Most people associate covered bridges with New England or Madison County, Iowa, but hundreds of them once graced Western riverbanks as well. Those that survive transport you not just across waterways but also back in time. Oregon, with 50, has more than any other state this side of the Mississippi. Standing on the wooden deck of one of these minor engineering marvels, it's easy to imagine the generations of loggers, farmers, and schoolkids who have crossed it, fished from its flanks, had their first kiss in its shadows, or gathered for a hoedown under its roof.
Why cover a bridge? Practically speaking, the roof and sides offer protection from rain and snow, greatly prolonging the lives of important beams. But as the following pages show, they also preserve memories, civic pride, and a certain kind of magic.
Goodpasture Bridge [Vida]
This 1938 bridge vaults powerfully across the swift, jade green waters of the McKenzie River. Ten Gothicstyle windows line up on each side, their tapered tops fitting neatly between diagonal truss members. The bridge is just steps from busy Highway 126, which connects the Willamette Valley with eastern Oregon. "I saw it from the highway," says Larry Robertson, of Oakland, Calif., who stopped on a recent motorcycle trip. "I just couldn't pass by."
Office Bridge [Westfir]
Only the rushing of the Willamette River and the occasional clattering of a train passing in the distance break the stillness enveloping this 1944 span. But the longest covered bridge in Oregon—and the only one with a separate pedestrian walkway—was not always so tranquil. Built by a lumber firm to link its mill with the company town, the bridge was massively engineered using triple-layered trusses and multiple steel tension rods to handle countless truckloads of logs. A decade after the mill burned down in the early 1980s, extensive repair work revived the span, and a small park with covered picnic benches now stands near the former mill site. From here you can reach the southern end of the West Cascades National Scenic Byway, a 220-mile route past thundering waterfalls and old-growth forest.
Pengra Bridge [Fall Creek]
Named in honor of a pioneer road surveyor, this white board-and-batten crossing built in 1938 incorporates two of the biggest single "sticks"— or timbers—ever felled for an Oregon covered bridge. "Paul Bunyan's toothpicks" was the workers' name for the 126 -foot-long, 18-inch-thick lower chords, the parallel beams forming the base of the trusses. Too thick to mill, they were rough-hewn from Douglas fir in the woods nearby and hauled by truck to the site, where men labored a day and a half to hand-finish each one. The bridge was left closed for 16 years before it underwent major repairs in 1995. Through the single, awning-shaded window, drivers get a downstream view of trees, white water, and a distant bend in the creek. Those on foot have the pleasure of gazing upward at rafters and braces that soar in crisscross harmony like the ceiling of a rustic wooden cathedral.
Stayton-Jordan Bridge [Stayton]
Community Dream in Ashes," mourned the December 27, 1994, headline of the Stayton Mail. A fire ignited by Christmas lights had destroyed the Stayton-Jordan Bridge, a once dilapidated 1937 span rescued in 1988 when Stayton residents moved it from Thomas Creek, in neighboring Linn County, to their town park. Within days of its loss, plans were afoot to construct a replica, complete with the exposed trusses common to the region that improve views from the road, reduce wind resistance, and add drama to the design. In keeping with the rich history of covered bridges as de facto community halls, this pedestriansonly beauty has hosted everything from picnics to "Bridge on the Bridge" card parties. Filled with natural light and whitewashed inside and out, it's a popular spot to get married. "We had 160 guests," says Alicia Brumley of her 2005 nuptials. "And every single one said it was the most unusual and romantic place they'd ever attended a wedding."
Shimanek Bridge [ Three miles northeast of Scio ]
Looking from a distance like a friendly red barn amid fields of hay and corn, this span over Thomas Creek boasts five generations of ancestors. The 1891 covered bridge (which replaced an older structure) cost $1,150 and had an unusual amenity: a two-hole toilet. Over the years, floods and a windstorm doomed three successors, and plans for a concrete crossing at the site in 1962 fortuitously failed because Linn County ran out of money. This youngster recently received a face-lift that included the removal of its asphalt roadway and a tuning. "Like a piano that gets out of tune, bridges can sag with time," says Martin Harding, the county's bridge supervisor. "So we adjust the nuts on each tension rod to make them uniformly tight." Named for an early settler family, the Shimanek is one of five covered spans near Scio, the self-proclaimed Covered Bridge Capital of the West.
Harris Bridge [ Three miles west of Wren ]
Thirty minutes northwest of Corvallis on a gravel lane that winds through forest-fringed hills and past a small vineyard, one of Oregon's sweetest bridges stretches across the Marys River. Time seems to have stood still at Harris Bridge, a one-lane span built in 1936 whose identical twin, about 1.5 miles away, was razed in 1967. The bridge was named for Henry Palmer Harris, a pioneer logger and mill owner. "He was my great-grandfather," says Wayne Harris, 60, whose window overlooks the whitewashed, shingleroofed structure that holds a lifetime of memories. "Every time my father drove the family across, we'd sing the Davy Crockett song as fast as we could—‘Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier'—and try to finish before getting to the other side. Sometimes we'd succeed, sometimes we wouldn't. It's a short bridge."
Photography by Reuven Inerfeld
This article was first published in January 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.