By Chuck Herron
Normally, you think of bridges as simple crossings — a means of getting from one place to another. But anyone who has ever visited the Union Covered Bridge near Paris knows that a walk through it is much more than a stroll across Salt River – it’s a trip back in time.
Even today, when you step into the cool shadows of the covered bridge, you can almost imagine the sounds of a horse and buggy clopping through the structure on the way home from church; or of children running barefoot on the bridge, stopping to drop pebbles through the oak timbers of the floor to the still waters of the river below; or even of the hushed voices of young lovers who have paused in the relative safety of the bridge to share a quiet moment or to steal a kiss.
Indeed, a visit to Union Covered Bridge is like traveling back a century to an era when everything was less complicated and life generally proceeded at a slower pace.
The first covered bridge in Missouri was built in 1851 over Perche Creek in Boone County. They became popular after the Civil War and soon 30 had been built in the state – most in northern Missouri.
They came to be recognized as a symbol of Americana.
Bridge builders said the covered bridges had a number of advantages over conventional uncovered structures. Most importantly, the roof helped protect the wooden bridge itself from the elements and prevent timber decay; and it helped to strengthen the structure. It was also noted that, because the bridge resembled a barn, animals were less hesitant to cross.
Advertisers found the covered bridges to be perfect for displaying posters.
At that time, displays of affection in public were a no-no, but couples soon discovered the darkened wooden tunnel of a covered bridge provided ample opportunity for spooning or kissing. Lucky was the couple that had a covered bridge nearby. And since how far a couple might allow this courting to go was partially determined by the length of the bridge, the longer the bridge the better.
Hence the nickname “Kissing Bridges.”
At one time, Monroe County boasted five of the unique covered bridges, but the fury of Salt River eventually claimed three of those, while a fourth was a victim of progress.
Today, only the Union Covered Bridge survives.
Built in 1871, Union Bridge is located about eight miles southwest of Paris on Route C. It is one of only four covered bridges remaining in the state and the only one of the “Burr-Arch” truss type of construction.
Missouri’s other three covered bridges include Sandy Creek bridge in Jefferson County; Locust Creek bridge between Laclede and Meadville in northern Missouri; and Burfordville bridge near Cape Girardeau.
Union Covered Bridge has often been called one of Monroe County’s most prized possessions. It spans Elk Fork of the Salt Riverand was constructed by Joseph Elliott at a cost of $5,000. The bridge is named for the now-departed Union Church, which once stood nearby.
Union Covered Bridge is 126 feet long and 17 feet, 6 inches wide. It has a 12-foot entrance (necessary to allow passage of a wagonload of hay). The bridge is constructed of heavy oak timber, hand-driven clapboard and wooden pegs and trunnels.
Prior to construction of the Union Covered Bridge, two uncovered bridges had been situated on the river crossing. They were both destroyed by floods. At the time it was built, county officials noted that the bridge was vital because it was located on the Paris-to-Fayette road.
In 1960, Union Bridge was closed to traffic, but remained open to public visitation. In 1967, it was recognized as a Missouri Historic Site. After being restored in 1968 at a cost of $25,000, the bridge was reopened to vehicular traffic, but was damaged a little over a year later when a gravel truck broke a supporting beam and cracked others.
In order to prevent further damage, Union Bridge was closed to all traffic in April 1970.
In 1988, more than $100,000 was spent restoring the bridge and it was reopened to public visitation. Today, only foot traffic is permitted on the bridge.
Vehicles are required to use a concrete low water crossing just downstream from the bridge.
These days, the lure of the covered bridge remains much the same as 144 years ago. On nearly any day, a trip to Union Bridge is sure to serve as a quiet reminder to slow down and enjoy life’s simple pleasures—the soft rush of water beneath the bridge floor, the sweet sounds of birds chirping in the woods nearby and the company of someone you love.
Monroe County’s covered bridges
A brief history of Monroe County’s other covered bridges:
• The Santa Fe bridge was built in 1859 over the South Fork of Salt River, just a short distance south of the once-thriving community of Santa Fe in southeastern Monroe County. It was swept away in a flood on June 19, 1926.
• The Stoutsville bridge was built in 1851-1857 over the North Fork of Salt River, on U.S. 24 east of Paris. It was dismantled in 1932 to make way for an iron and steel bridge.
• The Paris bridge was built in 1857 over Middle Fork of Salt River, at the east edge of Paris. It was washed away and swept more than a mile downstream during a flood in August 1958.
• The Mexico bridge was built in 1859 over Elk Fork of Salt River, about three miles southeast of Paris on a winding gravel road. It, too, was destroyed by floodwaters, succumbing on July 9, 1967, when the rising waters of Elk Fork carried the bridge downstream.
To get to the Union Covered Bridge from Mark Twain Lake:
•FROM PERRY – Take Route 154 out of Perry heading west for 18 miles, then turn left on Business U.S. 24 at the south edge of Paris; follow Business 24 west for about two miles until it joins U.S. 24, turn left (west) and travel about five miles to Route C; take a left at Route C and travel about three miles.
•FROM MONROE CITY – Take U.S. 24 out of Monroe City heading west for 23 miles to Route C; take a left at Route C and travel about three miles.
HISTORIC SITE: Built in 1871, Union Covered Bridge near Paris is one of only four covered bridges remaining in Missouri and the only one of the “Burr-Arch” truss type of construction. (Virtual Images photo)