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The Life and Legacy of Lemuel Chenoweth
June 11, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
Bridge builder Lemuel Chenoweth was born June 25, 1811 near Beverly in Randolph County, Virginia. Just two days shy of his 25th birthday, he married Nancy Ann Hart, the great-granddaughter of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Chenoweth built churches, houses, sideboards, poster beds, buggies, wagons, a model of a reverse-cutting sawmill, and even dominoes. However, Chenoweth obtained his greatest recognition for building covered bridges in western Virginia.
When bids were being received in the 1840s for the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike bridges, Chenoweth constructed a model of a covered bridge. Legend has it that the backcountry carpenter arrived at the state capital in Richmond with his bridge model packed in his saddlebags. His plain design attracted little attention until he placed his model between two chairs, stood on it, and challenged the other bidders to put their models to the same test. The story has been disputed, but the contract was awarded to Chenoweth to build all the main river crossings for the center section of the new turnpike.
In 1850, after Chenoweth had completed many bridges on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, bids were taken for bridges on the Beverly-Fairmont Turnpike which had been authorized in 1848. One of the two bridges was to cross the Tygart River at Philippi and the other to cross the West Fork River at Hunsaker’s Ferry near Fairmont. He received the contracts for both bridges.
His many bridges included the earliest covered bridge at Beverly (1846-47), the famous Philippi covered bridge (1852), and the Barrackville covered bridge on the Fairmont-Wheeling Turnpike (1853). His Beverly bridge was badly damaged by burning by Confederate General Rosser’s forces on January 11, 1865, but Chenoweth rebuilt it in 1872-73.
Chenoweth’s major bridges all employed the Burr arch-truss structural design. This framing system, developed by Theodore Burr, improved bridge strength dramatically. Simple truss framing used triangular bracing to stiffen the structure. Burr’s design integrated an arch into the truss framework, increasing strength and rigidity for longer spans.
Chenoweth also built his home, a “pleasant little homestead on the rippling Tygarts” in 1856, overlooking the Beverly covered bridge he built in 1847. The post and beam house demonstrates the ability of a master carpenter, and many unique design and stress features incorporated in the construction reflect his occupation as a self-educated architect and builder of covered bridges.
During the Civil War, Federal soldiers were billeted in the house. A Union picket post on the house lot guarded the bridge. Two of Lemuel’s sons fought for the Confederacy – one was killed, the other was captured near the end of the war.
Chenoweth died at his home in Beverly and is buried in the nearby Beverly cemetery.
His home still stands today, thanks to curator Randy Allan, and is also a museum. Items on display in the museum include both Indian and Civil War artifacts found during the restoration of the house. A newly constructed scale model of the 1847 Beverly covered bridge demonstrates the construction techniques used in this bridge, which set the standard of quality for turnpike bridges that followed. Also see a working scale model of an up-and-down, two-way, futuristic sawmill Lemuel designed that shows the genius of this superb craftsman.
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Beverly covered bridge, built by Lemuel Chenoweth. Photo courtesty of Beverly Heritage Center.