Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


The Humpback Bridge

and Other Virginia Crossings


Down in Alleghany County, just west of Covington, stands a structure unique in the U.S. -- the Humpback Covered Bridge. Built in 1857, it is so-named because the bridge is about four feet taller in the middle than at either end and is the only design of its type in the country. The extra height, as well as the decking, was designed to protect it from flooding and help it last longer.


Bridges were covered to protect the truss, the interconnected side timbers of wooden bridges, not the flooring, as many believe because the truss was the most expensive part of the structure. An unprotected bridge would last only 10 years, but covered, it could last for centuries barring natural or manmade disasters.


At one time there were hundreds of covered bridges in the commonwealth, but fire and flood took their toll. By 1900, metal had replaced timber as the material of choice, and was soon superseded by reinforced concrete in the early 20th century.


Today, the Virginia Department of Transportation lists eight surviving covered bridges in the Old Dominion. In addition to the Humpback structure that spans the James River, there is Meem's Bottom Bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in Shenandoah County; the Bob White Bridge and the Jack's Creek Bridge over the Smith River in Patrick County; and the Sinking Creek Bridge on Sinking Creek in Giles County. Three other decked bridges – one in Rockingham County and two in Giles County -- sit on private property.


Wooden, roofed bridges aren’t the only spans of historical interest in the state. Back in 2000, VDOT published “A Survey of Masonry and Concrete Arch Bridges in Virginia” to determine which stone bridges were eligible for preservation with the National Register of Historic Places.


In the early years of the commonwealth, stone bridges were not built as often as wooden bridges. Masonry structures were expensive and required a certain engineering skill. Also, the sources for stone and mortar weren’t always available.


The VDOT study identified 21 of 127 masonry arched bridges as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places list. Nine were built before 1900 and served as canal, turnpike and railroad bridges. You can see an example of a turnpike bridge, built circa 1823, in the Falling Creek Wayside Park in Chesterfield County.


A number of the early 20th-century masonry bridges are the work of civil engineer Daniel Luten, who by 1927 had received 50 patents for reinforced-concrete designs related to bridges. His goal: to reduce cost, without reducing strength. A typical Luten bridge – more than 10,000 were built according to his designs from 1900-1932 in the U.S. -- is found crossing the Dan River on Route 29 in Danville.


Arched masonry bridges became less popular in the heyday of road and bridge construction in the 1940s and 1950s, when design standardization was the goal. Today, there are more than 21,000 bridges in Virginia. Among the most noteworthy are the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which connects Virginia Beach to Cape Charles, and the 4.6-mile Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, which crosses I-664 in Hampton Roads. The latter opened in 1992 and 3.2 miles are a double trestle bridge.


Virginia’s tallest bridge is the recently constructed 175-foot-high Wilson Creek Bridge, also known as the Smart Road Bridge. The Smart Road is a short, limited-access road in Montgomery County maintained by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and used to test transportation technologies. Power and communication lines run its length, equipping it for research.


Engineers are not the only people studying bridges. It seems the Old Dominion’s spans are habitat for creatures great and small. Wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have launched a "Wildlife and Bridges" project to document the birds, mammals and even a reptile or two that call the state’s bridges home. So far, they have found seven species of birds, eight species of mammals and one reptile. Among the birds are various types of swallows, osprey and peregrine falcons. The mammals include six species of bats, woodrats and gray fox. A black snake feeding on a bat was the lone reptile the researchers found.


Biologists believe many species are opportunistic and when natural habitat is destroyed due to flooding, overgrowth or man-made development, various bridge structures offer alternative housing. Tall bridges provide niches for swallows; small bridges with I-beams create a ledge for phoebes to nest; or the expansion joints in an overpass provide a tight crevice for bats raising their young.


The density of wildlife living on the commonwealth’s bridges varies according to geographic region. The Piedmont Region, in the center of the state, boasts the most occupants. Fifty percent of bridges in that area host five species of birds, three species of mammals and that lone reptile. The mountain regions come in next with 34.4 percent of their bridges occupied. The coastal plain, which stretches along the Atlantic and extends 100 miles inland is the least attractive to wild creatures. Only 18.4 percent of its bridges host wildlife.


It seems Virginia’s high technology, as well as its fauna can co-exist. Who knows what creatures will soon grace the Smart Road Bridge?


Next: Grave Matters: Cemeteries in Virginia


-- May 30, 2006














About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.