Oregon was a leader in the 1850s in the construction of covered bridges over rivers and creeks. Steel was difficult to obtain, and expensive. Timber, on the other hand, was readily available. This is one reason Oregon became the state with the most covered bridges west of the Mississippi, and Lane County the leader of the state in numbers.
The pioneers discovered that by covering the bridges, it protected the wood from decay, particularly the planking that made up the roadway.
Lane County to this day is the leader in preserved covered bridges west of the Mississippi.
Around 2012, our town obtained recognition as “Cottage Grove, Covered Bridge Capital of Oregon.”
There are approximately 50 covered bridges left in western Oregon. The original count was 450. By 1977, that count had dwindled to 56. Today, these covered bridges are tourist attractions. They make up one reason for the tourism in all of Lane county and western Oregon.
We have wonderful bike paths, and recreational lakes. Creswell and Cottage Grove are blessed with wineries in our backyards. We have beautiful golf courses and fine dining areas for tourism, which helps our economy.
In the early 1980s, the Lane County Commission elected to dismantle the 26 bridges in Lane County. They were in bad repair and needed much work, particularly the foundations and roofs. They would be replaced with concrete or steel bridges. I mentioned to a couple folks in Cottage Grove, while I served on the Chamber Board, that we were going to lose the covered bridges. There didn’t seem to be much concern.
A few days later, I was in the Lane County Courthouse on other business and met Commissioner Jerry Rust, and gave him a 30- second elevator pitch that I was sad they were going to dismantle the covered bridges.
He was the one commissioner who had voted against the resolution to appropriate money for the demolition. He advised me to lobby the commissioner representing my district, which I did.
We had a reversal of thinking and the motion was brought back, and tabled. This gave Carol Reeves and Paula Ianuzzo the opportunity and time to put together a group of citizens in Lane County to lobby to preserve some or all of the covered bridges.
This effort was successful.
Later, through efforts of other commissioners, state lottery funds were tapped. Through negotiations with our state government and with the help of Senator Mae Yih and the 1987 legislative assembly, the Oregon Covered Bridge program was created to help fund the maintenance and rehabilitation projects throughout the state.
These preserved covered bridges have become strong attractions for tourism. Many of these bridges serve as shelters for fundraising dinners, swap meets, weddings, and receptions.
Cottage Grove, Creswell, Lorane, and Drain all benefit from the preserved bridges in the southern Willamette Valley. The bridges are but one of many attractions to our unique area, with wineries, bike paths, and the happiness of beautiful recreational facilities.
Today there are six covered bridges in south Lane County, which includes the only covered railroad bridge West of the Mississippi. The bridge was reconstructed a few years ago. It was built in 1925 to service a steam logging railroad from the Lorane Valley to the Chambers Mill site on Harrison and Highway 99. The RR bridge crosses the coast fork of the Willamette near Harrison Avenue.
The Centennial Bridge, a footbridge crossing the Coast Fork of the Willamette from Main Street to River Road, near City Hall, is built from the remains of two covered bridges that were dismantled and stored.
City Engineer Roger Sinclair, Rich Christianson, and DeRoss Kinkade, were key players in the construction of this bridge.
A unique red-covered bridge – The Office Bridge – is at Westfir. It has a separate walkway for pedestrian traffic and was one of the last bridges constructed, in 1944. It is a 180-foot span.
All these bridges are so unique, and worth a drive to see. I would hope someday a passport booklet would be put together whereby each covered bridge has a unique stamp. For those of us who follow lighthouses, each lighthouse in the world has a unique stamp. You purchase a passport book that looks like a travel passport, and as you visit each lighthouse, it is stamped. Many of the carousels are doing the same and it makes for a wonderful souvenir.
We are in proud possession of a cable-swinging footbridge that has many love stories of romance and intrigue connected with it. It was totally rebuilt in 2019.
My good friend Dana Merryday, a fellow Rotarian, has written a short history of our unique swinging footbridge to accompany this article. He is a writer and historian, and was instrumental in setting up the first fundraisers to help rebuild the deteriorated cable bridge.
This all started in late 1985. Cottage Grove was selected to have a demonstration show-and-tell at the Pacific National Exposition in Vancouver, BC. We always referred to it as PNE. I was a participating member of the Grove’s Chamber of Commerce at that time, and we were meeting with the downtown association, discussing what show-and-tell we might present.
