West Union Covered Bridge, West Union Indiana
In 1876, Joseph J. Daniels built the West Union Covered Bridge to replace his earlier Harrison Bridge, which had washed out in a flood. J. J. Daniels was a prolific bridge-builder from Rockville, the county seat of Parke County. He built nearly sixty covered bridges in Indiana between 1855 and ca. 1900.
The bridge spans Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Wabash River, north of the center of West Union, in Reserve Township, Parke County, Indiana. At 315', it is the longest bridge in the county. The county bypassed the wooden bridge in 1964 with a concrete span.
Parke County, Indiana organized in 1821 as an agricultural community. The land along the Wabash River, which is now known as Reserve Township, was originally organized as a reservation for Native Americans.
One of the largest rivers in the county is Sugar Creek, which empties into the Wabash River. The creek cuts through the top of the county, and likewise through the top of Reserve Township, from east to west. In 1874, the "Map of Reserve Township" noted "Reserve is one of the best townships in Parke county, being well adapted to farming, and at the same time is accessible by rail to markets." The Indiana State Highway, laid out ca. 1825, crossed Sugar Creek at the future location of West Union Bridge. Certainly there was a fording, if not a proper bridge, set up at the site at this time.
The West Union Bridge that stands today is the third one built on this location by J. J. Daniels.
In the nineteenth century, the life of a bridge often began many months before its construction. A petition might be circulated and presented to the commissioners who would then agree to apportion county monies to the cause and subsequently order specifications from a local builder, an engineer, or a county employee. A call for bids would appear in the local and often the Indianapolis newspaper at least twice. The call would ask for proposals for bridges that followed the specifications available in the auditors office. At the arranged date, the commissioners would convene a special meeting to open the bids and let the contract. Contractors and builders were sometimes present at these meetings.
The first known bridge at this site began with a petition for two bridges across Sugar Creek, one at Star Mills (future West Union Bridge site) and another at Rockport Mills (Jackson Bridge). The bridges were paid for by subscription in January 1861. Subscription was a common practice for erecting county bridges in the early and mid-nineteenth century in which interested residents would contribute what they could to the price of the bridge (in this case between $1 and $50). The subscribers needed to raise $8,000 for each of the bridges. They were only able to raise $2,747 for Star Mills Bridge. Eight local men agreed to make up the difference, and the commissioners agreed to let the contract. The contractors' bids for the two bridges were opened on March 6. The commissioners awarded both contracts to William D. Daniels, "as per plans and specifications submitted by J.J. Daniels his agent." J.J. Daniels completed the Star Mills Bridge in December 1861. According to local lore, Daniels, a staunch Republican, christened this bridge "Harrison Bridge" in homage to Gen. William Henry Harrison. At the same time, he named his recently completed bridge at Rockport Mills, Jackson Bridge, for the former president. On Christmas Day, his contractor William Daniels went to the commissioners:
Wm. D. Daniels contractor (by J.J. Daniels agent) [was present to ask the] board to receive the Bridge over Sugar Creek at the Star Mills said bridge being completed. Whereupon (the board having examined said bridge on Tuesday Dec 24 1861 and found the same finished in good and substantial manner and according to contract) it is therefore ordered that the said bridge at Star Mills be and the same is hereby received and that the said W. D. Daniels is hereby released from any further responsibility of the same.
Ordered that W.D. Daniels be allowed the sum of four thousand three hundred and thirteen and 98/100 dollars in full payment of balance due him on bridge contract in payments as follows to wit. [the payments are scheduled, the last being October 15, 1863] Also two hundred dollars in cash for difference in quality of shingles put on bridges as stipulated in contract.
This bridge was damaged considerably in the spring of 1866, after which Joseph J. Daniels was contracted to "rebuild Harrison Bridge...at its former site." His bid for $5,725 was accepted on the condition that he finish the bridge by January 1, 1867. He did so, for on December 7, 1866, the County Auditor was instructed to pay Daniels for the work. This bridge was not destined to last long either. In a flood in 1875, according to one eyewitness, it "washed off its foundation, turned horizontal, dropped out of sight, and like truth crushed to earth" and disappeared.
On October 20, 1875, the commissioners contracted with Enos Kuhn and J.P. Hunt to tear down Star Mills Bridge for $200. In December, the commissioners paid J.J. Daniels $100 for his plans and specifications for a new bridge. At the same meeting, they "Ordered that a Bridge be built across Sugar Creek at the Old 'Star Mills' Seat. Said Bridge to be of wood and of the Burr plan." On January 27, 1876, the commissioners reviewed the proposals and awarded the contract once again to J.J. Daniels. Daniels' bid was for $8,900.
The existence of alternate names for the Star Mills, Harrison, and West Union Bridges deserves further research. It is possible that the West Union Bridge was built in a slightly different location than the earlier bridges. Perhaps it was nearer the mill (or the mill ruins), but intended to replace the older, damaged bridge. The various contract prices in 1861, 1866, and 1876 would support that West Union Bridge was a new bridge altogether. Furthermore, after the loss of two bridges in less than fifteen years, the county officials and Daniels might have realized a better siting might help prolong the life of the third bridge.
On September 7, 1876, the commissioners "Ordered that the Bridge erected by J.J. Daniels across Sugar Creek at the 'Old Star Mills' seat be and the same is hereby accepted by the Board of Commissioners and that the Auditor draw his warrant on the County treasurer for the sum of Nine Thousand Five hundred Dollars," less the amounts already issued to Daniels on this contract. Daniels had gone over the contract price for West Union Bridge. The additional cost was warranted, as the bridge has now stood over 125 years.
Parke County, Indiana has built a solid reputation for itself as "the Covered Bridge Capital of the World." With thirty-two extant covered wooden bridges, more than any other county in the United States, the title is warranted. Indiana covered bridge historian George E. Gould also attributes the plethora of covered bridges in this county to the "salesmanship of the builders" (as well as to the topography and the ample forests). "The presence of Daniels and Britton in the county was a factor [in the large number of bridges] since both campaigned actively for jobs. The competition between the two after 1882 no doubt increased their promotional efforts." That so many of these bridges have survived to the twenty-first century is a testament to the workmanship of these two builders.
Juliet Snowden reports that many of the county's bridges were repaired in the 1930s under WPA supervision. The bridges "desperately needed repairs at a time when there was very little local money to be spent on maintenance." Snowden credits the WPA project as helping to save the bridges for another generation. Again in the late 1950s, the bridges needed help. Enter the popularity of the Covered Bridge Festival, staged by local citizens interested in saving their inheritance of bridges. Since 1957, the county has played host for ten days each October to hundreds of thousands of covered bridge-seeking tourists during its annual Covered Bridge Festival. This festival has certainly aided the preservation effort.