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The Newfield Covered Bridge

The 1853 Newfield covered bridge is a survivor. Wooden bridges were usually torn down when they grew old. New York State once boasted of 250 such bridges, now there are only 24. And Newfield’s is the only remaining covered bridge in Tompkins County, New York. As with any survival tale, it comes with a story of perseverance and a battle of beliefs.

If you aren’t from places where they build such things, you may wonder about the reason for covered bridges. It was simply a matter of economics. Wood was plentiful, but you couldn’t realistically leave a wooden deck exposed to the elements in northern climates without having to close and replace parts of it every few years. So the builders would simply put a roof over it. It was a lot cheaper to replace a roof every twenty years than the bridge itself every few years. And once you had a winner, other communities would copy the design and soon these timber tunnels were commonplace in the northeast United States.

But soon steel bridges were the rage, quickly replacing older wooden bridges as they aged. It was another case of economics – a steel bridge would last far longer than any wooden bridge, and could be built longer and wider – allowing for more cars and taller trucks. Progress trumped timeless beauty. And so the wooden bridges were taken down one-by-one as they grew weary.

And then the engineers came to Newfield in 1969 and declared that this bridge too would be replaced with modern steel and concrete. And a woman named Marie Musser said “Over my dead body” and dug in her heels to fight progress. She and her husband Grant fought the county over the fate of the bridge and eventually won the right to preserve it.

Three years later they oversaw the restoration of the bridge, and again in 1998 when it was reinforced and raised to support modern vehicular traffic. And so it was that the Newfield Covered Bridge survived and today looks as good as she ever did. It’s now the oldest active bridge of its kind in the area. Driving through it feels like time travel. In a way it is.

Marie Musser died the year after that 1998 restoration, and her husband Grant died the year after that in 2000. Their old bridge survived them both, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 25, 2000. I imagine they both knew in their last days that their bridge would make it. I hope so anyway.

And this story informs. What are we willing to fight for, as the Muller’s fought for this old neglected bridge, resurrecting it to a sparkling example of the possibility of purpose? What is our own contribution to the future? It only takes one of us to stand up and say “Not on my watch.” If the Newfield Covered Bridge tells us anything, it’s that we are the bridge between the past and future. And where there’s a will there’s a way.

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