The covered bridges were a topic at that time. I suggested we develop a model of a covered bridge and that would be our showpiece. This was well received, but who would build the model? I would talk to a Weyerhaeuser engineer who was also a woodworker, Russ McGuire.
It has been 30-plus years. It seems to me Carol Reeves was one of the partners in that Chamber downtown association meeting when we decided on the covered bridge model entry in PNE.
McGuire was reluctant to take on a model at that time – he was a furniture maker, not a model maker. As always, I teased Russ, and told him I had all the material in videos on how to make model RR items, building mountains, water, etc.
So the next day I delivered a box of videos and catalogs. Russ took the project on and built the Currin Bridge, which is over Row River, making several trips to get precise scale measurements.
The model was built in 1986 and 35 years later the illuminated covered bridge model sits in the lobby of city hall.
In 1986 or ’87 the Rotary club of Cottage Grove assumed the title of Covered Bridge Club. A retired airline pilot, Perry Earlin, started making little covered bridges as a Rotary thank you for guest speakers. The slogan was used for many years.
Earlin Perry was an interesting fellow. Prior to WWII, he was a lead pilot flying seaplanes from Seattle to San Francisco for TWA airlines. These Flying Boats were called PBY. When WWII started, he was invited into the U.S. Navy as a flight and instrument instructor in Naval Flying School. His duties also constituted navigation instruction.
When Earlin retired from the Navy after WWII he returned to TWA as a lead pilot. He retired flying around the world in the left hand seat of 747s. After 33 years with TWA, the Perrys moved from Seattle to Cottage Grove and operated Perry's Variety Store on the corner of Main and 5th St. This is where Flying Monkeys is today.
Perry continued making the covered bridges until 1994, when I took on that duty. Since then, about 1,650 bridges have been made and handed out. The bridges are given out to each guest speaker – usually a single speaker, sometimes multiple.
NOTE: This is a sidebar, separate from the main story above
Model behavior: How I build the replicas
Here is the “construction” process; the good news is blueprints aren’t needed.
We find 2x2 cedar, straight grain, and purchase from a local hardware store. They are air dried for about two months, then run through a table saw so each piece has exactly the same measurements. This is important for the drilling and jig work. After they are squared up and sized, the roof angles are cut on a table saw to give it the roof pitch. This requires two passes through the table saw. The next is to cut the eve. Each side of the 2x2, 4-foot long piece has two eves.
You now have the shape of the covered bridge. But it is a 4-foot long stick. It is lightly sanded, and three coats of primer paint are applied. Cedar is a soft wood, and easy to machine and carve. A drawback is that cedar is oily, which is why there are three coats of primer.
After the primer is dry, the table saw is once again set up to cut the 4-foot length into two ¾-inch pieces. The bridge is then drilled to hold a column, which consists of a ⅜-inch dowel. With the completion of the hole, the bridge is then resanded, slivers taken off the end, and the ends painted with a primer. After the ends of the bridge have been sealed, they are spray painted with two coats of enamel.
The dowels are cut for the pedestals and spray painted with lacquer. A 1 1/2 x 1/4 inch screen door slat is beveled on the sides and ends, sanded, and spray painted with lacquer. A hole is drilled into the base and the pedestal glued into the bridge and stand.
Dots Trophy Shop does the engraving for the side plates on the bridges. The bridges are identified by year. The windows on the engraving plaque, which are the little black dots, and the black ends making up the shadow box effect, are made by Best Little Print Shop. The plates are attached to each side of the bridge. The dots are put on the plaque to represent the windows of the covered bridge.
Usually there is about two hours involved in each bridge, as there are slivers and throwaways. I I make about 65 bridges per year for the club. As a general rule, I make enough bridges for two years, which consist of about roughly eight to nine 4-foot long cedar stock.
“I’ve had the honor of giving Rotary presentations for many years so I’ve now got a small collection of Don’s covered bridge gifts, which I treasure. These handcrafted bridges continue a unique long-standing tradition of the Cottage Grove club to thank its speakers,” Cindy Weeldreyer said.
As Rotarians journey to other parts of the world for various projects, the little bridges are carried with them and presented to that country’s Rotary president These bridges are in most parts of the world.