The Meems Bottom Covered Bridge takes a beating from tractor-trailers several times a year even though warning signs and metal bars have been put up to help protect the historic structure.
The bridge on Wissler Road near Mount Jackson in Shenandoah County remains closed until further notice as the Virginia Department of Transportation assesses the latest damage and considers ways to save the historic crossing. But VDOT is running out of options to prevent more damage and regular repairs cost money.
VDOT closed the bridge earlier this month after a vehicle hit part of the structure. The department received the go-ahead to close the crossing for 180 days. Ed Carter, VDOT’s Edinburg residency director, said VDOT could reopen the bridge sooner.
The bridge, off U.S. 11 (Old Valley Pike) near Mount Jackson, dates back to 1894 and appears on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. At 200-feet long, it is the longest covered bridge in Virginia. It is also the last remaining covered bridge in Virginia open to vehicles, Carter said.
One option to protect the bridge is to close it to vehicles, leaving it open only to pedestrians, Carter said by phone Monday. He added that permanent closure remains a last resort.
VDOT staff, Mount Jackson and Shenandoah County officials and representatives of emergency services have discussed the possibility of leaving the crossing open to pedestrians, Carter said.
“No decisions have been made,” Carter said. “These are just options we’re looking at and there’s a process we would have to go through if that decision was made to do that, with public hearings and all that.”
If it becomes a pedestrian crossing, Cater said VDOT would need to accommodate farmers who work both sides of the Shenandoah River and haul equipment over the bridge.
Traffic cameras might help catch vehicles that cause damage but would not prevent strikes, Carter noted.
Many truck drivers rely on geographical information systems when traveling to and from the Mount Jackson industrial park, Carter said. The systems typically direct the driver to the shortest route, which is through the Meems Bottom Bridge, Carter said. Many drivers use older GIS units that have not been updated and do not provide an alternate route, he said.
VDOT also installed signs at the industrial park directing truck drivers to take exit 269 on Interstate 81, Carter said.
“And you’re only talking about a four-mile detour,” Carter said. “I mean, it’s only saving them four miles (to take the bridge).”
Vehicles have struck the bridge 11 times between 2019-2021, according to VDOT. A vehicle hit the bridge on Oct. 25 and VDOT crews again made repairs. The next day, a tractor-trailer struck the bridge in the same location and ripped out the repairs, Carter said. Mount Jackson police stopped the driver shortly after the vehicle struck the bridge the second time, Carter said.
The regular collisions create a frustrating situation, Carter admitted.
“We spent a great deal of money putting up bars and chains to warn the truckers, you know, saying they’re too high or wide and, according to the officer that followed this trucker through (the bridge), he hit the chains and never even stopped, just kept on going,” Carter said.
Mount Jackson Police Chief Jeff Sterner did not return a call for comment about his agency’s involvement.
This is not the first time the bridge has been closed for an extended period of time.
VDOT closed the bridge in early April 2017 to repair damage caused by two vehicle strikes. The bridge remained closed until crews completed the repairs and installed clearance bars suspended by chains from the roof of the structure. VDOT reopened the bridge in the summer of 2018.
A fire in 1976 damaged the bridge, but VDOT rebuilt the structure. VDOT has since installed a fire alarm in the bridge.