Mercury News


When I first told my friends I was going to spend my vacation touring covered bridges in Oregon, I was greeted with blank stares and polite comments like ``Well, isn't that . . . interesting?''

I guess I can't blame them for their lack of enthusiasm. To many people nowadays -- especially Californians -- covered bridges, like horses and buggies, dirt roads and Model T's, seem distant and removed from modern life. But that's precisely why these wooden spans are so fascinating.

During their heyday -- 1910 to 1930 -- there were more than 800 covered bridges sprinkled throughout the West. Today, their numbers have dwindled to a precious few, bypassed by modern highways and steel bridges. Most of the surviving covered bridges are in Oregon, where motorists can drive across their wooden floor planks and marvel at their simple, but deceptively strong construction.

Of Oregon's remaining 49 standing covered bridges, the majority are centrally located within 50 miles of Eugene, the state's second largest city. (In California, fewer than a dozen of the wooden bridges remain, scattered along country roads from Santa Cruz to Humboldt counties. Most are in poor condition and closed to through traffic.)

Built in 1914, Driftcreek Bridge is the oldest covered bridge in Oregon. It is about two miles south of Lincoln City on Highway 101.

In the heart of the Willamette Valley midway between the Cascade mountains and the Oregon coast, Eugene and its neighboring city Springfield are easily reached via Interstate 5 and offer travelers a variety of lodging accommodations and recreational activities. About 30 covered bridges are still standing in Lane, Linn and Benton counties, all an easy drive from the Eugene area.

My itinerary came from a detailed guide published by the Covered Bridge Society of Oregon, a volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of covered bridges. It lists all of the state's remaining housed wooden spans and their locations.

On my first day, I drove west from Eugene along old Highway 99 through rolling farmlands and grassy valleys toward Benton County.
The highway is lightly traveled during the week so motorists can take their time to enjoy the scenery. Fields of corn, wheat, vegetables and even an occasional Christmas tree farm dot the countryside.

Bridge goes to college
According to the brochure, Benton County is home to three covered bridges, Irish Bend, Harris and Hayden. However, Covered Bridge Society president Sharon Evans says volunteers removed the Irish Bend bridge earlier this year and are rebuilding it on the Oregon State University campus at Corvallis, 18 miles north. Evans says the volunteers hope to finish restoring and rebuilding the bridge by next summer.

The 75-foot Harris bridge was built in 1936 over the Mary's River on Harris Road about 2 1/2 miles southwest of Wren, a small logging town west of Corvallis on Highway 20.

With its gently curved portal, high open window slats and horizontal wooden planks, the Harris bridge is typical of many covered bridges of its era: functional but not dramatic. Motorists can drive across the bridge and hear the rhythmic thump thump of their tires rolling across the wooden planks.

The Hayden bridge is on the western outskirts of Alsea on Highway 34. Essentially a twin of the Harris Bridge, the 91- foot span was built in 1918 and rebuilt in 1945 to cross the Alsea River. Today it has been bypassed, but visitors can still drive to the bridge and park alongside it and walk across.

Like most Oregon bridges, the Harris and Hayden spans were built using the economical, but effective, Howe construction method of placing support beams at angles resembling a series of ``boxed X's' between the bridge's upper and lower chords. With the addition of iron rods equipped with nuts and turnbuckles, the truss members can be adjusted if they get out of kilter or loosened by heavy loads such as logging trucks.

Protective covers
One of the first questions most people ask about the bridges is ``Why are they covered?'' The first western bridges were built by transplanted Easterners who flocked to the Pacific coast in search of gold in 1849. Built mostly from Douglas Fir, the bridges were housed partly because of the builder's habit or experience, but mainly because covered spans were the best way to protect the wooden planks and support trusses from rain, moisture and the drying effects of the sun.

Part of my fascination with covered bridges is their colorful history, which, like the Wild West, is one of excitement and drama. Following the Gold Rush of 1849, dozens of privately owned bridges popped up seemingly overnight in sleepy cities and towns near the gold-rich mountains and streams of California, Oregon and Washington. In the span of just six years, these so-called ``boxed bridges' numbered more than 400 throughout the West.

Although most bridge owners were respected businessmen, some even accepting a pinch of gold dust as payment, others were not so accommodating. Toll collectors at the end of some overland trails were known to gouge weary immigrants of the last of their funds before letting them cross the bridge.

The bridges also were tempting places for robbers and ``gold snatchers.'' Because traffic was forced to funnel through the bridges, robbers were known to lie in wait on the approaches for unsuspecting prospectors returning after a long day digging for gold. According to Oregon legend, if anyone has to walk alone across a covered bridge at dusk, he should whistle loudly to scare off would-be attackers.

