As the county seat for Carter County, Elizabethton grew steadily throughout the 1800s, but the town fathers ran into a problem. The town was hemmed in by Lynn Mountain and the Watauga River, while the flood prone Doe River lay to the East. To continue growing the landlocked town, it would need a bridge over the troubled Doe River.
In 1882 the Carter County court approved a whopping $3,000 to build a 134-foot covered bridge. But…Elizabethton, we have a problem! They couldn’t find a qualified contractor to build it.
Is there a doctor in the house? In this case, there was, local physician E.E. Hunter, took the contract and, in turn, hired Thomas Matson, an engineer and architect with Tweetsie Railroad to oversee the construction. By the end of the project Doc Hunter was referring to the span as his “five dollar bridge” because that was his net profit when all was said and done.
Although logs from a lumber operation upstream and a barn lifted from its foundation were thrown against the covered bridge during a disastrous flood in 1901, this five dollar overpass was the only major bridge in the area to survive.
All of this begs the question, why are covered bridges covered? One reason is that bridges were covered to protect the mighty wooden trusses that held the bridge together. If the trusses were left to the sun, wind, and rain, the life expectancy was only about ten years. When they were covered, their life span increased tenfold !
Bridges were also covered to help get cattle and other livestock over the bridge as the sight, sounds and smells of the rushing water was scary and made them hesitate or not go across at all. The sides of the covered bridge would also prevent the livestock from stampeding across the bridge or falling overboard. Head ‘em up and move ‘em out!
The roofs on covered bridges also kept the snow and rain off the bridge and therefore more passable in any season and in any weather.
It is unknown how many covered bridges were originally built in Tennessee, but by the mid-1940s, roughly only a dozen remained, making the Elizabethton’s covered bridge all the more valuable as an historic treasure.
Engineers also claimed that the reason why bridges are covered was that the roof and walls helped to strengthen the bridges, which might be, in part, how each flood in Elizabethton is just more water under that five dollar bridge.
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