It is hard to escape the sound of running water in Franklin County. This saddle-shaped patch of 26 communities between Worcester and Berkshire counties lies just south of the Vermont border in hilly terrain known as the Western Highlands.
The Connecticut River watershed, the largest in New England, engulfs the county. Tributaries - the Deerfield, Millers, and Green rivers, to name a few - tumble down to the mighty Connecticut. Hundreds of streams feed the tributaries, which is why traveling the length or breadth of any town in these parts entails crossing at least one bridge.
Of the state's 5,000 bridges - the most in New England - 293 are listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Massachusetts Highway Department. Of these, Franklin County has only 21, but that includes four of the state's eight covered bridges.
From the driver's seat, the more important fact is that these structures are a defining part of the region's largely rural landscape, traces of a past that included sprawling farms and river side mills.
Here are some of the unique structures to be found throughout the countryside, some on main thoroughfares, others on back roads, each of them somebody's favorite.
French King Bridge
Route 2 crosses the Connecticut River at the French King Gorge, a wide, placid band of water flowing between steep, wooded ledges. (The spot has inspired many legends about the source of its name, and probably none is true.) This 1932 bridge might be described as scaled-down skyscraper-deco. Each end is marked by a pair of white, three-tiered towers flanking the highway. A black cast-iron lamppost, topped by a vaguely Germanic cast-iron eagle, tops each tower. On the western end, a turnout invites people to stop and stroll out onto the bridge's wide sidewalk. Depending on the day, they might see mist rising in plumes from black water, or a lapis expanse mirroring clouds. Below the massive abutments a dazzling display of black steel trusswork supports an uncommon cantilevered, three-span arch. No wonder the American Institute of Steel Construction named it the most beautiful steel bridge of its class erected in America in 1932.
This town is bisected by the Connecticut River, and the Schell Bridge, built in 1902, allowed citizens on both banks to commune easily until 1985, when backlogged maintenance caused the town to close it. A rusted steel plate now blocks passage over this delicate, red-painted Pennsylvania truss bridge, one of the state's 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites, according to Preservation Mass, a historic preservation advocacy organization. Vines threaten to consume the arching ironwork, but a local group won't easily surrender the bridge to nature, envisioning a restored crossing open to pedestrians and cyclists, reconnecting the town once more.
Turners Falls Memorial Bridge
This 1937 concrete-and-steel structure provides a grand entrance from Route 2 to the village of Turners Falls, one of many once-booming mill communities in northwestern Massachusetts. The bridge uses truss-deck construction, meaning that the trusswork supports the roadbed from beneath. Below, the Connecticut River spills over a dam into a rocky basin where an old industrial canal joins the river.
Pumping Station Bridge
An unmarked road north of the city (Eunice Williams Drive on the map) dead-ends after a hairpin turn. Cars must park at a barricade and visitors walk toward the whoosh of unseen water. A few yards farther downhill stands a covered bridge with wide eaves, built in the 1970s after the original bridge burned. Inside, big timber X's denote Howe-truss construction; a vertical iron rod separates each pair of diagonally crossed timbers, a design patented by William Howe of Spencer in 1840. Cutouts at eye level give a view of the Green River and a low concrete dam. For history buffs, the reward lies at the far end of the bridge: After the French and Mohawk attack on the English settlement at Deerfield in February 1704, the raiders marched their captives to Canada, killing those who couldn't keep up. Among them were Eunice Williams and her infant, killed somewhere near this spot. Another of her captive children, also called Eunice, lived among the Mohawks for the rest of her life.
On the east side of Routes 5 and 10 south of the city, an overhead structure of cantilevered trusses rests on granite abutments above River Road and the Deerfield River, not far from its confluence with the Connecticut. Below the superstructure, trails thread the riverbanks to a floodplain of sumac and bittersweet, the kind of urban wasteland where children get their first taste of riverine wonder. Before the railroad arrived in the 1840s, this area was called Cheapside, a busy river port with wharves, locks, and canals allowing passage from the ocean to northern Vermont via the Connecticut. A sluggish current runs past old piers in the middle of the river.
Bridge of Flowers
This pale concrete structure, its shallow arches mirrored in the Deerfield River, would be gorgeous even without its linear garden. By far the best-known bridge in the county, the Bridge of Flowers started out as a trolley bridge in 1908, when trolleys hauled milk, mail, and workers to and from textile mills in Colrain. (The Trolley Museum on the Buckland side of the river, complete with a surviving trolley car, tells more of the tale.) When the trolley line succumbed to trucking competition two decades later, the local women's club had the brilliant idea to plant a garden on the bridge. Today the club hires a pro to keep up the garden of everchanging seasonal bloom, paid with visitor donations. It crosses almost parallel with a splendid three-span truss bridge built before 1900 and reconstructed in 1994.
Bardwell's Ferry Bridge
Engineering achieved poetry when the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. built this lenticular truss bridge over the Deerfield River in 1882. The sides form eye-catching parabolas, apparently prompting someone to think of lentils. Recently restored and painted a color resembling Frank Lloyd Wright's beloved Cherokee red, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Passing below, the Deerfield ripples through a rocky channel. The longest single-span lenticular bridge in Massachusetts, it also contains but a single lane, making it one of the more dangerous crossings around.
The South River is more of a stream than a river at this crossing between a local road and Route 116 north of the center of rural Conway. Rebuilt recently and, like most covered bridges, open only to pedestrians, the Burkeville (a.k.a. Conway) Bridge originally was erected in 1870, when this was a thriving mill town. Crumbling stone abutments and foundations can be seen along the banks as the river flows through town. Plank siding conceals the massive trusses inside. Cutouts near the eaves let in sunlight, which forms trapezoidal patches on the wooden decking.
This 1937 Art Deco-style bridge takes Route 116 across the Connecticut River. Painted a sublime cerulean blue, it's one of the more memorable crossings in the county. Not everyone finds the blue sublime, however. In 1994 the state revamped the structure, choosing the wild new color, along with modern steel railings and new light fixtures. Some residents and others felt that the changes clashed with period style and were made without historical consideration or public review. The outrage led the state to develop not only design guidelines, but a public process for future bridge repairs and upgrades. This is the eighth bridge at this site, replacing one that stood from 1877 to 1936. Floodwaters destroyed the predecessor by tearing off another bridge upstream and smashing it into the Sunderland Bridge.
Bissell Covered Bridge
Route 8A makes a 90-degree turn across the Mill Brook, using a temporary conventional bridge to carry cars into the mountain town of Heath. Walled off by guardrails next to the auto bridge, the Bissell Covered Bridge awaits restoration. Plank siding conceals a handsome Howe-truss interior as impressive as any cathedral. The surprise, given that it stands on such a picturesque site above an old dam, is that the bridge dates only from 1951 and was designed to carry auto traffic. The replacement will be wide enough for two 12-foot standard lanes, although construction hasn't yet begun.
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.