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Powder Works Covered Bridge

Many think of New England as being associated with covered bridges. I certainly saw many during my fall trip when I was in New Hampshire. But there has been a west coast covered bridge in my life for as long as I can remember.

This is the Powder Works Covered Bridge, which was built in 1872. This bridge was built across the San Lorenzo River (the largest river in Santa Cruz County). The bridge was built by the California Powder Works in the site of the plant that produced black power. The plant operated for 50 years but as the population of Santa Cruz increased combined by the decreasing need for black powder the plant was closed down for good in 1914.

When the original bridge over the river washed out in 1871, the Powder Works Superintendent hired the Pacific Bridge Company (in Oakland) to build a new covered bridge. The bridge was constructed in 71 days, at a cost of $5,250.

Above the fireplace of my family cabin, hangs a 1960 oil painting by my great aunt Marjorie Close. This is probably one of the best paintings ever done of the Powder Works Covered Bridge. And I’ve always looked at it with wonder what it’s amazing thick strokes applied with a pallet knife.

My grand aunt was born in a mining town in Arizona on November 11, 1899. She moved to San Francisco and was trained as an artist at UC Berkley and the Art Institute of Chicago. She was known for her still life work as well as a prominent jeweler and furniture designer.

I have painted this bridge before. One sketch of the bridge was from roughly the same position as my great aunt’s painting. For my new sketch, I wanted a different perspective.

A 2013 sketch of the bridge. I used a limited monotoned color palette for this sketch.

I headed upstream to Rocky Beach, just upriver from the bridge. I found a spot on the beach and I looked downstream to the span. There was lot of trees and vegetation in my view. I did not go for realism when sketching in the flora, instead I wanted to sketch in the form and shapes that leads the eyes downstream to the bridge. So I embraced the form instead of each individual leaf.

I also took a minimalist approach to painting the sketch and keeping it loose was my objective. I left much of the drawing unpainted and I kept my paint palette to a few colors. It is a sketch after all!

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Covered Bridges of California

There are about 12 covered bridges in California. And like much else such as the coast redwood, giant sequoia, bristlecone pine, and Mount Whitney, these bridges contain a superlative. Now as I teach my fourth graders, a superlative contains “est”as a suffix, and shows that something is without comparison. Such as tallest, largest, oldest tree or the tallest mountain in the lower 48.

California contains the longest single span covered bridge in the United States. The Bridgeport Covered Bridge spans 229 feet across the South Yuba River.

Brigdeport Covered Bridge

I set up my camp chair on Family Beach and using the waters of the chilly South Yuba River, I painted the span. The beach was lacking families on this December morning and an American dipper kept me company as this amazing aquatic songbird dove in the wintery rapids of the river as if it were a summer’s day. The dipper provided entertain while I waited for my washes to dry. I even included Muir’s favorite bird in the sketch.

I have been familiar covered bridges from an early age. The covered bridge in Paradise  Park (featured image), near Santa Cruz, has been the only way to cross the San Lorenzo River without getting wet. This bridge was originally built for the California Power Works which formerly occupied the site. The 180 foot span was built in 1872. Unlike the Bridgeport bridge, this bridge is open to foot and automobile traffic making it a bridge in continual use for 143 years.