The Dorena covered bridge is getting repairs. DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE

DORENA – I was out Row River Road last month and had to do a double-take as I braked when I approached the congested collision where Row River Road hits Shoreview Drive.

The distinctive view of the Dorena Covered Bridge with its unique velour windows was altered through the purposefully placed scaffolding and tarps.  

Always an eye out for a story, I filed this one away under “check up on what’s up with the Dorena Bridge.” About the time I started to follow up on this idea, when I happened by the bridge again, all the work had been completed and all traces of the process removed.

My curiosity had been piqued enough to want to follow up on the Dorena Bridge and what happened was that I fell down a rabbit hole of a lost life and culture out Row River way.

Living in the Covered Bridge Capital of the World, it’s hard to avoid one. I always recommend them to visitors or guide them myself when friends come. It’s a bit deceptive in a way. Of the 6 covered bridges in our orbit you can only drive through one of them, Mosby Creek Bridge, in active road travel (with the Dorena Bridge it is possible to drive across, turn around and recross but it is not part of the travel route anymore). The rest are preserved for historical value. As Lane County eyed maintenance costs and safety, many of the covered bridges in the county were scheduled to be replaced by concrete bridges and torn down. A coalition of diverse interests came together to save a number of those bridges. Former County Commissioner Jerry Rust helped spearhead support for this endeavor.

The Dorena Bridge sits still crossing the Row River, but now is primarily for bike and foot travel. As to answer the question, “What was going on with the Dorena Bridge”, I wrote to the Lane County Public Works department and was connected with Devon Ashbridge of Lane County, and a native Grover BTW, who was very helpful giving me an update on the project. “The work included some deck board replacement, minor repairs and repainting. Lane County Road Maintenance is responsible for 17 of Lane County’s iconic covered bridges (our Parks Division is responsible for another 5). Every year, the Bridge Crew undertakes maintenance and upkeep of several of the bridges on a rotating schedule. This year Dorena Covered Bridge, as well as Parvin Covered Bridge near Dexter, was on the schedule.The bridge was closed for just over 4 weeks from June 14 to July 19. The roof was replaced during the fall of 2018.”

As covered bridges go, Dorena is a late arrival on the scene. Built in 1949, it was named for a town that now lies under the same named reservoir. In the name of flood control, two dams were built outside of Cottage Grove.

The bridge in action, pre-windows, was an active crossing of the Row River. Photo courtesy of Lane County Public Works

While nobody liked the previous recurring flooding, progress cost us two towns. Hebron sleeps under the waters of the Cottage Grove Lake, and as mentioned before, the Dorena dam claimed its namesake. The Dorena Dam project, started in 1941 and completed in 1949, caused the town of Dorena to be moved; houses and buildings worth moving were, including the old (small) high school house building was moved and turned into a private residence, the main building was torn down as was the remaining parts to the town. (Salvaged lumber was often reused; for example, wood from the old Dorena school was utilized to make improvements to Mt. View School downriver, building still extant as a church now). The old railway and road that followed the east bank of the Row River had to be rerouted when the reservoir began to fill.

When checking Dorena Bridge on the internet the site that bubbled to the top was from Oregon.com. This site is managed by Oregon Interactive Corporation, which clarified its position of working closely with both The Chambers of Commerce and the State of Oregon without being affiliated with either. From their attractions listing for the Dorena (Row River) Covered Bridge come the following factoids:

As the dam was being completed, plans were made to span the Row at the upper end of the reservoir. Government Road was completed in 1949 and the covered bridge was built a year later at a cost of $16,547, construction supervised by Miller Sorenson. The state-designed bridge was bypassed in 1974 by a concrete span. Repairs were made to the structure in 1987, as part of the county’s “mothball” plan for the covered bridges. The asphalt flooring was removed, chords fumigated and other rehabilitation work was completed. Using grants from the Oregon Covered Bridge Program the Dorena Bridge was reconstructed in 1996 and to create a wayside park. The project included replacement of the substructure, rerouting the approach spans, and extensive repairs to the covered span. When the bridge house was resided, windows were installed for light and improved air flow.

Something on their site caught my eye. “The bridge is often referred to as the ‘Star Bridge’ because it provided access to the nearby Star Ranch.” This jogged my memory about the many times I have caught a sniff of the elusive community of Star. Before the valley acquired the “Row” name it was known as Star Valley. There was a post office there from 1891 until 1923 with Bake Stewart serving as first postmaster (his house/Post Office was about a half-mile downriver from the now-Dorena School, his house is long gone). Star School #122 stood from 1890 until 1936 and captured in this anecdote: “Star School had several big logs left in the school yard (culls from logging?) which was a game at recess to jump from one to another.”

