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Belvidere or Jones Falls Covered Bridge

Belvidere or Jones Falls MD-03-16x Jones Falls Modified Wernwag 1 175'-190' 1818-1820 1879-80
Belvidere Covered Bridge, sometimes spelled Belvedere and also referred to as Jones Falls Covered Bridge was one of the most unique covered bridges in Maryland. It was one of only three covered bridges known to be located inside the city limits of Baltimore. An 1869 street map of Baltimore shows the bridge crossing the Jones Falls on Belvidere Street near the Greenmount Cemetery. Street names and configuration have changed since 1869. The map shows the northeast end of the bridge near the intersection of Hoffman and Brentwood streets and the southwest end was at the intersection of John and Barclay streets. A current perspective would put the bridge in the vicinity of Preston Street and Guilford Avenue. The hotel now located at the end of Belvidere Street is spelled Belvedere, as is the northern portion of the neighborhood which surrounds it.
Noted local historian John McGrain provides detailed information about the location of Belvidere Bridge and nearby mills and dam:
The Belvidere Bridge was built just upstream of Keller and Foreman's Dam, which is shown in a painting by Francis Guy in 1804. The small mill in the painting is the one I call 'Hanson's Mill at Belvidere Bridge,' although the mill was much older than the bridge. About 1866, the small mill was replaced by the Baltimore Pearl Hominy Mill which had an Italianate tower like a college building. The Hominy Mill burned in the early 1880s. With it gone, it was possible to run Biddle Street eastward through the site."
Mr. McGrain also led us to a "Bird's Eye View" lithograph by E. Sachse & Company, 1869, showing both the Belvidere Bridge and the Pearl Hominy Mill.
Belvidere Covered Bridge lithograph 1869

The original advertisement for proposals to build Belvidere Bridge was published in the Baltimore American on July 11, 1818:
Office of the Commissioners of the City. BALTIMORE, June 29, 1818.
PLANS and PROPOSALS will be received at the office till the 1st day of August next, for the erection of a Wooden Bridge over Jone's Falls at or near Keller and Foreman's mill dam, and within the limits of Belvidere street or South street, as extended and laid out by the Commissioners appointed by Act of Assembly.
The said bridge to be constructed with one arch of 175 feet span, and 40 feet wide, with abutments of stone, to be built of the best materials, as so as most conveniently to accommodate foot passengers and carriages of burden-the whole of the work to be done in a good and sufficient workman like manner, the proposals to state the cost with and without covering the same with a shingle roof.
By order-Samuel Young, Clerk-Je30-eo2w.
Belvidere Covered Bridge about 1870 Belvidere Covered Bridge 1874

Belvidere Covered Bridge c1870s. Photo courtesy of Baltimore County Public Library.

Belvidere Covered Bridge 1874. Photo courtesy of Baltimore County Public Library.