My second day began with a stop at the Hoffman Bridge in Linn County. Situated in the foothills of the northern Cascades, the bridge is three miles from the farming town of Crabtree on Hungry Hill Road. Built in 1936, the 90-foot bridge spans Crabtree Creek and is open to automobile traffic.

Like many other bridges, its original wooden floor planks have been replaced by an asphalt roadway and its shingled roof replaced by tin. But, unlike other bridges I saw, its original wooden abutments -- supported by several large boulders -- are still intact.

Bridges with a difference
Built in 1927, and rebuilt in the mid-1960s because Linn County didn't have enough money in its budget to build a new concrete bridge, the Shamanek bridge is two miles from Scio. At 130 feet, the Shamanek is one of the longer covered spans in Oregon. It's also one of the prettiest. In contrast to most covered bridges which are painted white to blend in with the scenery, the Shamanek is painted bright red with white trim and is visible for miles around.

Spanning Thomas Creek, the Shamanek boasts six large daylighting windows with horizontal wooden slats on each side. Inside, the ceiling, walls, trusses and iron support rods are all painted white making it easy to see the Howe construction framework. Although the bridge's wooden planks have been replaced by an asphalt roadway, its shingled roof remains.

After driving across the span, I turned right onto Shamanek Bridge Drive which intersects with Highway 226. The next bridge, Hannah, is about three miles east at Camp Morrison Drive. With its wide open walls and exposed beams, the 105-foot Hannah bridge looks dramatically different from many other covered bridges I saw.

Built in 1936 to span Thomas Creek, the bridge has no walls. Its shingled roof is supported only by the tell-tale Howe diagonal support beams and `` boxed X' framework that is clearly visible from the creekbed. Returning to the highway, I drove back to Richardson's Gap Road, turned left and drove about three miles to Larwood Drive.

The Larwood Bridge, spanning Crabtree Creek is located on Larwood Drive at Fish Hatchery Drive and Meridian Road. Built in 1939, the Larwood is almost identical to the Hannah right down to its 105-foot length. But unlike its nearby twin, the Larwood is the centerpiece of a large county park, Larwood Wayside. The park is maintained by the Linn County Parks Commission and includes picnic and swimming areas, restrooms and fishing possibilities. Admission is free.

After relaxing at the park, I was ready to hit the road again. The next pair of bridges on my tour, Short and Crawfordsville would take me through eastern Linn county and into the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

Recreation, too
Short Bridge, about 13 miles past Sweet Home is reached by driving east on Highway 20 which closely follows the South Santiam River. With a population of nearly 7,000, Sweet Home is a gateway to the South Santiam Canyon and Cascade recreation areas. The city is built over an ancient prehistoric forest and offers good digging spots to rock hounds and others searching for petrified wood. There also are lots of recreational possibilities at nearby Foster Lake and Dam including boating, water skiing, camping and swimming.

The 105-foot Crawfordsville Bridge in Linn County is eight miles south of Brownsville on Highway 228. It has served as a backdrop in numerous Hollywood movies.

The 105-foot Crawfordsville bridge is 10 miles southwest of Sweet Home on Highway 228. The scenic drive snakes through lush green meadows and rolling hills as it follows the Calapooya River toward the sleepy town of Crawfordsville. Built in 1932 on the western edge of town, the bridge was bypassed in 1963, but remains as a roadside reminder of simpler times. Its shingled roof and wooden floorboards are still intact.

Built in 1945 over the south fork of the Santiam River, the 105-foot Short Bridge is on the High Deck Road turnoff from the highway. The bridge still has its original wooden planks and shingled roof and is open to automobile traffic. It serves a small county park and several private homes.
Leaving early the next morning from Eugene, I took Highway 126 east into the McKenzie River Valley which offers visitors year-round recreational activities including fishing, whitewater rafting, golf and camping.

Goodpasture Bridge spans the McKenzie River in eastern Lane County. At 165 feet, it is Oregon's longest covered bridge still in daily use.
Goodpasture covered bridge crosses the McKenzie River about 12 miles east of Walterville at Goodpasture Road. Built by Lane County in 1938, the 165-foot bridge, with 10 slatted cathedral windows on each side is one of prettiest and most graceful bridges in Oregon. Its wooden floor planks are intact as is its shingled roof and gently curved portal, still used by logging trucks. Although aesthetically pleasing, the windows were built as a safety feature to allow light into the long structure so drivers could see oncoming traffic.

The last leg of my three-day tour took me to Cottage Grove, about 40 miles north of Roseberg near Interstate 5. A lively city with nearly 8,000 residents, Cottage Grove is built alongside the Coast Fork of the Willamette River near the Row River. With five covered bridges within a 20-mile radius, city officials proudly proclaim Cottage Grove as the ``Covered Bridge Capitol of Oregon.''

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News.

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