Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Sherburne Bridge

We all have those moments in our personal history that stand out.  One of my fondest memories is visiting the town of Sherburne, Kentucky.  Located on the banks of the Licking River, Sherburne was once a very prosperous town that sprawled both the Bath and Fleming County side of the river.  The town's most recognizable feature was the covered bridge.  Here is the story of the bridge, with a bit of personal history added.

 Special thanks to my dad, James Thomas Kiskaden for his never ending inspiration and wealth of information.

Photo courtesy of Rose Publishing Co.
Looking back through Bath County's history, one will notice the importance of the Licking River and its impact on early commerce and trade.  Towns and communities sprang up near the river and helped shape the area's economy in those early days before the railroads and automobiles.  These businesses and communities relied on the river for transporting of goods to other, larger, river port cities along the tributary waters; but roads also had to be built to provide the commercial avenues to cities and towns inland.  Sherburne, Kentucky is located on the Fleming County side of the Licking River, with a few houses and businesses formerly occupying the Bath County shoreline.  The town began with a grist mill operated by Robert Andrews, who was a native of Sherburne, New York; hence, the origin of the town's name.  According to The Kentucky Atlas & Gazetteer, a post office was established as early as 1815 as Sherburne Mills and was incorporated in 1847.  The town's name changed to simply Sherburne in 1879.  Soon after its establishment, the town grew with businesses and residents and became very prosperous.  One very busy trade route was the Maysville/Mount Sterling Turnpike that is now Kentucky Route 11, just across the Licking in Bath County.  Eventually, problems fording the river into Bath County, especially at high stage, prompted the need for a bridge to be built.

Example of the truss system used for the Sherburne Bridge
The construction of the Sherburne Covered Bridge began in 1867 by Issac Kisker and a man only known as Pearce, who did the stone work on the abutments and center pier.  The job cost approximately $3,500 and was completed in 1868.  The bridge was 253 feet long and 14 feet wide, braced with the Howell Truss system, which consisted of a one hundred foot long truss throughout, and a one hundred fifty-three foot span which was suspended by cables.  It was operated privately as a toll bridge and opened a new avenue of travel for horse and buggies, stagecoaches and pedestrians.  As a result, Sherburne became quite a prosperous town.

The Sherburne Bridge as seen from Bath County
At the time of the bridge's hey-day, the Licking River wasn't as tamed as it is today.  Flooding was a major concern, and on a few occasions, the water rose high enough to cause the bridge's owner to knock out side boards to allow water to flow through in an effort to save it from being ripped off the abutments and washed away.  Maintenance was always a never ending process as the years progressed; floor boards would have to be replaced from time to time and siding repaired as the bridged aged.  When automobiles first started appearing, it was apparent that weight restrictions would have to be enforced, so a ten ton limit was set.  Governor Flem D. Sampson signed the Murphy Toll Bridge Act in 1928, allowing the State of Kentucky to either condemn or purchase privately owned covered bridges.  The Sherburne Bridge was bought by the state and continued to serve the area for many more years.  The Great Flood of 1937 threatened to destroy the bridge, but efforts of the town's people prevented much damage.  In fact, it has been said that two men had to be rescued by boat from the top of the bridge after they became trapped by rising waters. 

Travel through the bridge was not for the claustrophobic.  A sign on the entrances warned drivers to illuminate their headlights and sound the horn on their vehicles as they approached.  Imagine driving through a wooden tunnel or a barn for over 200 feet; that about sums up the experience a traveler would have had.  In 1951, the transportation department added reinforcing timbers to the bridge's framework and installed cables down the span, creating a true suspension bridge; the only suspended covered bridge in the world at the time.
View of the suspension system. Photo courtesy of the Traugott Keller collection,(c) 1953
Eventually, the cost of the bridge's continued maintenance and safety considerations became an issue.  Vehicles became wider over time and on a few occasions, scraped the truss work inside the bridge.  A massive rerouting project transformed Kentucky Route 11's curvy hill to a safer, straight road and a new concrete bridge was erected over the Licking River just downstream.  The Sherburne Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in the early to mid 1970's but it remained a community landmark and foot bridge.

My dad, Tommy, was raised in Sherburne and when I was young, we would visit my great-grandmother, Nona Ensor, who still lived in the town.  The bridge always fascinated me as it was quite an impressive structure to see up close.  I remember walking through it looking in marvel at the large crisscrossed timbers and the massive bolts that had held them in place for over a hundred years.  The floor of the bridge had fallen into some disrepair; some holes had formed and boards had fallen through.  Some carved graffiti adorned the interior, but it wasn't damaged too badly overall.  Dad always told me stories about his childhood and how he and his friends would climb to the top of the bridge and fish.  The last time I was in the bridge was around summer/early fall 1980 when we visited family.

