Parke County, which calls itself the Covered Bridge Capital of the World, is a quiet, gentle place. An elaborate gabled 1879 courthouse sits in the middle of the town square in historic Rockville, the county seat. Nearby is the old stick style Vandalia railroad depot, built in 1886, now a visitor’s center and starting area for five driving tours. These tours, each designated with a color, take one through small, almost forgotten towns, past old gristmills and across the 32 wooden bridges that still exist here.
Dating between 1856 and 1922, Parke County (and neighboring Putnam County) boast more covered bridges than almost any place in the U.S. and are celebrated each year during the annual Covered Bridge Festival in early October, a 10-day event that brings more than a million people to this rural area.
Though some believe that covered bridges were built to protect travelers from the weather, historians posit that the covers were a way to protect the wood structure from the elements. Approximately 1500 bridges still exist in the United States, 106 of them in Indiana. All the Indiana bridges have signs saying “Cross This Bridge at a Walk,” an admonition to avoid collisions with someone entering the bridge from the other direction and also to help preserve the bridge itself. Many of the bridges are still open to vehicles and walkers, though all have weight restrictions.
Many of the bridges have their names, dates they were built and the name of the builder painted over its arched entranceway. One of the most famous of the bridge builders was J.J. Daniels. He built a considerable number of bridges in this area including the 1883 Sim Smith Covered Bridge, reputed to be Parke County’s only haunted covered bridge (there is also a haunted one in Putnam County). In 1873, Daniels built the Mecca Covered Bridge, which is now closed to traffic but used for Covered Bridge Festival dances as well as Easter sunrise services.
Both Bridgeton and Mansfield also have 150 year-old mills where you can watch grain being ground into meal and flour and have little villages open during events.
Like to paddle? Consider kayaking or canoeing on Sugar Creek through Turkey Run State Park, traveling under several covered bridges.
For those who love these old wooden structures, now growing exceedingly rare, there are even more bridges to explore through the state which has over 100 or so other bridges to cross (excuse our pun).