Our Oregon heritage offers cultural travelers an opportunity to step back in time, and covered bridges illustrate some of the most iconic cultural elements of our state. Covered to increase their lifespan, the bridges today conjure up a sense of true Oregon culture, nostalgia and romance. I decided to celebrate the cusp of spring by exploring the covered bridges in the Willamette, Umpqua and Applegate Valleys. Along the way, I passed sheep-filled pastures and newly planted fields. Oregon has 51 covered bridges, more than any other western state. I visited 19 bridges spanning from Linn County’s Jordan Bridge in Stayton all the way down to Lost Creek Bridge east of Medford.
My journey began at the Jordan Bridge, originally situated over Jordan Creek in 1937. With its white open sides, it was relocated in Stayton in 1988. My favorite bridges still serve their original purpose and I have to admit, I hoped for very little traffic as I drove back and forth through a few of them! The picturesque red Shimanek Bridge (1966), the Gilkey Bridge (1939) and the Hoffman Bridge (1930) all carry traffic along roads outside of Scio. Close to Springfield, the Earnest Bridge (1938) covering the Mohawk River is still used to get to Wendling five miles down the road. Bridge roads have been paved beneath some of their trussed houses, but a surprising number of them remain planked. Look for weigh limit signs to find the more obscurely located bridges.
Lane County alone boasts 20 covered bridges! After visiting seven, I found the Lowell Covered Bridge (1945, replacing 1907 bridge) looks the most out of place. Technically covering the North Fork of the Willamette River, it was elevated to its current level when the Dexter Dam, created to manage flooding in the Willamette Valley, was erected in 1953. No longer carrying traffic, the bridge’s interpretive center graphically tells the stories of the landscape and its people, its development and devastation, and the creation and role of the valley’s bridges.
At this point of my adventure, I decided to explore the terrain at Elijah Bristow State Park on the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Its 847 acres include 12 miles of hiking, birding and horse trails, including part of the Eugene to Pacific Crest Trail. It was a little early for the flowers I’d hoped to see, but we enjoyed hiking several miles through wetlands and forest in tempo with the songs and calls of its many birds. For those wanting to explore by water, a new trail provides kayakers and canoeists access to the Willamette River Water Trail. As I inadequately tried to identify the plant life around me, I wondered how close this terrain is to what early settlers encountered.
The next morning, I head to Cottage Grove in the foggy dawn. The Currin (1925) and Mosby (1920) bridges, and the Chambers Railroad Bridge (1925, restored in 2011) take on an eerie timeless quality here. Having grown up in an area without moss, I find both the dark green, velvety variety and the airy, almost fluorescent green moss wrapping around deciduous trees simply beautiful – as if it’s nature’s winter tree decoration. Bygone images of the Chambers Bridge over the Coast Fork of the Willamette River reveal how dramatic human alteration of the landscape can be. It’s hard to connect the current tranquil setting with the bustling industrial image in the photographs.
I head to Southern Oregon to visit five more bridges. Grave Creek Bridge (1920) in Sunny Valley is just off of I-5, and Oregon’s most visited bridge. One of my favorites on this trip, this one-lane bridge with Gothic windows on each side was repaired in 2001. Along the Applegate Trail, the bridge is just a quarter mile from the trail museum.
Last, but not least, the Lost Creek Bridge (1919) is the shortest bridge in Oregon. While not the most inaccessible covered bridge in Oregon, it was the most remote that I visited. Unpainted with vertical planks, the bridge is no longer used, and sits next to the new concrete bridge beside it.
For the most part, exploring Oregon’s covered bridges takes us off the main drag, encouraging us to slow down and take look at history. Enjoy!
Editor’s note: For more on Oregon’s rich cultural and heritage attractions, visit CulturalOregon.com.