Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lane County Covered Bridges

Interior of the Chambers Railroad covered bridge (all photos by me)

Cottage Grove hosted its 11th Oregon Covered Bridges Festival this past October 5th. Among the event's many family-friendly activities, the festival included guided tours of the vicinity's impressive collection of historic covered bridges; however, my wife and I chose to go it on our own and undertake a self-guided tour.

We were blessed with a picture-perfect October day. The weather was unseasonably warm, the sky clear and bright. The colors of the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn. It was an absolutely perfect day for a drive in the countryside. 

I was surprised to learn Oregon was once home to over 600 covered bridges. Today, only 50 or so remain (20 of which are found in Lane County); regardless, this number remains among the greatest of any state in the union. The following excerpt from Style & Vernacular: The Architecture of Lane County, Oregon provides an brief accounting of their importance in our local history: 

“Covered bridges had been a tradition in New England and Europe long before settlers arrived in Oregon to find a land thoroughly laced with rivers and streams. Dissatisfaction with the early ferries and their onerous tolls led to the first wooden bridges. In spite of tradition, the first bridges were rarely covered and their unprotected frames soon deteriorated in the wet climate of the Northwest. So it was for purely practical reasons—and not out of any sense of the picturesque—that the builders of the mid-nineteenth century began to enclose the structure of their bridges, extending their life from less than 10 years to nearly 40, barring destructive floods. 

“But picturesque they are . . . Most are later-generation bridges built from modern structural designs that, in many cases, replaced earlier bridges whose designs relied more on intuition, native genius and good luck, which were eventually lost to age or flood. The surviving bridges range in age from the Mosby Bridge, built near Cottage Grove in 1920, to the Belknap Bridge near Blue River, built in 1966. 

“Perhaps no structures preserve the image of the past as much as these wonderful “airborne barns,” and when they are replaced by more practical concrete spans, that image will disappear with them. It is a matter that goes beyond nostalgia since these bridges gave form to the social, economic, and religious life of the early communities and, in fact, were vital to their very existence.” 

During our tour, we visited six different covered bridges. While each is unique, all share features characteristic of the type: muscular timbers assembled as Howe trusses; plank siding, most often painted white; shake-clad pitched roofs. Some are reconstructions, facsimiles of previous spans that could not otherwise be preserved. Regardless, authentic or not, their absolute lack of pretense is what I find most appealing. Like barns or grain elevators, they boast clear, unadorned, and unaffected forms. Oregon’s scenic covered bridges are precious vestiges of a simpler time. We’re lucky they’re still with us. 

The following are the six covered bridges my wife and I visited on our Sunday tour. I copied the descriptions from the OCB Festival website (I hope the festival organizers don’t mind). The site is excellent, with descriptions, photographs of, and directions to all of Oregon’s surviving covered bridges. 

Centennial Bridge
Timbers from two Lane County bridges (Meadows Bridge and Brumbaugh Bridge) which had been dismantled in 1979 were used to build the Centennial Bridge in 1987. The volunteer effort to erect the bridge honoring Cottage Grove's 100th birthday proved to be a success. At the dedication ceremony a time capsule was encased in the entrance of the bridge containing items from the 1980s. The Centennial Covered Bridge is a 3/8 scale model of the Chambers Covered Bridge. It is only 10 feet wide and 14 feet to the roof peak, and thus only handles foot and bicycle traffic. In 2012 the siding was replaced and the bridge was repainted. 

How to get there:
Exit I-5 at Cottage Grove. Travel south on Highway 99 to Main Street turn right and continue west on Main Street for about 5 blocks. The bridge spans the river at the confluence of Main Street and River Road. 

Chambers Railroad Bridge
Chambers Railroad
The Chambers Bridge is the last covered railroad bridge in Oregon. It was built by the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad for a logging spur which brought logs to the Frank Chambers Mill in Cottage Grove. The actual use for the bridge was short, as the sawmill burned in 1943 and rail traffic no longer crossed the bridge. 