Lewis Wernwag was contracted to build the Belvidere bridge in 1818. At the same time, Wernwag was contracted to build his bridge at Conowingo over the Susquehanna River. George Milliman was the actual builder of the Belvidere Bridge. (Direction for building the bridge was likely shared between Wernwag and Milliman. An article brought forth later in this writing indicates Mr. Wernwag was in charge when the bridge collapsed in 1819.) The bridge is named after the estate of John Eager Howard, know as the Belvidere.¹
The unusual looking Belvidere Bridge withstood floods along the Jones Falls for over 50 years. The most devastating flood in the region was that of 1868. The Charles Street Bridge was completely lost, followed quickly by Madison and Centre Street bridges, Hillen Street, Swann, and the iron bridge at Fayette Street. The only bridges to survive the great flood of 1868 were the stone bridge at Eager Street and the Belvidere Bridge.
Belvidere Bridge; an ingenious piece of workmanship of wood consisting of one arch with a 190 foot span, carrying two cartways of 12 foot width and two footways of six foot width, was the admiration of more than one visitor.²
An article in the Baltimore Sunpapers on October 17, 1937 provided an excellent documentary about the Belvidere Bridge:
The other (Baltimore City covered bridge) is one of the elders to prod recollection over. It was known as the Belvedere Bridge, and it crossed Jones Falls, but had nothing to do with what is now called Belvedere Avenue. Decades ago, the Belvedere Road was the only artery into the city from the county side to the northeast and the busy road was carried over the Falls, from a point near the main entrance to what is now the intersection of Guilford Avenue and Preston Street, by the covered bridge.
The bridge was authorized in June 1818, city records show, was built by one George Milliman, and was completed by February 1820, at least, although the exact date of its opening seems undiscoverable. It did full service until late in 1878, then was closed to vehicles as unsafe. Pedestrians continued to use it until October 1887, when it was ordered completely closed. Somewhere between then and 1889, it appears, lies the date of its destruction.
....the Belvedere Bridge had open sides and handrails....close scrutiny suggests also that it had two separate traffic lanes. In type, it was unusual, first for being a rare combination of bow-string and truss, and, second for containing two smaller arches within each of its great bow-strings.
The 1937 article above is likely correct as to the closing of the bridge in late 1878 based on an article in the Baltimore Sun on February 20, 1879 awarding a contract to remove the bridge to Herman Bush:
Herman Bush has been awarded the contract for removing the old Belvidere Bridge on furnishing security. He contracts to take down the bridge for nothing and pay the city $50 for the old material.
Another article in the Baltimore Sun on June 6, 1879 provides evidence of closure of the bridge to vehicular traffic. This was probably a closure to allow Herman Bush to dismantle the bridge.
NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN, That application will be made to the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore for the closing of BELVIDERE STREET, between the southerly side of the southernmost abutment of the old Belvidere Bridge and the northernmost outline of the property of the Union Railroad Company of Baltimore.
Herman Bush likely removed the bridge during the last half of 1879, possibly extending into early 1880. Part of the bridge may have been left standing for pedestrian traffic. The 1937 article states the bridge was left open to pedestrian traffic until 1887. Confusion persists because of another article in the Baltimore Sun on February 27, 1883 under the heading Council Proceedings providing a "resolution to advertise the closing of Belvidere Street, between the old Belvidere Bridge and the property of the Union Railway Company of Baltimore; adopted."
Regardless of when vehicular traffic and pedestrian traffic was halted or when the Belvidere Bridge was removed, an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun on June 16, 1887 called for a new bridge at this crossing:
Railroad Improvement. The Northern Central Railway Company is putting a trestle bridge across Jones Falls at the site of the old Belvidere bridge. The tracks of the Y that is being constructed to connect Calvert Station directly with the Union tunnel will use this bridge. As the tracks have been run, connection with the Union tunnel from Calvert Station could only be had by way of Union Station. It is proposed to do away with this round-about route. The large, new round house near the trestle bridge has been occupied by the engines of the company for some time.
The bridge was the site of many street fights, drunkenness, and even suicides. The Baltimore Sun published many articles about happenings at the bridge over the years of 1837 to 1880. On January 11, 1838, an article titled Riotous Boys, described a problem in the city and at the bridge as "gangs of half-grown boys, who congregate around the corners of streets, and by their swearing, cursing, fighting, and even drunkenness and gambling, give fair promise of being future inmates of the Penitentiary, or perhaps ending their days by the hands of the executioner." The article continued to decribe a fight at the bridge between two gangs who fought for control of the bridge. Police were called in, "stones and other missles were thrown, pistols were fired." The police eventually "captured seven of the young scoundrels." In December, 1838 an attempt was made "to burn the Belvidere bridge. It was fortunately discovered in time to prevent its destruction." In June, 1839 a young man fell from the bridge while playing ball, fractured his skull and unfortunately died from the injuries he received.
In February, 1844, an appropriation made by the city council and approved by the mayor of Baltimore provided $1,000 for repairs to the Belvidere Bridge. In February of 1859, most of the old flooring on the bridge was removed and replaced with new boards.
