The last remaining covered bridge in Carbon County utilized by motor vehicles has been the victim of an accident.
During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, Ron and Carol Gilbert, owners of The Covered Bridge Inn in Lower Towamensing Township, approached the board to ask for permission to place two "reward" signs at the bridge, located in the Little Gap section of Lower Towamensing Township and which crosses Buckwha Creek.
Ron Gilbert outlined the accident, which damaged the bridge last Friday.
Apparently, a large truck – driver, make and model of the vehicle is not known – drove into the bridge and hit the third beam of the covering. The driver then proceeded through the bridge, tearing down more beams and causing extensive damage to the historic span.
"This guy has to be caught," Gilbert said, adding that he and his wife will be offering a $500 reward for any information contributing to the arrest of the culprit. State police at Lehighton are currently handling the investigation.
He said that signs, posted at each end of the bridge, also detail the reward.
Commissioner Charles Getz asked if the county, which owns the bridge, could add to the reward. County solicitor Michael Ozalas said he would look into if the county has that ability.
Commissioner Wayne Nothstein agreed, adding that if it was possible, the person responsible for the damage should be responsible for paying restitution, which could be used for the reward.
Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, said the board will have to wait until Ozalas reviews the matter. He said the commissioners are in support of charging the culprit.
"We appreciate your concern," O'Gurek said to the Gilberts.
Randall Smith, county administrator, then provided the board with an update on what the county did since the damage occurred.
"The damages are so great that the bridge had to be closed down," Smith said.
He added that the county has talked to county engineer Ronald Tirpak, who must now review the damage and will submit a report to the commissioners. The board must then bid out for repairs on the bridge because of the extent of the damages.
"The bridge is going to be out for weeks, probably months," Smith said.
He noted that Lower Towamensing Township is getting ready to do repairs on the second bridge in that area, located on Lower Smith Gap road, which means some closures.
O'Gurek said the township called and asked if the county can work with the township to keep at least one of the two bridges open.
"Obviously, travel routes will be impacted by all this," O'Gurek said.
Nothstein then asked why the county can't put up hanging beams across the entrances of the bridge that would stop a truck that is taller than the height limit by hitting its roof, alerting the vehicle that it is too tall.
"If someone hits it (the beam), it's their own fault for damaging their vehicle," he said. "It's to protect the bridge. Look at this cost. It's a lot easier to replace a four-by-four post or whatever you put up.
"I would like to see something like a piece of steel installed that would take the roof off if they try to go through the thing because it is a historic bridge. This time it's very significant damages."
Getz asked why hanging beams aren't up on the bridge.
Nothstein said they had been knocked down after someone hit them.
Getz agreed, stating that maybe they should install steel beams.
O'Gurek said officials will look into the matter.
In another vandalism matter, Nothstein said that during an inspection of the bridge two weeks ago, it was discovered that some beams in the center of the bridge appear to have been "punched out."
The county has worked to repair and restore the covered bridge since 2008.
In March of that year, the commissioners learned that the structure was in poor condition.
The commissioners took immediate action, hiring Stoney Ridge Fabricators, Inc., to weld steel plates over the holes and reweld the steel I-beams, as well as order two 16-foot by 10-foot bridge decking to replace the deteriorated sections.
But after further review, it was determined that the bridge was in dire need of larger repairs and was in an extremely deteriorated condition.
The bridge was reopened shortly after because if it remained closed, residents and emergency personnel would be forced to take a 20-mile detour. This was due to a bridge on Lower Smith Gap road that was closed for repairs at that time.
To alleviate some stress on the bridge, the commissioners voted to lower the weight limit to five tons, or the size of a pickup truck or small van. The new limit became permanent on May 1, 2008 and is still in effect.
Repair work to the bridge was completed and the county began to pursue federal funding through the Transportation Enhancement Act, to restore the bridge's decking and other structural pieces. Former Congressman Paul Kanjorski backed the project, but congress never acted on the matter.