Family that saved Martin’s Mill Bridge says it’s falling apart

Nancy Taylor and Jim Hess worry that Martin’s Mill Bridge is not getting the care it needs. They observed bowing on both walls and don’t think the historic structure is sound.

Two people who grew up in the shadow of Martin's Mill Covered Bridge are concerned about its future, and hope Antrim Township does whatever it takes to preserve the historic structure. Jim Hess, now living in Florida, and Nancy Taylor, Greencastle, credit their father, Olin Hess, with saving the bridge from destruction in 1958. At 91, he is also in Florida and very interested in its fate.

Jim Hess, 65, was in town for Old Home Week and made a visit to his old stomping grounds. Based on his inspection of the bridge, he fears its future.

"It's leaning," he said. "I doubt it's structurally sound. It's bowed on the upcreek side and it wasn't like that last year when we were here."

Taylor, 64, agreed it was coming apart. She also doubted the younger generation understood the bridge's value; therefore it was up to current officials to protect it.

The Hess family owned 380 acres on both sides of the bridge. The children played in the Conococheague Creek. In the early days they and the neighbors used the 205-foot wooden span as a shortcut to town. When Olin Hess left farming, he hoped his son would take over, but "that was my last choice of an occupation," Jim said with a smile. The land was rented out and eventually sold, with a developer creating a subdivision. The original farmhouse on the banks of the creek is now owned by Glenn and Verma Myers. Taylor retained three acres on the south side of the bridge, blocked with a yellow gate.

Dramatic past

The brother and sister recounted watching their dad, an ordinary citizen, step up to fight for the preservation of the bridge in 1958. The Franklin County commissioners, C. Graydon Schlichter, Harry Peters and John Baumgardner, had closed the bridge in late June, on the recommendation of county surveyor John W. Atherton. They determined it was hazardous, unnecessary, a financial drain and should be abandoned. At the same time Route 16, paralleling Weaver Road, was being reconstructed between Mercersburg and Greencastle.

Citizens immediately opposed the idea. Olin Hess approached attorney Rudolf Wertime to represent them in an effort to save Martin's Mill Bridge, built in 1849. Jim Hess and Taylor watched the behind-the-scenes actions.

"I remember Dad's frustration, sitting at the kitchen table," she said. "Without Dad, there wouldn't be a bridge."

The elder Hess footed the bill for engineers and court expenses. Wertime never charged for his services.

The most memorable moment came when cranes literally drove down Weaver Road, ready for the demolition. Because he owned the land beyond a 14-foot right of way from the middle of the bridge, Olin Hess had posted 'No trespassing' signs and sat on his John Deere tractor in the middle of the water. He refused to move. The cranes couldn't fit in the limited space to start knocking down the walls so the laborers left.

Hess and Wertime and others appeared in court three times. They received support from William O. Shuman, county treasurer; Robert Cordell, Antrim supervisor; Ken Henson, Bob Barnhart, Reginald Miller, Rev. J. Lester Myers, Charles Baumbaugh, and 142 people who signed a petition. The Theodore H. Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, with its president Vera Wagner, also backed them.

Echo Pilot publisher G. Fred Ziegler penned a poem, 'Farmer up the Creek, A Ballad of the Conococheague'. One verse read: My house it lies on yonder shore, Here stands my useless flivver (old automobile): The good old bridge now serves no more That long hath spanned the river.

Ziegler also urged readers to remember the commissioners at the polls: O haste thee! Charge me for the boat Whate'er thy purse can carry - But bid me not, egad, to vote For Graydon, John or Harry!

Three new commissioners were elected in November 1959 and public sentiment grew to save the bridge. The new officials, Joseph Rahauser, Joe Ausherman and J. Chester Shively, eventually reversed the earlier recommendation, and Judge Chauncey Depuy rescinded his order for demolition in 1962. The Martin's Mill Bridge Association formed and was charged with future care and maintenance. In 1963 Olin and Nora Hess donated several acres to Antrim Township for $1. That land became the park. The repaired bridge was dedicated in 1965 with Olin Hess president of the association. Jim Hess was president in 1972 when the bridge was restored following Hurricane Agnes. The association dissolved and the bridge was turned over to the township on Dec. 30, 2003.

With that long personal history to Martin's Mill Bridge, the Hess family is united in their concern. "It meant a lot to us, and it still does," said Jim.

Antrim's care

In 2008 U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster earmarked $245,000 towards repair and restoration of Martin's Mill Bridge. The funds have not yet been distributed.

Last December Antrim heard from Marty Malone of P. Joseph Lehman, Inc. He reintroduced an October proposal to rehabilitate the bridge. Initially a complete job would cost $800,000, he told the supervisors, but his firm would scale back to meet the budget of the earmarked funds. He added that no other money would be forthcoming due to the economy. Antrim's fee for engineering would be $55,070. John Kennedy from PennDOT had examined the bridge and assured Lehman and the township that doing something could extend the life of the bridge for decades. Roof repairs, insect damage repairs, fire retardant treatment and cosmetic work were at the top of the list, Kennedy reported.

The board authorized spending up to $70,000 for engineering and associated costs, Antrim Township administrator Brad Graham said, and he expected any resulting work would begin in spring 2011.

Though the supervisors did not set aside money in the 2010 budget for the bridge, the general fund did cover regular maintenance, he said. The structure received pest control treatment, with monthly followup visits until frost, and preventative treatments will resume next spring. Those measures were paid for from a designated Martin’s Mill Bridge Fund. Contributions to the fund are received from Waste Management each year. Graham added that in preparation for Old Home Week some fascia boards were repaired and the interior walls and deck were power washed and painted to eliminate graffiti.

On Aug. 10 the supervisors supported the recommendation of Malone and Antrim staff to consider metal roofing materials when the roof is replaced during the renovation.