Although the bridge trusses were exposed, at one time the siding completely enclosed the structure to afford maximum protection for the timbers. In the typical construction for railroad spans, truss members of herculean proportions were necessary to support the moving weight of rail payloads. Built to accommodate steam engines pulling logging trains, the sides of the Chambers Bridge reach much higher than highway covered spans and give the bridge an appearance of being much longer than its actual length. 

The western approach to the bridge was removed to make way for the easement of South River Road. Abandoned for years, the bridge was a frequent target of arsonists, as the charred timbers attested. Fortunately, the bridge did not succumb to fire. 

The bridge was inspected under the 1993-95 Covered Bridge Program. The bottom chords showed extensive decay, and in some places three of the four members were rotted. In several places all three members of the floor beams were rotted. Corbels were decayed and crushed, which made the house lean as much as 12 inches to the upstream side. 

Emergency Declared
On February 9, 2010 it was discovered that the Chambers Covered Railroad Bridge had moved creating additional lean upstream. Apparently the bridge had moved as a result of the January 12, 2010 storm. The bridge was in danger of imminent collapse. On Tuesday, February 16, 2010 the Cottage Grove City Council held an Emergency Council Meeting to declare an emergency and authorize the immediate dismantling of the bridge. Upon adoption of the emergency resolution the City and consulting engineers (OBEC) began securing approvals from State and Federal agencies for the dismantling of the bridge. Clearances were received Friday, February 19, 2010 and onsite work began Monday, February 22, 2010.

Bridge dismantling began February 24, 2010. The bridge was secured and a substructure under the bridge was built to stabilize the bridge during the dismantling. A platform was built on the downstream side of the bridge and rolled under the bridge. Once under the bridge the platform was raised to hold the bridge structure in place.

The upper chords were anchored to the downstream substructure to further stabilize the bridge. Reconstruction of the bridge began in March of 2011. The summer months saw the bridge reapear slowly on the west bank of the river. The fully rebuilt bridge was scheduled for completion in November of 2011. It was sitting back on its piers in October and was rededicated on December 3rd, 2011. 

How to get there:
Exit I-5 at Cottage Grove. Travel south on Highway 99 to Harrison Avenue. Turn west on Harrison to Old River Road. Turn south on Old River Road. Chambers RR is off of Old River Road just south of Harrison. 
Currin Bridge
As with many Lane County landmarks, the Currin Bridge was named after an early pioneer family in the area. Nels Roney constructed the first covered bridge at this site in 1883 for $1,935. When it was to be replaced in 1925, Lane County again considered a contract for the bridge construction. The lowest bid was $6,250. The county felt it could save money by building the bridge itself. County employees, with the supervision of brothers Miller and Walter Sorenson, constructed the bridge for $4,025, realizing a substantial savings for the county. Architectural distinctions include single piece hand-hewn chords and cross-wise planking on the approach. It is Lane County’s only covered bridge with white portals and red sides. 

Lane County closed the bridge to traffic when it was bypassed by a concrete span that was built only an arm's length away, making the old covered crossing difficult to photograph. In late 1987, the bridge was mothballed by removing an approach and placing a wire fence in the portal. Additional work included structural repairs and fumigating for insects. 

During the 1993-95 Oregon Covered Bridge Program, Lane County received a $48,000 grant to rehabilitate and re-open the bridge to pedestrian traffic. Work items included truss repairs, a new rail system, a new synthetic roof, repaired siding and house painting. The successful restoration of this bridge is another example of the dedication of the State and local governments to Oregon’s covered bridges. 

How to get there:
Travel four miles southeast of Cottage Grove on Row River Road to the intersection of Layng Road. The bridge crosses the Row River at this location and is located one mile from the Mosby Creek Bridge, also on Layng Road. 

Interior of the Dorena Bridge
When Dorena Dam was built in 1946, plans were made to span the Row River at the upper end of the reservoir. Government Road along the west bank was completed in 1949, and the Dorena Bridge was built a year later, after the reservoir was filled, at a cost of $16,547. 

