Awards: Old Salem Timber Pedestrian Bridge
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
Old Salem Timber Pedestrian Bridge
Old Salem, North Carolina is a National Landmark Historic District with more than 100 historic
structures. It functions as a living history museum that is enjoyed by some half-million visitors each year.
Within the district, Old Salem had established a visitor center that provided visitors with
information regarding the history of North Carolina’s first Moravian community. Moravian settlers
arrived in North Carolina from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1753.
In order to increase the authenticity of the district, Old Salem held a desire to remove the
visitor center, visitor parking, and visitor orientation buildings from the historic district.
They also wanted to greatly reduce the amount of automobile traffic in the district. To
accomplish these goals, they developed the 21st Century Heritage Center that would act as
a visitor center and orientation facility, as well as provide parking to the majority of
visitors who travel to Old Salem each year.
The Heritage Center was to be located out of the historic district and across a four-lane
divided highway, SR 2456 (Old US 52) also known as Old Salem Road. This, however, presented
an obstacle for visitors trying to explore the 18th and 19th century restored town. Old Salem
examined several alternatives to the pedestrian transportation obstacle, ruling out an
on-grade crossing because of safety reasons, and a tunnel since Old Salem Road is located
over a stream. Therefore, it was determined that a pedestrian bridge was the best solution.
A partnership developed between Old Salem, the North Carolina Department of Transportation,
and the City of Winston-Salem to build a bridge unlike any other, one reflecting the unique
culture and historic character of Salem. The teaming of these vital organizations, aided
by the benefit of transportation enhancement funding through the Federal Highway
Administration (FHWA), provided the flexibility and creativity to embark on a project of
such unique and grand scale. The bridge was a great learning experience in cooperation
and communication for all involved.
What resulted from this communication and teamwork was a 120-foot modified Burr-arch truss
bridge designed by David Fischetti, P.E. and built by Fowler Jones Beers Construction
Company, using a variety of skilled craftsmen who oftentimes, appropriately enough,
utilized 19th century building techniques. There are more than 600 principal timbers
in the Old Salem Bridge. All are southern yellow pine, which was a favorite of both
colonial American builders and modern builders because of its strength and durability.
Additionally, most of the timbers used in this bridge were reclaimed from a previous
use. Not only do these timbers have tight growth rings, high heartwood concentration,
and dimensional stability inherent in old growth timber, but they also have history.
Some came from a demolished early 20th century fertilizer plant in Chesapeake, Virginia,
while others came from the Champion Paper Mill in Canton, NC built in 1886. The oldest
timbers were pulled up out of the cotton docks of Savannah Harbor in Savannah, Georgia,
where they had been used as piling for over 200 years.
The Burr-arch truss was the logical choice for a covered bridge to be built in Old Salem.
This is the bridge that Moravian settlers would have built during the first half of
the 19th century as their community matured. During this period many Burr-arch trussed
bridges were built in Northampton and Lehigh Counties in Pennsylvania near the Moravian
settlement of Bethlehem. In 1970, nearly 300 Burr-arch trusses were still standing with
175 located in Pennsylvania. Of the seven surviving covered bridges in Lehigh and
Northampton counties, all are Burr-arch trusses.
The Burr-arch truss bridge design is named for Theodore Burr (1771-1822) who obtained a
patent for this bridge style in 1817. The first Burr-arch bridge was built across the
Hudson River in New York in 1804, and was 176 feet long. The Old Salem Bridge is
slightly shorter at 120 feet long.
The sides, or trusses, of the Old Salem Bridge were built first, lying flat on their
sides. The trusses are what define this bridge as Burr-arch. They include the 103
foot radius arch itself, the posts and their diagonal braces, and the top and bottom
chords, which form the top and bottom edges of each truss. The chords themselves have
a slight arch or "camber" built into them, as the bridge is humpbacked. This prevents
sagging as well as giving a picturesque appearance. After completion of the trusses,
the sides were lifted up and the floor and roof were added. The sides of the bridge
were clad with clear acrylic panels so the framework is visible to motorists passing
below and the interior is open and bright. The completed bridge weighed nearly a
quarter of a million pounds and was rolled across a temporary framework into its
The total cost for the Old Salem Timber Pedestrian Bridge, which was completed in
December 1998, was $1,950,910. FHWA enhancement funding contributed 80%, or
$1,560,728, and the state provided the 20% match, or $390,182.
The end result is a bridge with a feel of history, an object of art, and a significant
landmark within the community. The bridge revives traditional timber framing and
bridge building as it was applied to the construction of covered bridges in North
America during the first half of the 19th century. The project required the
application of modern timber engineering to the design and construction of a
cultural heritage structure.