(image from Erie Yesterday)
The Gudgeonville Covered Bridge doesn't look like much now, lopsided, vandalized, and covered in graffiti. But it's got a grand history behind it. It was built across Elk Creek in 1868, supposedly on the foundations of the old Erie Extension Canal. After a fire, it was rebuilt in the 1870s, and still stands just south of Girard.
There are several tales connected to the bridge. One, dating back to 1900, says that you can sometimes hear the sound of thundering hooves approaching and then crossing the planks of the bridge. A black stallion with fiery red eyes appears speeding a horseman across the span. Hopefully the steed knows where it's going – its' rider is headless!
Another story involves a young girl that fell to her death sometime in the 1940s or 50s while playing on the white shale cliffs (known locally as the Devil's Backbone) nearby the bridge. She's alleged to walk the bridge on moonless nights and the anniversary of her death. Sometimes you can watch her reliving the plunge to her fate from the cliffs.
But the Gudgeonville legend is based on a poor mule that wouldn't cross the bridge. In the mid 1800s, a man named Obadiah Will of Kentucky was delivering a mule to a man in Meadville. As he was crossing the bridge, a couple of barges carrying Dan Rice's Circus from Girard were floating down the creek, a calliope tooting away on one of them. At this point, different versions pop up.
One says that when the music reached the mule's ears, it literally frightened the creature to death. It dropped dead of a heart attack right where it stood. The mule's name was Gudgeon.
In another twist on the tale, the mule froze when it heard the music and in true jackass style, it refused to budge off of the bridge. In frustration, Will either found a hefty stick and beat Gudgeon to death, or grabbed a wagon part known as a gudgeon and hit the nameless mule with the same end result. (Some spoilsports think the name came about because the small fish in the creek were locally known as gudgeons, but we'll ignore them.) In a final bit of irony, the calliope was supposed to be playing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Anyway, the mule was buried on the west bank of the creek, and Will had “Gudgeonville” (which doesn't exist as a town) painted on both entrances to the bridge in remembrance of the frightened mule that wouldn't cross the dang bridge. He also sued the circus with unknown results. Apparently Dan Rice, the circus owner and a fairly famous entertainer of the era, felt badly enough to write up the tale in the form of an eulogy. (We ran across several references to it, but can't find the eulogy itself.)
The mule's spirit never did leave the bridge. It's said you can still hear its' steady hoofbeat and braying on some nights.