An Off-Freeway Route Leads to Covered Bridges
in the Norman Rockwell World of Oregon's Willamette Valley
Wooden bridges can rot in the rain, and in western Oregon, it rains a lot. Ask those who live there.
Residents in that strip of damp greenery sandwiched between ocean and mountains joke about sprouting webs between their toes. Universities nickname teams after pond-dwelling animals -- Ducks and Beavers. Ads even once warned would-be transplants from California that they might drown if they fell off their bikes.
"The only time it doesn't rain is in summer," one resident tells me. "I just hope I have that day off."
In a land of plentiful rainfall, there are many streams. When roads need to reach opposite banks, bridges must be built. Oregon's early spans were often constructed of Douglas fir.
Unfortunately, before creosote and chemical treatments became available, wet weather took a toll. Builders responded by using roofs to protect trusses, effectively doubling a span's life.
The technique must have worked. Oregon still has over 50 covered bridges remaining -- the highest concentration west of the Mississippi. Many of the photogenic structures are located in the Willamette Valley, and accessing them takes me on a leisurely alternative to Interstate 5.
A half-hour from Portland, I exit the freeway in Woodburn. After running a gauntlet of banks, burger-joints and traffic-light backups, the road finally enters farming country. Only the bulging Cascade Mountains tell me it's not Iowa where the fictional Robert Kincaid photographed covered bridges.
In The Bridges of Madison County, Kincaid stops at a farmhouse to ask directions to one of the spans. Francesca, a bored housewife, accompanies him to the site. The pair fall in lust, and what follows ranks an R-rating.
The closest thing I find to a convenient farmhouse is the Egg Cup Inn, a roadside bed and breakfast. A raven-haired woman, who honestly claims her name is Lolita, answers the door. Unlike the fictional Francesca whose husband is conveniently gone, Lolita's spouse, Elmer, stands beside her.
"How do I find Gallon House Bridge?" I ask.
"Follow the arrows," she says pointing to a nearby sign.
A mile or so later, I reach the 84-foot span across Abiqua Creek. The stark-white structure features solid sides with a foot-high ventilation gap beneath its shingled roof. Wooden planks form a one-lane-wide floor.
Built in 1916, Gallon House is Oregon's oldest covered bridge open to traffic. Locals say the name came from a nearby establishment that sold whiskey for 10 cents a gallon to residents of then-dry Silverton.
As I prepare to snap a few photos, a fisherman walks by. Looking puzzled, he asks what I am doing.
"Taking pictures of covered bridges," I tell him.
"Why do you want to do that?"
"I read that it's a good way to meet women."
"Only if you look like Clint Eastwood," he says. "And you don't."
A few photos later, I head into town. Silverton's brick buildings and awnings would fit anywhere in mid-America. Men dress in overalls. Boys wear ball caps with bills facing frontward. Only the girls sport earrings -- and only in their ears. It feels like I've driven into a western version of a Norman Rockwell classic.
Silverton calls itself the "City of the Falls," exploiting its proximity to Silver Falls State Park. I follow the highway south to the 8,700-acre reserve, which features 10 major waterfalls. Several tumble down cataracts near the highway, but most require short hikes to see.
I continue toward Jordan Bridge. For almost 40 years, it crossed a creek near its namesake. Due for replacement, engineers dismantled the structure, later reassembling it in Stayton.
In the 1920s, the state had about 450 covered bridges, with most of them in the wetter climate west of the Cascades. New spans were built of wood during World War II because of the shortage of steel. Covered bridge construction tapered off through the 1960s, with the last new one completed in 1981.
Five covered bridges remain in the area surrounding the tiny community of Scio. Hoping to get a map, I stop at the Depot Museum, which occupies a former train station. An old caboose sits out front, flanked by a larger-than-life wooden conductor.
"The statue was sculpted from a log by an Oregon chain saw artist," says museum volunteer, Dell Holland.
Dell, who has lived all of her 90-plus years in the Scio area, takes me on a tour of the facility. Its treasures include clothing, dishes, tools, scrapbooks, pictures and diaries.
Descendants of early settlers donated most items. A mannequin wears a black hat that once belonged to Dell's mother.
As I leave, Dell hands me a brochure that outlines a circuit of the nearby covered spans. I drive first to Gilkey Bridge, whose open sides expose the thick beams that form trusses. They cross in a geometric lattice.
Until 1960, a covered railway bridge stood beside the highway span. It was torn down and replaced with boring steel. A gaggle of giggling teens dive from rails to creek.
I continue to Hoffman Bridge, shoot more photos, then drive on to Larwood Bridge. It sits near a friendly park with picnic tables and swimming hole. Two young anglers dangle lines in the water.
At Hannah Bridge, I find the area rife with No Trespassing warnings. The photo I want requires straddling my tripod over a "Keep Out" sign. As I line up the shot, Sheriff Deputy Joe Gore arrives. Before I plead out-of-state ignorance, Gore tells me not to worry.
"City kids used to swim here," he says. "Problem was they sprayed the bridge with graffiti. Every time we repainted it, they'd come back and do it again. So, now the area is closed."
I head to nearby Shimanek Bridge, last on the route. All the others I've seen were white. Shimanek is photo-friendly red, just like the one Kincaid photographed with Francesca in tow. Dedicated in 1966, it's the area's youngest. It is, however, at least the fourth one built on the site.
While Shimanek was replaced in kind, most of Oregon's covered bridges were supplanted with concrete or steel spans.
Built for horse-drawn buggies, few of the roofed structures could accommodate heavy, two-way motor traffic.
I continue south to Sweet Home, a larger community that even boasts a few traffic lights. Located in the Cascade foothills, it began as a timber town, and its East Linn Museum chronicles a rich history. The curator directs me to the town's covered span.
Weddle Bridge, which once stood near Scio, now resides in a grassy city park. Ducks swim under it in placid water that reflects the bridge's exposed white beams. Visitors stroll beneath its roof and gaze through open sides. Traffic no longer crosses.
Over the years, Oregon's covered bridges served many peripheral purposes. Bootleggers stashed moonshine under eaves. Robbers hid, waiting for victims. With notices and advertisements posted inside, many spans functioned as public bulletin boards. They even hosted political rallies, dances and church gatherings. Weddle Bridge is still available for a good party.
"We rent the bridge for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and other functions," says Glenda at the Chamber of Commerce. "We even had an antique car exhibition under its roof."
I detour to Cascadia to photograph Short Bridge, and then head south to shoot a few more in the rain. My alternate route ends in Eugene where I rejoin the interstate in a pounding deluge.
My mind drifts with the metronomic beat of wipers slapping water from the windshield. I think back to The Bridges of Madison County. Having just spent time photographing a slew of covered bridges, I find there is something about the tale that feels bogus.
Down the road, I stop for gas at a truck stop. As I pay at the counter, I watch a couple argue over a road map. Suddenly, I realize what makes the hero of Madison County seem so contrived.
A real man would never ask for directions.