The covered bridge legacy in Cottage Grove

Cottage Grove claims the title, “Covered Bridge Capital of the West,” in part since it has one of the highest concentrations of covered bridges in this area while also possessing the only covered railroad bridge west of the Mississippi River. Local business leaders working under the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce sought to turn these romantic structures into a way to generate a living for locals when timber jobs became scarce. Along with the growing appreciation of the touristic and nostalgic value of Covered Bridges in Oregon, came the awareness that these treasures were slipping away. Oregon once boasted over 300 covered bridges, but by the mid 1980s only 52 remained. This realization rallied bridge lovers to form the Oregon Covered Bridge Society who lobbied for their preservation.

The society sponsored the first Oregon Covered Bridge Festival held at Scio in 1989. It was a resounding success and the next year Cottage Grove was requested to host the 2nd Covered Bridge Festival. This tradition continued here until at least 2014 using Cottage Grove’s concentration of six covered bridges to draw the tourists. Activities such as square dance exhibitions, breakfast at the Snapp House, bus tours, spelling bees and other activities designed to reach back into the past when times were simpler and more bucolic. The festival’s goal was to entice the tourists here for the bridges and hopefully to have them leave their money behind in local pockets.

This region would be much richer in covered bridges if not for some political decisions and acts of nature. Starting in the early 1960s some of the older wooden bridges were deemed to be unsafe and needed to be either repaired or replaced. In making the decisions on what to do, dollars and cents usually won out. To repair the wooden bridges and to get them to code would cost considerably more than to replace it with a modern if unromantic concrete span. Practicality too was a factor as vehicles had grown in size and weight and log traffic had picked up on the rural roads so that in some cases it would not have been possible to upgrade the existing structure strong enough to safely support modern needs.

In some cases the old bridge was left standing with the new concrete span built right next to the covered bridge. In those cases the wooden structure was often simply left to further deteriorate or be vandalized. Happily under pressure from citizens and some forward-thinking leaders, such as County Commissioner Jerry Rust, the movement to preserve the remaining bridges grew so that our remaining treasures shine today.

This is a brief history of two of those lost covered bridges that didn’t make it to the keeper list. It is still nice to remember those now-gone structures so that you can picture them as you pass over where they once stood.

The first bridge over the Coast Fork of the Willamette was accomplished by a prolific builder Lord Nelson “Nels” Roney in 1884. The Bridge was known as the “Roney Bridge” and was about a mile and a half southeast of Creswell. A sign on that bridge warned, “$25 Fine for riding or driving faster than a walk.” The same penalty applied to driving more than ten head of cattle or horses across the bridge at one time. This bridge stood until 1931, Mr. Roney lasted another 13 years before resting eternally from his labors.

The first Mary White Bridge was built over the Coast Fork in 1905. Before that time local folk used the ford for horse and buggy crossings (impassible in high water), 100 yards upstream from where the bridge now stands. This site is about 2 miles south on 6th St./London Road near Riverstone Park where the road crosses the Coast Fork.  

The first version of the Mary White with the dangerous approaches, circa 1917. Photo courtesy Cottage Grove Historical Society.

While not generally believed to be built by the Roney Crew, the first Mary White Bridge was put up in 1905 at the old ford site. William Johnson White, the property owner of this old bridge site, gave land to the county to enable the bridge’s construction. To show their appreciation, county officials told him he could name the bridge. He chose to christen it for his wife, Mary White.

That first bridge lasted until 1929 when the bridge was replaced by another covered bridge. At that time London road was readjusted to the current crossing site, but for years traces of the old roadway could be seen snaking through the pasture.

There are many stories of the awkward and dangerous approaches to the old Mary White Bridge. One man reports his wife, while learning how to drive, nearly going off into the river. Likewise, a couple of teenagers going to high school via automobile almost took an unintended dip negotiating the approach. See the picture of this bridge to see the issues. The 1929 version took that danger out of the equation.

The second version of the Mary White, built in 1929. An unknown family visits. Photo courtesy Cottage Grove Historical Society.

In 1964, the Mary White was deemed not worth the fixing and slated to be torn down and replaced with a coverless concrete span. As the news spread longtime Lane residents flocked to visit the old Mary White one more time and photographers came out in droves to preserve her memory. One person alarmed by the news was Cottage Grove school art teacher Catharine Filmer. She rushed out, took pictures and made many sketches and drawings of the Bridge before it was taken down in a surprisingly short time. She turned her finished drawing into a Christmas Card that year and the experience changed her horizon.

The loss of this bridge impacted Filmer such that she made championing and recording covered bridges, through her art, her life’s mission. Please see Chronicle issue Oct. 28, 2021 for more on the remarkable life of the “Covered Bridge Lady.”

Another one of the missing Cottage Grove-area Covered Bridges is the Rouse Bridge. This time it wasn’t the county road budget and expediency that took the bridge off its pier but water; lots of it. The Christmas flood of 1964 claimed quite a few bridges covered and uncovered alike. Roads were washed out or covered from mudslides ending up spoiling Christmas for many a family throughout the Northwest and Northern California.

The Rouse Bridge, in better times and while still being used as London/Black Butte route. Photo courtesy of ODOT.

The Rouse Covered Bridge was built some two miles out past London in 1938 at a cost of $4,300. The top chords were 12” x 14” and the bottom ones 14” x 14”. Although the bridge had been bypassed by a concrete span, the old bridge was left as a convenience for the local folk and for a historic landmark. Floodwaters thundering down the Coast Fork knocked one end of the bridge off its abutment and the structure was deemed beyond repair when the engineers were finally able to take a look at the sad spectacle.

There are many other Covered Bridges missing that were originally in this area, to be looked at in the future along with the story of Lord Nelson Roney, a virtual beaver of a bridge builder. Stay tuned, I got you covered.

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