Landmarks of Monroe County  


Covered Bridges Inspired Myths

A horseman galloped from the shadows of a forest into a sunlit clearing where the trail bisected a stream. Suddenly he halted his horse. The path ahead ran straight into the dark tunnel of a covered bridge and, as every Missourian of a century ago, he knew that covered bridges were haunted. But this was the only way to cross; so, with a shout and a slap on his horse’s flank, he galloped toward the window of light at the other end. The horseman was halfway through before he saw it, but then it was too late and he crashed into a body hanging by a rope from the rafters. Stories such as this were common in the days when the Missouri countryside was dotted with covered bridges. Then, old-timers say, it wasn’t unusual for one to be used as a convenient gallows. Today there are only seven known covered bridges standing in all of Missouri. It is remarkable that even these few remain since most were built around a century ago. 

Two about an hour’s drive from Columbia, still are used for daily traffic. Both are in Monroe County and both span the Elk fork of the Salt River. The Mexico bridge is about three miles south of Route 154 near Paris and the Union bridge is just off Route C, a few miles south of where it joins Route 24. These bridges are thought to have been built around 1858 along with three others in the Paris area. Robert Elliott, and Illinois craftsman, charged about $2, 500 each to build them. His men used local timber and probably worked during the winter when they could build scaffolds on the frozen stream. “The construction of covered bridges was a masterful engineering feat,” says Cecil Evans, Monroe County highway engineer. “An arch holds the whole thing up and there are no supports in the middle. The reason the bridges were covered was to protect this structure from weathering.”

It’s true that the roofs did protect the timbers and probably account for the bridges lasting so long, but in the memories of old-time Missourians, this was only a minor function. A covered bridge provided ideal relief from a hot, summer day or shelter from a sudden storm. You never knew whom you would meet at the bridge and some strange acquaintances must have resulted. Because they were always dark inside, many of the bridges were believed to be haunted. At some of the more infamous ones, even the bravest of travelers would whip their horses at the entrance and breathe sighs of relief as the raced out the other end. Ghost storied didn’t seem to bother romantic couples who used the bridges in place of drive-in theaters, says R.I. (Si) Colburn, editor of the Monroe County Appeal. “And they could hear intruders coming down the road from either direction.”

Colburn’s father, a Baptist minister, used the bridge for quite a different reason. In summer or winter he held outdoor baptisms and the congregation could watch him and the initiates from the shelter of the bridge. “I have a picture of my father and 14 persons standing in a hole in the ice. The congregation, in their fur coats and beaver hats, were peering through holes in the side of the bridge.” Colburn adds: “The covered bridge was ideal at flood time because people could still cross the river to see their neighbors. During the winter birds lived in them and rafters were covered with barn swallow nests.”

The bridges are not strong enough for much for today’s traffic and rapidly are deteriorating. “The school bus used the Union bridge occasionally,” Evans say, “but when it does, the kids get out and walk.” The problem, he says, is that the county cannot afford to restore the bridges nor to replace them: “We need them for daily traffic, although they can’t last many more years.” Colburn is one of apparently few persons interested in the old bridges and has led a campaign for state aid to restore them. “State Rep. Richard Southern has gotten $3,500 appropriated for the upkeep of the stat’s seven bridges. This is only a drop in the bucket, but it’s a start.

In 1968, the Middle Forks bridge was swept away in a flood. If local citizens had been more quick-thinking they would have knocked holes in the bride’s sides so the water could have flowed through. “But people around here and in the whole state don’t seem to realize the historical and financial value of these bridges.” Colburn says that 3 ˝ million tourists yearly will visit Monroe County when the Cannon Dam project is completed in 1973. “The bridges will be a big attraction, if they’re still standing and tourist facilities will have to be improved.”

Even today the Monroe County bridges and the state’s other five attract many visitors. When they walk into the cool shadow of the wooden tunnel and hear the beams creak beneath their feet, it’s not hard for them to understand how their grandparents might have imagined ghosts. Some notice the heart-entwined initials carved on the sides of the Antiseptic Healing Oil sign that could be read at only a horse and buggy pace. For Missourians interested in the past, these seven covered bridges are relics from another age. They stand, not in museums, but just as they did a century ago, rare survivors of the surge of progress.

Source: Article by John Trage on page 30 of the 04 Mar 1966 edition of the Columbia Missourian at

 Graphics courtesy of Rhiossampler