' Three local teenagers where subsequently charged with arson.
The original bridge had undergone substantial restoration in the early 1980s, having for many years been an idyllic ruin astride the flat, coiling river. Covered bridges are not unique to New England but they had an early start here. The popular lattice truss design that made it possible for a local carpenter's gang to erect a bridge without outside expertise was patented by Ithiel Town of New Haven, Connecticut in 1820. A 1959 article in American Heritage explains:
"(The) Town lattice truss” bridge (was) an all wood arrangement of planks crisscrossed like a garden fence and pinned together with big two-inch wooden pegs. Weight placed on it only tightened its framework"
New Englanders took the design with them as they spread out across the country in the 1800s (although Town was entitled to $1 as patent holder for every bridge that used the lattice truss method). The Sheffield Bridge was constructed in this manner, and perhaps Town did get his fee because he was known to send agents out looking for bridges that used his design and New Haven was not all that far away, and even closer by rail which was by then linking more and more of the country.
After the fire, the Town of Sheffield sought outside assistance with rebuilding its famous landmark. Northern New England craftsmen set about recreating the bridge at the same site using the same design, and in 1999 the bridge was complete. It rests today on the foundations of its predecessor, stone abutments quarried from the same site in Sheffield as some of the marble used in the Washington Monument. The bridge no longer accommodates vehicular traffic, but is a lovely spot to watch the water swirling downstream or to launch a canoe into the swift current. The sign out by busy Rte 7 at first directed passers by to see the oldest covered bridge in the State, but truth in advertising won out and now it merely claims to point the way to Sheffield's covered bridge, which I like to call the oldest newest covered bridge in Massachusetts.
Today the sun was warm and the river had pulled back within its banks after the floods at the beginning of the week. I watched the eddies and smelled the dry timbers. Old or young, the bridge was just right where it belonged.