HARTLAND, N.B. - There's something attractive, even romantic, about a covered bridge.
It's a piece of history and a flashback to simpler times, when people travelled by horse-drawn carriages and sleighs.
"There's a warm feeling you get on a covered bridge," said Doris Kennedy, a bit of an expert on the best-known in New Brunswick, the Hartland bridge.
"I don't understand it but everyone says the same thing. It's just amazing. It's nostalgia."
The province of New Brunswick is known for its many covered bridges but the Hartland is at the top of the list, not surprising perhaps since, at 391 metres, it's also recognized as the longest in the world.
Every year, thousands of people visit this small town near the Canada-United States border in western New Brunswick to take pictures of the bridge and to walk or drive across the span.
"There were 384 buses in town this summer, with tourists coming in from all over the world to see the bridge," said Mayor Wayne Britton. "There were over 51,000 people into the tourist bureau and signed the guest book and got a certificate from the bridge."
That's something for a community with a population of fewer than one thousand.
While the town is home to the offices of large businesses such as McCain Foods and Day and Ross, it is probably best known for the bridge.
"Oh it is," said Britton. "You can be in Toronto and if someone asks where you're from and you say Hartland, New Brunswick, people will say 'Oh, you're from there the bridge is.' "
Construction of the wooden bridge began in 1898 out of necessity. Farmers on the Somerville side of the St. John River needed ready access to the Hartland side, where stores and the recently built rail line were located.
Crossing the river meant using ferries in the summer months, ice roads in the winter or travelling up or down river to use other bridges. Bad roads meant a long and difficult journey.
So a local group sold bonds and raised the money to build the original uncovered bridge, which officially opened July 4, 1901. The cost: $29,421.
"After it was built, it was a toll bridge to help pay for repairs," said Kennedy, who co-wrote a book on the bridge, and operates the Covered Bridge Bed and Breakfast, which overlooks it from the Somerville side of the river.
The toll was three cents per person or head of cattle and a half cent per sheep. The province took over the bridge in 1906 and did away with the toll.
But the weather also took its toll on the bridge, causing some of it to rot. Then a flood and ice movement on the river in 1920 took out two sections.
"Residents wanted the bridge rebuilt with steel but steel was too expensive, so they just rebuilt the sections with wood," Kennedy said. "The decision was made then to cover it, to protect it from the weather."
"The townspeople were horrified that they were going to cover it because it made such a long tunnel," she said. "They were expecting the worst of young boys taking young ladies across the bridge."
In fact, the bridge gained a reputation as a kissing bridge.
"There used to be a speed limit on the bridge," said Britton. "It meant you couldn't walk your horse any faster than a walk so, consequently, if you're out with your girlfriend in 1914 and you're going across the longest covered bridge in the world and you're horse is not going any faster than a walk, there's a kiss or two in the 1,282 feet."
It is also known as a wishing bridge. Local folklore says when you enter the bridge, you make a wish, close your eyes, cross your fingers and hold your breath and your wish will come true.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the bridge has seen its share of marriage proposals and wedding ceremonies.
The Olympic torch was carried through the bridge in 1987. It has been featured on many postcards and in 1995 Canada Post issued a stamp to honour the bridge.
There are a number of places on both sides of the river for taking pictures and to get a good view of the bridge, but Kennedy says the best way to experience the Hartland bridge is to walk across it.
"There just something about it when you walk through," she said. "It takes you back to your roots."
If you go . . .
Getting there: Hartland is about 120 kilometres west of Fredericton, N.B.
Accommodations: There is a motel and a bed and breakfast near the bridge and more places to stay in nearby Woodstock, N.B..
You can drive across the bridge but it is narrow so traffic is one-way, alternating from each direction.
For more in formation: town.hartland.nb.ca and tourismnewbrunswick.ca