If you live in New England, you probably already know that Conway serves as a gateway to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. From summer through autumn, this town of 10,000 residents experiences a huge influx of visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the mountains.
In 1765, Colonial Governor Benning Wenthworth chartered sixty-five men to establish “Conway”, so named after the Commander in Chief of the British Army, Henry Seymour Conway.
This area was once home to the Pequawket Indians, an Algoquian Abenaki tribe. They fished, hunted, and lived in wigwams along the Saco River. Sadly, the tribe shrunk in size to diseases like smallpox brought over from Europe. And, the rest of the tribe left the area after engaging in nasty skirmishes with colonial settlers.
Popular attractions around Conway include Echo Lake State Park, Cathedral Ledge (summit overlooking the White Mountains), Diana’s Baths (series of small waterfalls), the Conway Scenic Railroad (with trains departing from a Victorian station), and the famous Kancamagus Highway (among the most scenic in the country).
SWIFT RIVER BRIDGE
There are two covered bridges in Conway. The Saco River Covered Bridge is visible from Main Street, while the Swift River Covered Bridge lies a mere quarter mile upriver on a tributary of the Saco River (i.e. the Swift River). Both covered bridges are landmarks from the 19th century, with classic trusses and arches.
The first Swift River Covered Bridge was built in 1850, providing much needed access to north-bound commercial traffic until 1869. But, heavy rains swelled the river, causing the raging waters to rip the bridge off its foundation and sending it rapidly downstream to crash into the Saco River Covered Bridge. Both bridges were sent careening downriver, coming to rest some two miles from their original moorings.
In frugal New England fashion, much of the lumber from the two covered bridges was salvaged and reused in the construction of the new and present Swift River Covered Bridge built in 1870.
BEST TIME TO PHOTOGRAPH
You can shoot the Swift River Covered Bridge at any time of year, but it tends to be more photogenic in autumn and winter. The bridge sits amidst deciduous trees that, in autumn, cast their vibrant colors on the river surface. And in winter, the red bridge contrasts beautifully with freshly-fallen snow. If you happen to come on a brisk winter morn when temperatures are below zero (Fahrenheit), you’ll be rewarded with river fog to boot.
One of the challenges of coming here in autumn is that one side of the river is in shadow around sunrise and sunset times. For this reason, bright overcast skies can be ideal conditions for soft and even light on both sides of the bridge. On sunny days, come around the midday hours to ensure that both sides of the river are sunlit.
On a snowy winter day, I find that the best time to photograph the bridge is just after sunrise when the face of the bridge is well lit but the overly-bright snow along the river and shore is not yet lit.
From Main Street (NH 113) in the center of Conway, head north onto Washington Street for about a quarter mile. When you reach the fork in the road (near the Saco River Covered Bridge), take a slight left onto West Side Road for another quarter mile. In season, you can leave your vehicle in a small parking area (it accommodates 3-4 cars) adjacent to the covered bridge. However, the parking area is not plowed in winter, so if you come in snowy conditions, you’ll need to find a safe place elsewhere to leave your vehicle.
The best vantage points to photograph the bridge are down along the Swift River, so the usual precautions are advised. I always wear waterproof boots in case I decide to step in water for a better composition. But be vigilant if you choose to do the same as the Swift River can run hard after heavy rainfall. In addition, the river is chock full of slippery rocks and boulders as well as decomposing branches large and small.
In order to reach river’s edge, you’ll need to descend a steep embankment, so exercise extreme caution to avoid falling as you make your way down over rocks, tree roots, and branches. The trek is rendered even more treacherous in winter when snow hides these potential pitfalls, making every step a risky business.
Covered bridges are an integral part of our New England heritage. I encourage you to explore, photograph and enjoy these historic structures from our colorful past.