The Sherburne Bridge as it was burning. Taken by the late Russ Metz.
I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the night and mom telling dad that something bad was going on in Sherburne;  It was April 16, 1981.  The caller was a friend of my sister's who lived nearby and she was frantic, saying the bridge was on fire.  Even though I was not quite eight years old, the magnitude of the situation was very apparent.  For years, my dad had taught me the history of the bridge and town he thought so much of and now, part of it was falling into the Licking River as glowing embers.  Several versions of what happened that night have been told, the common tale is that some teenage boys had been fishing and had fallen into the river.  They got out, went into the bridge and set a fire to get warm but the fire got out of hand.  Other theories were that the teenagers had been partying in the bridge and started a bonfire, or that they were upset with someone and intentionally set it.  Whatever the reason, there were no charges brought against the parties involved and a piece of Bath and Fleming County's history was gone.

An iron bolt found the day after the fire.
We went to Sherburne the next day to see the smoldering remains of the bridge.  The steel support system for the suspension cables was still standing, the cables drooped down into the river below.  The stone pier support was still standing in the water with some smoldering remnants of wood on it.  The ground around the bridge down to the river was scorched and the tin roof was scattered along the shore and still in the water below us.  It was a strange feeling, knowing that I had walked through that bridge so many times, and now it was gone.  I found some old square head nails on the ground and picked them up, along with a iron bolt approximately two feet long that was used to secure the truss.  I took the items home and put the nails away, but used the iron bolt for numerous things; being the imaginative kid I was.  That bolt was used as an Army rifle, medieval mace and other various things, but somehow always stayed stashed away in an outbuilding.  In November, 2012, I was watching a show about the covered bridges of Kentucky on the local PBS channel, KET,  and saw that a museum had opened in nearby Flemingsburg that had an area devoted covered bridge history.  After making a few calls, I made contact with the museum's curator and told her I had the iron bolt.  I met with the curator, brought the bolt along with a copy of the only picture I am aware of from the night of the fire, and donated them to the museum; they are on display now for all to see.  The museum is located at 119 Water Street in Flemingsburg, Kentucky and is open Saturdays from noon until 4 p.m.

Over the years, I have stopped in Sherburne many times, usually at the little store that is still there.  My great-grandmother has since passed away, but the house is still standing.  Sherburne is no longer the thriving river community it was, but the residents who still live there have never forgotten its history.  The historical marker that was placed in 1976 still stands at the Fleming County entrance to the bridge and tells a brief, matter of fact history of the great covered bridge that once stood beyond it.  A small brass plate with a picture of the bridge is posted with the historical sign that gives the date the of the fire.
Courtesy of Angel Shrout.

I visited the Bath County side of Sherburne in the summer of 2013 for the first time since the day after the fire.  The buildings have all deteriorated and the entrance to the bridge is now overgrown with dense vegetation.  The stone pier still stands in the middle of the river and the support anchors for the suspension cables are still embedded in the remains of the roadway.  A cable still droops off the stone pier, but from what I could tell, nothing more of the Sherburne Covered Bridge remains.  At the time of this writing, the old roadway on the Bath County side is gated off and can no longer be accessed.  Fleming County celebrates the Covered Bridge Festival every August and a small replica of the Sherburne Bridge is displayed along Kentucky 11, just across the Licking River at the entrance to Sherburne.

The stone pier support as it appears now.
The Bath County entrance, 2013

My dad and I always hold our memories of Sherburne and the bridge dear to us.  I often wonder what if the bridge hadn't burned that night thirty-three years ago; if it would still be maintained as a tourist attraction or left by the wayside like the other buildings.  If you visit the store in Sherburne, there are many pictures from years gone by displayed inside.  For a moment, going in the store takes one back to a simpler time.  For me, it reminds me of being a little blonde haired kid; curiously looking at the inside of a true wonder in Kentucky's history.

For more information about the Fleming County Covered Bridge Museum, go to

Sources of research for this post are as follows: 

 The Kentucky Atlas & Gazetteer
A History of Bath County, Kentucky by John Adair Richards (c) 1961 Southwest Printers
The Traugott Keller Collection ( )
A Pictorial History of Bath County, Kentucky

Ramblings of a Southern Angel  (


  1. A wonderful read. I am glad I found your blog.

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  3. Thank you for this article/memoir about the old Sherburne Bridge. My grandfather, Ernest Bryam Smith (b. 1892) grew up in Sherburne. I remember taking Sunday drives with him and our family. We'd drive over that bridge at least once a year. It was great fun for my sister and I!

  4. My grandmother lived in the house next to that old bridge. She lost grandpa and married Summers Day. They owned the old store next to the bridge. I have fond memories of that place growing up. We would visit 4 or 5 times a year from Ohio. Thanks for the article!Dean.

  5. I was just there looking at it Friday Saturday and Sunday

  6. I remember....bridge was on our route from S. Lebanon, OH to Canyon Falls, KY back in the '40's and '50's. Entering the bridge I always feared we would get stuck as the exit opening looked so small.