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August 19, 2017

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The bridges of Kings County

Experience old-fashioned romance on a tour of New Brunswick’s covered passageways

While the Bay of Fundy’s record-breaking high tides and Fundy National Park’s waterfalls and scenic trails attract nature enthusiasts worldwide, scattered about New Brunswick are relics of history that locals hold dear to their hearts.

Covered bridges that resemble small barns offer an enchanting connection to the past, when horse and buggies were the mode of transportation, and romance and secret wishes swirled amidst the timber trusses.

Kings County, in central New Brunswick, is the covered-bridge capital of Atlantic Canada. The province once boasted 320 covered bridges, some dating back to 1900. The latest bridge to go was lost in a flood in 2014, but 60 are still standing today. In Kings County, 16 bridges hover over rivers and dot the rolling rural road landscape in the towns of Sussex, Hampton, Rothesay, Quispamsis and Norton.

Bob Alston was raised on the family farm in Newtown, where he and his wife live today, not far from the Oldfield Covered Bridge. When he was a youngster, he often travelled through three covered bridges on his way into Sussex to shop. Many years later, Alston would find those same bridges threatened.

In 1975, the Department of Transportation tore down the Windgap Bridge, deeming it unsafe. In 1978, the Malone Bridge was burnt in a Halloween prank. In 1982, when the Department of Transportation announced that it would replace the Salmon Bridge, Alston said enough is enough.

Recognizing that part of the area’s heritage was being destroyed, he and a small group of locals formed the Salmon River Covered Bridge Park Association and successfully lobbied the government for two years to keep the bridge standing.

Preserving the bridges and showcasing them to the world is Alston’s passion. He became president of the province’s now defunct Covered Bridge Preservation Association and spearheaded the development of the Covered Bridge Visitor Information Centre, which opened in 2003 and was built to look like a covered bridge. He also launched the annual Kings County Covered Bridge Festival that year, which had a successful run, but is no longer taking place.

“Our heritage is important,” Alston says. “I know a lot of people don’t understand that. In today’s world, it’s got to be new and it’s got to be flashy. But people come from all over the world to look at the Salmon Bridge and other bridges in our province. You take all the bridges away and you’re going to take away thousands of people who are interested in covered bridges.”

Kissing bridges

Salmon’s convenient location, at Exit 195 on Highway 1, one kilometre west of the exit on route 890, means that tourists can find the bridge easily. Also, because this bridge is closed to traffic and designated as a park, it’s a popular picnic spot, with canoeing and fishing on the Kennebecasis River.

And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see weddings in the covered bridges since romance and covered bridges — fondly nicknamed “kissing bridges” — go hand in hand. In the days of the horse and buggy, men would train their horses to stop while inside the bridge so they could snatch a private moment for romance. Of course, the bridges weren’t built as they were with romance in mind. It was to protect the raw lumber from rotting. An uncovered bridge, exposed to the elements, would last only 10 to 15 years, whereas a covered one was estimated to last 80 to 100 years.

One couple who enjoyed a romantic evening inside the Salmon Covered Bridge is Arleen and Clyde Bradley of Pittsburgh, PA. Their first trip to New Brunswick was in 1997 and they returned in 2003 for the first annual Kings County Covered Bridge Festival. A highlight of the festival was dinner and dancing in Salmon Bridge. It was the first and only time the globetrotting “bridgers” have eaten or danced in a covered bridge, making it a very special and memorable occasion.

Hold your breath

If you’re ambitious, it’s possible to see all 16 covered bridges in the Kings County area in one day by car. Or, for a more leisurely route, self-guided cycling tours of the bridges are recommended.

Eight of the bridges are within a 10-minute drive from downtown Sussex: Salmon (located at Four Corners), Plumweseep (at Plumweseep Road), Tranton (at Rockville Road), Urney and Moores Mill (both in Waterford near Poley Mountain, a popular ski hill), Oldfield (in Newtown; Oldfield Bridge appears on a 1992 commemorative quarter), Centreville (Berwick area, west of Sussex) and McFarlane (Wards Creek, south of Sussex).

The covered bridges will often have more than one name. Officially, a bridge is named after the river it crosses or the owner of the land on which it was built. If several bridges cross the same river, they’re numbered. For instance, the Kennebecasis River No. 9 was the ninth covered bridge from the mouth of the river, but it’s also known as Plumweseep Bridge, named after the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations people who blazed the portage trails in the area. Tranton and Oldfield Bridge are named after their original landowners, but they’re also known as Smith Creek No. 1 and Smith Creek No. 5 respectively.

Point Wolfe Bridge in Fundy National Park, an hour’s drive southeast of Sussex, is New Brunswick’s only painted bridge. Its beautiful red colour is in sharp contrast to all the weathered board bridges in the province.

It’s been said that covered bridges have the power to grant wishes. Horse-and-buggy passengers would shut their eyes, raise their feet, and hold their breath for the length of the bridge. It would have been a challenging journey when crossing New Brunswick’s Hartland Bridge, the longest covered bridge in the world. It spans 391 breathless metres over the Saint John River in Hartland, located off Route 2 / Trans Canada Highway, between routes 103 and 105. (As an aside, the longest bridge in the world is Confederation Bridge, which is also in New Brunswick and connects the mainland to PEI.)

Two other bridges worth seeing are Hardscrabble and Vaughn Creek in the coastal village of St. Martins in Saint John County, about a 45-minute drive southwest of Sussex. Look for the picture-postcard red house perched between the bridges and say hello to the owner. He doesn’t mind chatting with tourists and wouldn’t dream of moving. “No money in the world can get me to move away from here," says Donald Brian McIntyre. "I see the changing tides every day.”

For more info on travel to the region, visit Tourism New Brunswick (tourismnewbrunswick.ca).

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