Wolf Covered Bridge
Located about three miles
east of Gilson, IL
Watch for the sign on Rt. 97
In 1831, the State of Illinois granted Knox County $200 to build a bridge across the Spoon River. However, some research indicates that construction may not have begun until 1848.
The original bridge was built by Jacob Wolf. The bridge originally was just a wooden deck. Jacob Wolf was a prominent cattle rancher and owner of over 1,000 acres of Knox County pasture land. He would routinely drive nearly 500 head of his cattle across the bridge to graze his lands.
Horsemen and ranchers like Wolf knew that most livestock were timid about crossing open-aired bridges. Any sudden movement or glimmer might start a stampede. Because the darkened bridge resembled an open barn door, cattle crossed it willingly and with little hesitation. Horses were also unpredictable.
James Burkhalter, a civil War Captain who later settled in Galesburg, built the enclosure a year after the flood of 1873. The enclosure consisted of swinging end doors. Burkhalter knew that enclosing an open bridge would preserve the wood from rot and reinforce the structure. The covering also provided welcome shelter to anyone who crossed over it and probably tripled its lifespan.
The original bridge 234 feet long, 11 feet wide and spanned 102 feet. Compared to other bridges of the time it was quite long. A favorite game played by children was to try to hold their breath while crossing over it. Also, the usual graffiti and personal carvings adorned the overhead planks, side beams and inside walls, giving the bridge a hallowed, historic and personal touch. Even a prankster’s painting on the outside wall was a pleasure to view, keeping many people amused in trying to figure out how the painting was done.
All are only memories now that the original structure is gone. On August 1st, 1994 the bridge was destroyed by fire. When firefighters arrived, all that remained of the bridge were the approaches. It had apparently been burning all night, but the call did not come in until 8:05 a.m. A witness reported seeing a glow in the sky at 3 a.m. but nothing was reported at that time. Three teenage boys were arrested for arson. They allegedly confessed to investigators they were high on blotter acid, a form of LSD, and present when papers were set on fire inside the bridge. After a lengthy trial, the juveniles were found guilty on lesser charges and placed on probation. All were under-age at the time of the fire.
Many have tried to capture the essence of the original structure in drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc. to preserve the history of the bridge.
Thankfully a few zealous residents made a push to rebuild the old bridge. The State once again assisted with more funds to remake the bridge, the new bridge is wider and taller for the modern vehicle.
The replica bridge was created by master craftsmen, using new materials and traditional skills. At the time of the rebuild heat sensors were installed as a high tech fire prevention system, insuring the bridge’s continued existence. The replica was said to cost around $900,000 was completed in 1999.
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant structure relating to transportation.