The subtle sound danced softly across our summer evenings. Too musical to be referred to as merely a “rumble,” it bore a vague resemblance to someone playing the lower tones on a distant marimba.
As children, we enjoyed the unusual melody. We learned at an early age that the sound was made by a vehicle crossing the old bridge, more than a mile away, down where Muscallunge Road crosses the Rattlesnake Creek. Many generations of area youngsters knew that random, rippling sound. And down through the years it was not uncommon for the more imaginative ones to refer to it as the “song of Thunder Bridge.”
The reason for the bridge’s harmonic tune was the design of the old structure. It was built in such a fashion that there was no need to fasten down the individual heavy wooden planks that made up its floor. Loosely laid, those timbers were free to move around a bit as a vehicle crossed over them. Some “self-proclaimed experts” explained that the choice of this method of construction was just good economics, that wooden bridge floors with free-moving planks stayed cleaner and dried out faster when wet, thus lasting longer than did floors that were tightly-spaced and with each plank firmly fastened in place. Others agreed that the design was a matter of economics, but argued that the major savings came from eliminating the need for many bolts and the labor required to drill holes and install them. Few, if any, of the local people knew the age of the bridge. Some of the old-timers estimated that it had most likely been built for the benefit of the early wheat farmers who hauled their wagon loads of grain to the Atkinson Flour Mill in North Andover. Others felt certain that it was constructed early enough to have rendered its first rhythmic rumbling when crossed by the steel-banded wooden wheels of a wagon heavily laden with locally-mined lead ore that was being transported to nearby Beetown or to the smelters at Potosi.
For many years, “Thunder Bridge!” was the rallying cry of partying teenagers. In a secluded valley in a bluegrass pasture that bordered the lightly-traveled Muscallunge Road, young people from the surrounding area, as well as those from a number of the neighboring small towns, found the privacy desired for frequent evening get-togethers. The first young men to arrive always managed to find and gather an ample supply of dry wood to feed a large bonfire. According to whispered reports, a good time was almost always had by all.
Most of the Thunder Bridge pasture parties were uneventful. At one of the more memorable ones, one of the happy young male revelers, for some unknown reason, pitched an unopened bottle of beer into the roaring bonfire. The resulting explosion was loud and filled the sky with sparks and bits of burning embers. A few of the surprised merrymakers suffered small burns from the flying sparks, and a number found their clothing suffered small burn holes. If there are such things as “party gods,” they all must have been smiling that evening, as only several very minor facial wounds were caused by the flying bits and shards of broken glass from the exploding bottle.
Occasionally a concerned neighbor would inform the pasture’s owner that the youngsters were holding beer parties on his property, and perhaps the time had come for him to do something about it. But he refused to become excited or get involved. “I was young once myself,” he would say. “Young people will party and I can’t think of a better or safer place for them to do it. As long as they close the gate when they leave, their parties don’t bother me a bit.” To friends, he would sometimes confide that he did regret the fact that he was now considered too old to be invited to join the young folks in their jolly evening events. More than likely he had done a bit of partying there himself in earlier years.
Except for singing its occasional song, Thunder Bridge led a quiet existence. A long-time fixture in the area, it was loved by most, and had no known enemies. But one dark, rainy autumn night it suffered a brutal and completely unprovoked attack. As may be expected on Halloween, the night had no shortage of spooks, witches, goblins, and any number of various other shadowy evil spirits traveling slyly about, performing their various pranks and wicked deeds. A number of the huge, heavy wooden planks that made up the bridge’s ancient floor were actually lifted out of place that night, and were spirited away – at least for a short distance – and carefully concealed in a nearby patch of tall weeds.
The next morning an alert school bus driver spotted the gaping hole in the bridge floor and managed to get his huge vehicle stopped in time to prevent any damage to either it or to his precious cargo.
The years went by, as years tend to do, and brought with them the changes and progress we had all come to expect. Both the kinds of change we eagerly awaited and the type to which we did not look forward with great anticipation. Eventually the time came for our beloved old Thunder Bridge to go. Perhaps it was just considered by some to be obsolete. Or it could be that it was thought to be too narrow for even the small amount of traffic that made use of the graveled rural road. It is possible that the bases and abutments built of quarried limestone and mortar had deteriorated beyond repair. It may be the heavy old riveted steel framework and beams had become badly rusted and weakened by age. Then again, it may be the ancient structure had just never been built strong enough to carry the large milk, fertilizer, and logging trucks that began traveling our roads as time moved along, or the even-larger, heavier burdens anticipated for the future.
Regardless of the reason, Thunder Bridge disappeared from Muscallunge Road, from the Rattlesnake Creek, and from our lives. It was replaced by a modern new bridge that is sturdy and substantial. One that appears to be almost indestructible, with steel beams that are securely anchored into, and supported by, what appears to be a more-than-ample amount of steel-reinforced concrete. No one can question its strength, but it is silent – so silent. Automobiles, trucks, and farm tractors cross it with scarcely a whisper.
Unlike most old bridges and many elderly people, the new span has no stories to tell. Even sadder is the fact that it has no song of its own. Youngsters of the area will never know the rhythmic rumble of a loose-plank bridge floor. But the music remains and lives on for a fortunate few. In our minds and memories we still hear and enjoy that distant melody, the song of Thunder Bridge.
Share the special spots of your youth and favorite memories.
Emil Schmit is the 86 year old father of Pam Buttikofer, one of the owners of Imperfect Women. Emil continues to write although age and health issues have slowed him down a bit. He is a is a self-trained poet, free-lance writer, public speaker, and journalist. His weekly column, “Rhyme and Reason,” appeared for over twenty years in the Dubuque, Iowa daily newspaper, the Telegraph Herald. You can read more of Emil’s Bio here. The typewriter pictured on the bio page is one that he sat at for over 50 years creating many of his “rhymes and reasons.”