One illustrious student at Star School was Opal Whiteley. Her family moved around a lot in the logging camps. Her father always followed what work he could find and by 1908 took a job at Brown Lumber Company in Star. The family lived in poor conditions near Rocky Point. There were compensations, Opal created a two-room museum of nature specimens and taught children of the camps about the wonders of the woods. Her visits in Star, though intermittent, were probably the best years of Opal’s life. She joined the Christian Endeavor Society at age 8 and soon was sought after as a teacher for children’s groups. In 1915 a traveling CE field secretary saw Opal in action with the children in Star and wrote such a glowing report that she was invited to speak at the annual state convention in Eugene. At seventeen she rocked the crowd and was appointed to the Resolutions committee and later elected her state superintendent of the Junior Chrsitian Endeavor. Records indicate that Opal’s mother worked, at least briefly, at the Star Post Office, probably when it was at the Sallee Ranch.

Star was a stop on the old Oregon Southeastern Railway tracks (old slow & easy) for the “Galloping Goose” passenger service. This tram car with a pot-belly stove in the winter stopped at all of the logging camp settlements that snaked up the Row River. All centered around a mill, large or small, there were up to eleven working mills up the Row River. Star’s stop was an uncovered siding near Rocky Point, just as the grade changes. Most were named for mills or property owners Star lay between Stewart’s and Wick stops.

There was also a Star Literary Society. In an undated newspaper clipping, coverage of the Society’s meeting reported on the vigorous debate on the question “Resolved that Sunday Laws should be strictly enforced.” Teams debated and judges awarded the victory to the negative. Further in the column of Star news was the announcement of Mary Harlow, succeeding Miles Pitcher as Postmaster. This brought the Post Office to Star Ranch.

Students and teacher at Star School, circa 1923. Photo courtesy of Lane County Public Works

Star was one of the logging camp/towns that stretched out the Row River, all built along the railway that had hauled ore down from the mines and now logs and completed lumber. Each had a Post Office and usually a school (often built by the local mill or at least who donated lumber to build a school. Having a school within three miles of walking was a draw for workers in the gyppo mills up river, always seeking workers). Some live on as place names such as Wildwood, which once had both P.O., school, and dance hall. Other communities named for the mill or in one case a brand of saw. J. I. Jones’ mill was struggling when the saw blade salesman made him a deal, free saw blades if he named the town after his company’s proprietor Henry Disston. It’s still on the map.  

Dorena’s name has its own origin story. Katy Vaughn, President of the Cottage Grove Historical Society, curator of the Dorena Historical Society page, past Dorena Postmaster, and current resident in downtown Star had this to say on the naming the original town: “Dorena was named by the first Postmaster, Alfred Bigelow, back in 1899. Alfred’s first two choices for names for the town were nixed by the Post Office, Reno for being too much like Keno in Klamath County, and Dewey because there was already a Dewey in the State. He ended up naming it after two local women, Dora Burnette and Rena Martin. My theory is that he was so exasperated by his stymied efforts to name the place that he just called it after the next two people who walked into the Post Office, who knows!”

When Dorena got its eviction notice it had to land somewhere like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. Where Star had been was where the town of Dorena reconvened. Star had been located between mile markers 12 to 14 and where the current Dorena School and Bridge sit was in Star. Not that Star was displaced, it had nowhere to go. Some houses were moved in and the Dorena Post Office was relocated 6 miles upriver and a post office, more or less, defines a town. Star, the town that had essentially ceased to be, was reborn as Dorena. A non-binding poll conducted by the Register Guard in 1951 that asked what the relocated town should be called netted a smattering of votes for Row River and Star, the majority, an even 100 votes, were for Dorena (the tally included one vote for “Hell-hole”). Thus, Star is relegated now to a memory. Star Ranch is a shadow of its former self and not in the hands of the Harlow family anymore, and as you whizz along on the fairly smooth road it’s really hard to imagine the hardscrabble life the early settlers and workers in the logging camps faced. Tough way to make a living. As the mills closed one by one the way of life that they had supported drifted off to make a living somewhere else. The Reservoir changed the face of the valley and only a few of the old houses remain to bear witness to a forgotten world of tough Oregonians pulling their living from the woods and soil. Ah Star, even though I never knew you, I miss you.

Email: [email protected]