Explorers first discovering the beautiful but rugged terrain of what would become West Virginia and later settlers attempting to wrest a homestead from scarce bottomland beneath its towering mountains found that nearly every narrow valley included a stream and that wide passageways were usually home to major rivers.
While something as simple as a felled tree might serve as a crude footbridge and a birch bark canoe or raft might transport their meager belongings, the pioneers of early America’s great westward expansion soon realized the need for a more permanent travel way and its value in providing connection between settlements.
Perhaps nowhere else is this “connection” more important than in West Virginia. Despite its relatively small size, the Mountain State of mid-2005 is home to approximately 3,100 cities, towns and small communities. To link them (and to provide an important part of the transport of the state’s abundant natural resources), there are some 36,000 miles of state-maintained highways that include 6,636 bridges (this figure does not include 238 railroad bridges, 117 city and county bridges, 99 West Virginia Turnpike bridges, 20 state park bridges, two private toll bridges and 132 other non-highway bridges). One could easily say West Virginia is the land of bridges.
According to statistics published semiannually by West Virginia Division of Highways’ (WVDOH) Maintenance Division, nearly 3,000 bridges (45 percent) are 20 to 50 feet in length, with 1,513 (nearly 23 percent) from 51 to 100 feet long. Longer and longer structures are fewer and fewer in number, with those from 501 to 1000 feet in length totaling 147, those from 1,001 to 2000 feet totaling 74, those from 2,001 to 3000 feet only 17 and those whose length is greater than 3000 feet just four.
Only 50 of West Virginia’s bridges were built before 1900 and only 354 in the following two decades. The majority, nearly 3,990 (60 percent) were built between 1960 and 1999. Of nearly 50 types of bridges listed, the greatest number are steel stringer (2,411) and pre-cast concrete box beam (1,532), with only 82 constructed of timber.