Covered Bridges: From Coast to Corvallis

It was a refreshingly rainy fall day in the Oregon Coast Range. The creek alongside me was tumbling down its cobble bottom with a kind of energy it had lacked during this drought-delayed fall. Orange and red hues flanked its banks—vine maples and red osier dogwood leaves, whose duration of color were also said to be prolonged due to the drought. Sitka spruces towered above, their slightly blue-tinted needle tips making for a complementary valence over the autumn colors. The moist air made breathing easy as I walked up the stream, on my way to the meeting point my co-worker and I had designated for after ending our respective stream surveys. I had finished my survey section a hundred feet or so ago (observing salmon spawning grounds), and this made for a good time to rejoice in each sign of the changing season. 

Though my pace was slow, I came to the meeting point first: a barn-red covered bridge over the creek. Gazing at it from a distance, it made for an even more romantic picture of Fall. I climbed up the steep bank out the creek here, and decided to accept the shelter this structure would offer me from the rain, as much as I was enjoying its company. Upon entering, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, and I took in the scent of the wood: dusty-sweet like a dry fir forest we were now months and months away from smelling again outside. The walls reached for the bridge bottom from the roof at an angle, with just thin slats to peak through to the colorful forest and running water below. There was a sense of permanence within, even as the stream and the season carried on their activities outside. On one wall, a chair was placed with a stack of papers on top of it. With time to kill, I picked one up and read. 

The typeface was distinctly chalkboard, and began with a question that furthered my intrigue: How important was history to our family? What followed was the story of how this covered bridge came to be at its current location, with a plethora of hurdles both logistical and personal, and self-described miracles along the way. Ending with the conclusion, Now all can see what the Lord has built! I folded the piece of paper and tucked it into my waders’ chest pocket, keeping the warm sentiment close as I soon met my co-worker and carried on with the rest of the wet day’s field work. 

Three seasons away from this day, I find my enchantment of covered bridges stirred again. In my current gig, I occasionally monitor the replacement of derelict culverts with modern ones that better allow salmon, trout, and other aquatic organisms the ability to pass underneath to much needed spawning and rearing habitat upstream. It is a miraculous thing in its own right to see a creek be opened up to fish access for the first time in 50-odd years—but it is also a noisy one. Quiet forest settings quickly turn into the chugging and beeping of construction sites while the work is done. Though I know that the end result is well worth the short-term impact, it leaves seeking more quaint stream crossings on my own time. And, with the consideration that the United States once held a total of 14,000 covered bridges, and now is down to only 800, and that Oregon has the greatest collection west of the Mississippi, it seems like a good enough time as any to search out those in my locality. 

Today, I visit three covered bridges on the drive from the coast to Corvallis. My first stop is Chitwood Bridge, just west of the small town of Eddyville (pop. ~400), and off the same route as Highway 20 once meandered along, following the path of the Yaquina River. It is a sunny day already, cotton-candy-esque clouds moving west to east above me, seemingly also following the course of the Yaquina from this spot, albeit upstream rather than with the force of gravity. Upon arrival at the red bridge, it seems it is just me here, though the sounds around tell otherwise. Most notably is the hum of a lawn mower up the road, where charming country homes neighbor the bridge. Soon I hear less-human sounds as well: swallows flying swiftly in and out of the shelter, occasionally resting on beams, though no nests are visible. 

In this quiet space, I reflect on what I gleaned from the little historical research I did the night before. The first bridge in this same location—just upstream of the head of tide on the Yaquina—was constructed in 1893. However, this was not covered and required replacement just 12 years later. This second structure was also uncovered, and in 1926, was replaced with the first covered bridge at the site, which was then rehabilitated in 1984, and again in 2014, with the support of federal and county funds that neared $1.5 million. 

At the time of the initial bridge construction, Chitwood was a logging and railway town, housing timber fellers and those working on the tracks being built between Corvallis and Toledo. Joshua Chitwood was the first postman and storeowner here, and so received the honor of having the small community and subsequent covered bridge named after him. After the First World War, the town began to decline, and today, perhaps the only mark that it even existed is the bridge I’m standing on (however, the railroad tracks are traveled over twice daily by railcars transporting material between Georgia-Pacific’s Philomath and Toledo mills). 

