Free, rustic and available, Artist’s Covered Bridge has become mecca for newlyweds.
Covered bridges have always carried a mystical, magical allure for me as a photographer and as an artist who paints and draws them in a variety of different settings.
I have photographed several weddings in my photography career, but I had never seen a wedding on a covered bridge — until Oct. 11, when I stopped by the famous Artist’s Covered Bridge — also known as the Sunday River Bridge — in Newry.
There, a professional photographer was taking pictures of Patrick and Sherri Delaney of Auburn following their wedding ceremony.
The Delaneys told me they chose the bridge, which is closed to vehicular traffic, because they liked the autumn foliage colors along the Sunday River, which the bridge spans.
“And we had a picnic here during the summer and loved it and thought it would be a nice place,” Sherri said.
Since then, I’ve learned that many people across the country — and the world — are calling the Newry Town Office to book a time slot on either Saturday or Sunday for their weddings. September 2015 is already nearly filled up, Deputy Clerk Kelly Scott said.
From May to Oct. 14 of this year, Scott said, they had 26 bookings for weddings on the scenic bridge. “A rough estimate of weddings that were on our calendars 2009 to October 2014 is 160,” she said.
Some organizations, including the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, are helping the trend by promoting the bridge as a wedding venue.
“We send a lot of people there,” said Cathy Howe, the Chamber’s tourist information person.
“We know it’s a very popular place,” added Jessie Perkins, the Chamber’s events and marketing director. She said they get a lot of calls seeking unique wedding venues in the area, and tell callers to contact Newry Town Office about the bridge, which is one of only seven covered bridges in the state.
In the Chamber’s lobby is a large photo taken by professional photographer Carol Savage of Bethel of a bride and groom standing in the middle of the Sunday River with the Artist’s Covered Bridge in the background. The chamber also has a multi-page handout on Maine’s covered bridges and how to find them. The Newry bridge has its own page.
“It’s certainly a unique wedding destination,” Howe said. “You can’t do weddings on the Andover Covered Bridge over Ellis River, because people drive over it, but they can’t drive over the Newry bridge.”
Beautiful, free and very busy
The Artist’s Covered Bridge is an 87-foot-long Paddleford truss span that was built in 1872. It was closed to traffic in 1958 when a new bridge was built downstream on Sunday River Road. The covered bridge is about 4 miles off Route 2.
The Rev. Ellie Andrews of Bethel, who is a wedding officiant in the Sunday River Valley area, said that since 1998 she’s done about 700 weddings in Maine and New Hampshire.
“I probably do 10 a year at the bridge,” Andrews said. “It’s become more popular. Of course, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places website and it’s free, so it’s a really great place for people to be.”
“The girls at the town office do an amazing job timing out the weddings,” she said. Her wedding ceremonies — excluding the walking in and walking out — last 15 to 20 minutes. So half an hour for a wedding.
“I mean (the town office has) it down to a science,” Andrews said. “I know it (the bridge’s popularity as a wedding spot) has gotten to be an issue. Years past — and it really shows — I have literally stood in the middle of the bridge and said goodbye to one bride and groom and hello to another.”
If they know they’re abutting one another for time slots, many brides and grooms will converse and share costs of chairs and decorations. “It works out pretty cool,” Andrews said.
Some weddings are very simple, involving just the couple and a wedding officiant holding the ceremony within the beauty of the bridge. Other weddings involve elaborate decorations, tables, chairs, food, lighting and more, filling the bridge.
Howe, with the Chamber, thinks couples choose the bridge for its weathered, rustic New England look.
“There is a mindset now for turning old, old barns into wedding sites; shabby chic,” Howe said.
Brad Jerome, the sales and marketing director for The Bethel Inn Resort and Country Club, said they do a lot of weddings, especially on the resort’s golf course. But they also send people to the Newry bridge.
“I think people love that rustic feel and the riverside and being outdoors particularly,” Jerome said. “We’re seeing a trend for folks looking for that uniqueness. It’s something that sets Bethel apart from the ordinary.”
Not all bridge bliss
But the public nature of the bridge means that booking a time slot at the town office for a wedding is no guarantee the bridge will be available, which can lead to some early matrimonial challenges.
Newry officials only book time slots as a courtesy. They tell couples this upfront and give them a copy of the bridge’s rules of use, according to Scott, the town’s deputy clerk. “There’s no reserving days. We just give notice here at the town office that says someone will be there at such and such time.”
“Sometimes it can get a little sticky for us,” Scott said. “That’s why we give them a disclaimer that we can’t control if a keg party or a school field trip is going on that day, because it’s a public place. I had a bride e-mail me that she wanted two hours for rehearsal and she wanted it in writing that the bridge was reserved that day and I wouldn’t do it. I told her to keep in mind that it is a public place.”
The disclaimer given to wedding couples formulated by Newry selectmen is aimed at reducing the potential for conflicts between wedding parties and other scheduled and unscheduled public gatherings on or near the bridge.
Part of the disclaimer reads: “In the past, the calendar entries (for use of the bridge) have ranged from duck races to road rallies to weddings. However, entry on the calendar does not guarantee exclusive use, but merely serves notice to anyone who inquires at the office that events are planned. Others may well use the bridge for picnics, bus tours, swimming, photos, etc., without consulting the calendar and are certainly welcome to do so.”
Andrews, the wedding officiant, remembers arriving early one day to perform a wedding on the bridge. “Riders with a whole bunch of Harleys were there just enjoying the scenery or whatever, and I can’t, you can’t, nobody can, tell people to leave because you’re having a wedding on (the bridge), because it’s public,” Andrews said.
“So I just went to them and I had my (officiating) gown on so they knew I was serious about it, and I said, ‘In half an hour, we’re going to have a wedding here that I would love to have you stay for. It’s going to be really pretty, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t leave during the ceremony.’ And they said, ‘No problem at all,’ hopped on their bikes and left.”
Andrews added, “People go by and they toot (their horns), because they think it’s funny. . . . It’s public — what else are you going to do? But most people are very respectful.”
She remembered doing two weddings at the bridge on Oct. 11 and 12, and people who were there to enjoy the scenery and photograph the bridge just watched the weddings from afar.
“They get a little more bang for their buck than what they thought they were going to get, which is a memory for them,” Andrews said.
‘It’s magical. It’s perfect.’
It’s apparent from the bridge’s growing popularity as a wedding site that the anything-can-happen public nature of the bridge is no deterrent.
One of the bridge’s obvious pluses is that it is open to the outdoors but still sheltered.
“The bridge is . . . the perfect spot no matter what the weather is. I’ve had it pouring rain where we had to stop because nobody could hear. It can be blistering hot. The wind could be blowing,” said Andrews.
“You don’t need Plan B with the bridge,” she said. “It’s right there. It’s magical. It’s perfect.”
Almost perfect. Another year, she married a couple on the bridge on Valentine’s Day. The day before, the boyfriend surprised his girlfriend atop a ski trail at Sunday River by asking her to marry him. She said yes, and they had the ceremony the next day.
“That was fun, but oh my God wasn’t it cold,” Andrews said.
I asked Andrews if any of the people she had married on the bridge had chosen it for symbolic reasons, such as covered bridges being engineered to withstand the ravages of time, much like we hope our marriages are.
“God, no. Hell no,” she said.
But, Andrews said, she encourages brides and grooms who are having pictures taken to get at least one picture taken at the end of the bridge, which displays the date when the bridge was built.
“If it stood the test of time, then you should, too,” Andrews said she tells people she marries on the bridge. “The only thing they’ve ever done to the bridge is replace the roof. Other than that, it’s original.”