Miller Sorenson, Lane County bridge foreman, supervised the construction. The bridge is often referred to as the "Star Bridge" because it provided access to the nearby Star Ranch. Once a large and proud estate, the ranch has been reduced to about 100 acres. The state-designed bridge was bypassed in 1974 by a concrete span. Repairs were made to the structure in 1987, as part of the county's "mothball" plan for covered bridges. The asphalt flooring was removed, chords fumigated and other rehabilitation work was completed. 

The original town site, named for Dora Burnette and Rena Martin (by combining parts of their first names) is underwater at the bottom of the reservoir. A railroad in the vicinity served the mining camps until the gold mines played out. The lumber industry developed and used the rails to ship logs to Cottage Grove. Until 1987, the rails were used by a steam-powered excursion train. The cost of liability insurance increased too much to keep it going. Today the old rail line has been converted under the rails to trails program into what is arguably the nicest bike path in western Oregon. 

Lane County requested and received grants from the Oregon Covered Bridge Program totaling $59,000. These funds were used in the 1996 reconstruction of Dorena Bridge to create a wayside park. The project included replacement of the substructure, replacement of approach spans and extensive repairs to the covered span. When the house was resided, windows were installed for light and improved air flow. 

How to get there:
Travel five miles east of Cottage Grove on Row River Road to the junction of Shoreview Road. Continue east on Shoreview Road seven miles to the bridge. 

Mosby Creek Bridge
Mosby Creek
The Mosby Creek Bridge is Lane County’s oldest covered bridge, having been built in 1920 at a cost of $4,125 by Walter and Miller Sorenson. Spliced chords and steel rod cross-braces on the upper chords of the bridge are modifications of the basic Howe truss design. Design elements include semi-circular portal arches, ribbon openings at the roofline, and board-and-batten siding. 

The span was capped with a corrugated metal roof. During the summer of 2002, the roof was replaced with synthetic roofing material, and other repairs were made at the same time. The Mosby Creek Bridge was one of the bridges which could be seen from the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern steam excursion train, The Goose, prior to the sale of the locomotive to Yreka, California in 1987. 

Mosby Creek was named for David Mosby, a pioneer of 1853 who staked claim to 1,600 acres east of the present city of Cottage Grove. 

How to get there:
Travel one mile east of Cottage Grove on Row River Road. Follow the sign to Mosby Creek Road by turning right, and crossing the railroad track. Turn left on Mosby Creek Road and travel southeast two miles to the bridge. Alternately, from Currin Bridge continue southwest on Layng Road to Mile Point 0.2 to Mosby Creek Bridge.

Stewart Bridge
As with other wooden bridges in Oregon, the Stewart Bridge has had its share of woes. Heavy rains of the 1964 "Christmas Flood" brought water raging down Mosby Creek with the resulting force cracking the lower chords of the bridge. Just over four years later, a heavy snowstorm dropped more than three feet of snow on most of the Willamette Valley. The roof bracing gave way under the weight of the snow, and the entire roof caved in. 

Repairs to the bridge once again made it usable, and it carried a 20-ton limit until it was bypassed in the mid-1980s by a concrete span. The Stewart Bridge was officially "mothballed" in 1987, with one of the approaches removed, fumigation of timbers, and installation of a wire fence inside a portal for safety of pedestrians. In the 1993-95 biennium, the Lane County received a grant of around $48,000 from the Oregon Covered Bridge Program to restore the bridge. 

How to get there:
Travel one mile east of Cottage Grove on Row River Road. Follow the sign to Mosby Creek Road, turning right and crossing the railroad tracks. Turn left (south) on Mosby Creek Road and travel approximately 3.5 miles to Garoutte Road.
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I’m surprised we waited so long to discover our impressive assortment of nearby covered bridges. Don’t put off doing the same if you haven’t already seen them yourself. 

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