Brownie Troop 20007 members; Friends of the Swinging Bridge member Dana Merryday; Susan Sinclair Christianson, daughter of former City Engineer Roger Sinclair; Hall McCall, former mayor and city council member (was mayor at time of 1965 bridge construction); and Cottage Grove Mayor Jeff Gowing are pictured at the ribbon cutting event. Photo provided/Greg Lee
COTTAGE GROVE – Two weeks ago on a brisk, grey Saturday morning, Cottage Grovers gathered along South River Road to celebrate.
It was a day many have been looking forward to.
Some thought it may not even happen.
Over 60 people came together for the dedication of the newest version of a town icon, the Swinging Bridge, now proclaimed the J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge by Cottage Grove City Council.
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Currin was a renaissance man and wore many hats in the city from the 1800s through the 1920s. He was the third person to graduate from what is now Oregon State University, was a pioneer community druggist and for 30 years, he helped direct Cottage Grove youth education.
While it is unknown what – if any – role Currin had in the Slabtown-Lemati feud that tore the town in two, his actions indicate that he had sentiments on both sides of the river.
Or at least property.
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Referenced as only J. P. Currin in contemporary newspaper articles, his name appears in the Bohemia Nugget in 1900 when he built the first of what was to be at least six versions of the footbridge that spans the Coast Fork of the Willamette River, according to research by Cottage Grove Historical Society board member Lloyd Williams.
Prior to that construction, Grovers relied on various methods to cross the river. Temporary summer crossings were made on rickety platforms of wood, placed on the rocks that shaped the rapids between Main and Harrison streets.
An old photograph shows townspeople in their long dresses and suited best, complete with hats and parasols, braving this means of getting across … hopefully with dry feet.
During low water, several fords were used to get the horses and buggies across.
Currin, who had his drugstore on the Slabtown side, also owned a plot of ground directly across the river and had created what was known as Currin Park. Although built over with houses today, the park was a place to picnic and enjoy the river.
The bridge he constructed at the turn of the century to get from his drugstore to his park was not kinetic; it was a no-nonsense wooden trestle bridge. Old postcards show the bridge with folks in canoes posing for the camera in the river below it.
Covered bridges are built to preserve the structure from the elements and are not built with tourists in mind. Even though wood was cheap, untreated wood rots. Currin’s footbridge was uncovered. Newspaper articles starting in 1909 announce a series of closures due to unsafe conditions of the footbridge and its subsequent renewal.
Finally, in 1917, the town council solved the problem once and for all by turning the fixed bridge into a moveable suspension-type bridge for the purpose of maintenance. It was also decided at the same time to move the location of the bridge downstream to make it more equidistant between existing crossings.
Currin’s name comes up in print again during the building of the first ”Swinging Bridge” (although still known as Currin’s Bridge), stating that he was on hand supervising its construction.
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In September 2016, in a page of history that has played out again and again, the then-version of Currin’s Footbridge was again closed due to safety concerns. The bridge that was built in 1965 to replace the one washed away by the Christmas flood of 1964 was ordered closed and boarded up.
A number of concerned citizens came together to help the City of Cottage Grove bring back the bridge. Friends of Cottage Grove Swinging Bridge led the charge and there was interest throughout the community.
Anyone who had grown up here has a Swinging Bridge story, including married couples whose first date was on the bridge. Generations of school kids made their way across to the Jefferson School on the east side, letter carriers, dog walkers, bicyclists and family members heading to see their cross-river relatives all used this workhorse of a bridge.
It wasn’t until the bridge was closed that many folks realized how convenient it was to have a crossing between the bridges.
After three years of grant-writing, fundraising, people rounding up their water bills and over $18,000 in citizen contributions, the City had enough money for reconstruction. On Jan. 14, city council chose a proposal for a design-build team. The Ausland Group teamed with Hamilton Construction, and the resulting design reflected two directives from the council and the community: to be as close to the previous design as safely possible, and to have as much movement as guidelines would allow.
Dismantling the old bridge began in May and by Oct. 18, the bridge was open to the public for a ”soft opening” – without any ceremony or fanfare. One of the first groups across was the Cottage Grove High School cross country team, out on a training run.
The official opening had to wait for a plaque to be ordered and, more importantly, what to actually call the new bridge.
An attempt to name it in 1965 fell short of definitive so city council took up the issue again. This time, they were aided by input from the public, fused a nod to the past with the currently used colloquial name into ”J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge.” That name will be on the maps and set in stone at the foot of the bridge for generations to come.
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Meanwhile, back to the dedication ceremony on Nov. 30, folks were greeted by members of Brownie Troop 20007, led by Enya McKinnon. The troop members were earning their Community Celebration badge the hard way – braving the cold and passing out the printed programs as well as assisting in the ribbon cutting.
Being a Grove native, Cottage Grove Mayor Jeff Gowing well understood the importance of this community asset and reflected that in his comments.
At the ceremony, Gowing shared the process of the long path of bringing back the bridge and bits of Williams’ historical research.
He passed the mic to Susan Sinclair Christianson, daughter of former city engineer Roger Sinclair, who designed the bridge that was being replaced.
She shared the air with Hall McCall, the mayor at the time who conspired to lure Sinclair away from a good job in Corvallis and bring him to Cottage Grove. McCall related that it took a lot of persuading as well as some liquid inducement to land him in the Grove.
Christianson told of how he designed the bridge pro bono before he had even accepted the job as city engineer.
There was noticeable appreciation from the assembled crowd, which included five former mayors, city councilors, Friends of the Swinging Bridge, and bridge lovers of all kinds as they remembered their experiences with Sinclair or the bridge.
Mayor Gowing and this reporter lifted the covering and revealed the dedication plaque which reads: ”J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge, Original construction 1965, Restoration and dedication 2019, Funded by: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Local Government Grant Program, Friends of the Swinging Bridge, Citizens of Cottage Grove.”
I think that says it all. Truly a grassroots movement working with state and local government to bring back a community asset.
One last act of official protocol remained as the Brownies held up the ceremonial ribbon in front of west bridge entrance and the big scissors came out. Wielded by Christianson, McCall and this reporter, one snip ceremoniously opened the bridge and the applause was long and heartfelt.
With this ”built-to-last” incarnation of the Swinging Bridge, as joyous as was the dedication, I doubt we will have the pleasure of doing it again in either our or our children’s lifetimes.
Dana Merryday is a weekly Chronicle contributor for all things Cottage Grove. He can be contacted at [email protected]