Covered Bridge at Philippi-- part 2


Appalachian Blacksmiths Association



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Organized in 1978, the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association is an affiliate of ABANA. We represent blacksmiths, bladesmiths, and farriers in West Virginia and its surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. 

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The Philippi Covered Bridge in 1916


The covered bridge at Philippi has survived many calamities in its 150 year history.

bridge in 1985 flood

The flood of Nov. 1985 wiped out over 30 bridges including the massive iron trestle on the B&O main line at Rowlesburg on the Cheat River. That the Philippi Covered Bridge suffered only minor damage, mainly the loss of siding boards on the downstream side, is a testament to its structural strength. The covered bridge was back in use as soon as the floodwaters receded.

bridge after fire

Feb, 2, 1989—Gasoline leaking from a tanker at a nearby gas station flowed into the bridge and ignited. The beam hanging above the vehicle is a steel beam. All of the siding and roof burned but most of the truss members and the arches were spared serious damage.

Other Calamities

1850—Typhoid Fever epidemic decimates O’Brien’s crew (17 dead). Bridge delayed for one year.
1861-65—During Civil War, bridge is almost burned (two occasions).
Ice jams and/or floods posed threats in every decade.
1934—young boy falls through hole in wood bridge deck to his death.
This prompted a concrete bridge deck to be installed in 1938.


How Did They Build It?





Chenoweth would have used derricks made from logs, probably Ash, to lift foundation stones and the large arch sections. Most of the derrick’s hardware, rigging, pulleys, chains and hooks were likely custom-made by local blacksmiths or at the project site.

The head and hook blocks would have had 3-4 sheaves each allowing for a multi-part hoist line. These blocks and all of the rope likely were purchased from the Baltimore shipyards. The derrick’s boom would have been banded at intervals of 5’ or so to prevent splitting. The boom would have been 8”-12” in diameter and 30’-50’ long. The mast would have been half that length and may have been guyed by ropes rather than log spars.

The most intricate hardware on the derrick was the swing-swivel at the base of the boom that allowed for the boom to raise or lower and swing to the left or right.

Derricks are easily moveable. They would have been setup in the riverbed or on the causeway, positioned so they could “pick” anywhere along the length of the span.

The heavy foundation stones were lifted into place with pairs of grabs (compression tongs) rather than bound with chains. One worker, Mr. N. Poling, wrote in a letter that he and another man operated a capstan (winch) to hoist the stones and heavy wood beams. The derrick and capstan were old technology, having been used on ships for centuries.

The bridge superstructure was “launched” on a crude trestle which supported the span until all of the beams were joined. The trestle (also called falsework) was then removed.

Derricks were used to erect the Empire State Building (1931). The derricks “jumped” from floor to floor as the building went up.

sledge and maul tools


Chenoweth hired Emmett O’Brien, a skilled stonemason, to build the abutments and center pier for the bridge. Three prominent sandstone veins outcrop in the immediate area and were quarried for architectural stone in that era. O’Brien would not have been new to this task and probably supported himself handily as a mason.

To “cut” the stones, O’Brien would first drag a maul or similar tool across the rock while strikers with sledges tapped the maul. After establishing a groove for the fracture line, the strikers would hit the maul harder and harder. Surprisingly, these sandstones split cleanly with less effort than you might think.

Stones were typically cut on a 2’ x 2’ x 4’ pattern and would weigh about 1.33 tons. Smaller stones of similar ratio are also evident in the foundations of the structure.

A skilled mason like O’Brien could “read the grain” of the sandstone and would cut accordingly. Thus, the stones were not identical like brick.

The stones were laid in place on shims, usually wood but sometimes iron. The stones are too heavy to lay on a bed of mortar. Once the stones were leveled and plumbed, the masons would grout the joints with mortar, mixing clean river sand with cement. Cement was made by burning coal, limestone, and clay in a kiln. (It’s still made that way.) All three ingredients are available in the area.

A blacksmith would have supplied the O’Brien crew with sledges, mauls, wedges, and pry bars up to 6’ long, for the quarry work. He also made shovels and hoes to mix the mortar, and trowels to place the grout. He also may have made drill rods with chisel bits for the stone cutting operation.

Once cut, the heavy stones were rolled onto horse-drawn sleds for transport to the jobsite. The wood runners of the sled were banded with iron to reduce drag.

Along with this assortment, O’Brien would have needed several chains and the large grab tongs used to lift the stones into place.


How do you split 20,000 shingles? One at a time!

After the shingles were split with a froe, they were stored in the river to keep them “green” until nailed in place.

photo courtesy

slip scraper


The Slip Scraper (also “scoop shovel”) was the prime earthmover in olden times.

The scraper was pulled by one horse and the operator, a “teamster”, used the dual handlebars to set the scoop to dig, slide (travel), or to dump. The scraper held about 1/8 cubic yard of soil. The loaded scrapers, along with the horses, also compacted dirt as they traveled over the fill area.

Slip scrapers were used well into the 1930’s to build projects such as flood dikes and levees for the Tenn. Valley Authority.

quarter sawn lumber

Quarter sawn lumber yielded a nearly perpendicular grain pattern.


As predicted in 1850, this bridge ultimately did carry live loads of 10 tons (the 600’ man would have weighed 20,000 lbs.) before the wood deck was removed and replaced with a concrete deck.


For the Appalachian Blacksmiths Assn., by David G. Allen, Editor

Photo credits: Bridge photos reproduced from "Milestones; a Pictorial History of Philippi" (reprint brochure); courtesy of Barbour County Museum, Philippi, WV Clipart: Capstan/derrick (; maul/sledge (; scraper (; froe (; lumber (



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