Perhaps the most telling description of the Belvidere Bridge and the area around it comes from an article in the Baltimore Sun on April 18, 1920, written by Wilbur F. Coyle, titled Mr. Coyle Writes About Scenes Pictured In Fine Old Photographs. The article included some photographs from Mr. Coyle's collection:
....I want to say a word or two about old Belvidere bridge, which is, beyond a doubt, the most interesting, from a local standpoint, of the photogravure group. Belvidere Bridge is very conspicuous in today's group. This type of structure has practically vanished from the immediate vicinity of Baltimore, although there is one somewhat similar several miles west of the city, of which I know. Belvidere, as bridges go, was, if not famous, extremely well-known and much used. It spanned Jones' Falls from a point west of Guilford avenue to Belvedere street, which is now but one block long - from the east side of the Jones' Falls area to Greenmount avenue.
The bridge was built as early as 1818 over a hundred years ago, and was not torn down until 1880. The structure was part of a very important highway of which Guilford avenue, known in 1818 as South street, was a section. South street (Guilford avenue) originally took an abrupt turn to the northeast at the point where Chase street now intersects it, and continuing, reached a bluff on the west side of Jones' Falls, the present vicinity of Preston street, east of Guilford. Belvidere bridge furnished the connecting link over the falls from this point. The convenience and importance of this thoroughfare becomes at once apparent when it is understood that it gave direct approach to the center of the city via what is now upper Greenmount avenue. Belvidere street, Belvidere bridge, South street and Guilford avenue led to the water front, through the very heart of the business section. This was not only the natural, but probably the only, way to get to the downstown area from the upper, outlying section of the falls.
When the bridge was first built it was described enthusiastically as "elegant." In later years, it was regarded as very useful, but hardly as ornamental, but it did have an appeal to some because it was out-of-date and, in a way, picturesque. That is the peculiar charm of the old bridge. It is of another age and another time. But this "elegant" bridge had one sad experience. It proceeded to tumble down. This occurred March 10, 1819, shortly after it had been erected. That is not exactly the way a new bridge is supposed to behave, but this particular one broke and fell into the stream. Workmen were repairing it at the time, but no one was hurt. The span was immediately rebuilt and this time the job must have been well done, for though it was assailed by floods frequently, it withstood all such attacks. How Belvidere bridge escaped is puzzling, since every other like structure over the stream was carried away at some time or other. Under the bridge was a mill dam. This, in fact, was there before the bridge. The dam was quite an important industrial factor, since it "backed up" the water and diverted it into a race, which thus furnished power to a mill on the edge of the falls near the abutments of the bridge. Altogether, Belvidere bridge was in use over 60 years. When constructed it was technically within the city limits, but the contiguous country was undeveloped. In fact, the land, in the main, was divided into estates, some quite large. That of Gen. John Eager Howard, called Belvidere (from which the street and bridge inherited their names) was in the immediate vicinity - on the right bank of the falls to the south. The center of this property was about Calvert and Chase street, where stood the picturesque mansion, the home of General Howard. The name Belvidere has many historical associations, and the bridge was known far and wide, not only because it was a very useful structure, but for its honored designation.
In the 60-odd years it was in use a great change came over the face of things. The city grew and grew, but curiously enough the approach to the bridge on both sides was through open country (by 1867), and up to the time the structure was demolished, in 1880, the area was very irregularly developed. Even then, that section was reluctantly citified. Belvidere, instead of being a street, was merely a country road. Calvert, St. Paul, Preston, Biddle, Chase and other highways, which now traverse this neighborhood, existed only on paper so far as the immediate locality is concerned. In later years they were cut through. Belvidere street was closed and the bridge torn down.
Mr. Coyle's account of the collapse of Belvidere Bridge in 1819 is verified through an article in the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Advertiser on March 11, 1819:
The elegant new wooden bridge lately erected in Belvidere Street over Jones' Falls, under the direction of MR. WERNWAG, from some defect in the material, had given way near the center; and yesterday, while some of the workmen were in the act of endeavoring to raise it up to repair and strengthen it, the bridge broke and fell down into the stream. Seven persons we learn were under it at the time it fell, but only one was much injured.

UPDATED: 12-22-2012 for information about the mill and dam in the early 1800s before Belvidere Bridge was built, for newspaper bid proposal notice in 1818 for Belvidere Bridge, for lithograph of area in 1869 and for newspaper article in 1887 about a new bridge at the old Belvidere Bridge site. Length of bridge changed from 190' to 175'-190'.

UPDATED: 04-07-2011 for newspaper article in 1819 about Belvidere Bridge collapse.

UPDATED: 04-05-2011 for newspaper articles in 1879 about Belvidere Street closing and contract for removal of Belvidere Bridge.

UPDATED: 04-22-2010 for newspaper articles about Belvidere Bridge including an article by Wilbur F. Coyle detailing the bridge and surrounding property.

¹ Jacques Kelly, Bygone Baltimore (1982), p. 35.

² Frances Beirne, Baltimore, A Picture History 1858-1968 (1982), p. 50.

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