Soon enough, the swallows and I aren’t the only ones out here. We are joined by tandem bicyclists and siblings, Judy and David Gast. The Gasts are part of a larger group of bicyclists on the 43rd Annual Loop Tour organized by the Mid-Valley Bicycle Club. The group began their nine day, 390-mile ride in Corvallis, venturing north to McMinnville and Vernonia, west to Astoria, south down the coast with stops in Nehalem, Manzanita, and Newport, then east to Siletz, and finally today, home to Corvallis. Or at least it is for David. Meanwhile, Judy came out for the trip all the way from Toronto. Shortly after we meet, another traveler, Ian Tassin, hailing from Louisiana, joins us. 

While the group sought out the covered bridge for its guarantee of a cool resting place for weary saddles rather than for its historical attributes, they seem content enough to have me share the timeline I’ve learned, and inform me that MVBC also puts on a covered bridge-specific ride every year in mid-August. This is a more popular ride, David tells me, with about 400 people attending each year from all across the Valley and Portland, as a fundraiser for bike advocacy. As more bikers pedal into Chitwood, I make my way out and on to the next bridge on my list. 

I drive further east on Highway 20, wondering if the bikers I’ve met will pedal fast enough to meet me at my next stop—where I plan to linger a bit longer—the Harris Bridge. I get off Highway 20 and onto the Kings Valley Highway 223, and quickly feel like I have been transported to a land of oaks and vineyards, rather than the small coastal valley I came from. From here I drive down Harris Road, this time following the course of the Marys River. As much as I’ve driven between the coast and Corvallis, it still blows my mind to think how in just a few miles one can cross a divide that separates coastal watersheds from those of the Willamette, whose waters from the confluence with the Marys will travel approximately 230 river miles before reaching the sea at the mouth of the Columbia. 

A community since the 1890’s, Harris was named after a pioneer. Also located along the Corvallis-Toledo railroad, the community saw its own covered bridge built in 1936 by H.W. Fiedler. 

I drive past the Harris Bridge Vineyard and across its namesake white covered bridge, parking on the shoulder of the gravel road not far past it, then reverse the 50 feet to the bridge on foot. Just as it was at Chitwood, I am here seemingly alone, yet the sounds around me say otherwise. Downstream of the bridge, I can hear the playful sounds of kids and a dog splashing in the river by the vineyard. The scene is utterly charming, and I savor it alone for quite a bit. One car with a Washington license plate drives through, but they continue on. Not too long after, a car donned with a Crater Lake Oregon plate stops, and a man gets out of the car and walks towards the bridge, taking photos on his phone. He says that he and his wife (still in the car) are here as part of a short road trip inspired by two Steve Arnst books, one about Oregon ghost towns, the other about roads less traveled across the state. They drove here from their home in Newburg, and plan to head to Harlan and Blodgett after this stop. They seem to be excited enough by their route itself that they don’t stay long, and I don’t get the chance to ask their names, but add the books to my mental list of arts to check out related to covered bridges. 

I stick around on the Harris Bridge a bit longer myself, in the off chance more cars, bikes, people, or interesting critters otherwise come through. They don’t, so I take to a glass of Pinot Noir and an Adirondack chair at the Harris Bridge Vineyard, with full view of the covered bridge, the vines, the oaks, the birds, and the Marys River. It is not long after fantasies of moving to Oregon Wine Country hit their peak that I am told by an employee that there will be a folk festival here in August, and that last year’s event saw one band playing from in the river rather than the stage provided. Another mental note is solidified before I am on my way to my last covered bridge of the day. 

I have traveled to and through this covered bridge many times myself, and my guess is that if you are a Corvallis resident reading this, you likely have as well, perhaps—as with me—without much thought. The Irish Bend Bridge today hovers over the Midge Cramer bike path’s crossing with Oak Creek between OSU and Bald Hill Natural Area—but like the first covered bridge I saw in the Oregon Coast Range in the fall, this is not where it originally stood, and a great deal of momentum was required to get it to the place it stands today.

In 1954, the Irish Bend Bridge was constructed over a backwater slough of the Willamette River on Irish Bend Road, about 15 miles south of Corvallis. In 1975, the road was realigned and a new culvert replaced the covered bridge as the crossing of choice. Three decades from its initial construction, in 1988, the structure was dismantled. Discussions between Benton County and OSU followed, and $60,000 of community and grant fundraising later, the bridge was refurbished and relocated to its current site. 

With this amazing effort in mind when I visit it today, I can’t help feeling that the place seems a little taken for granted. Content enough looking runners and bicyclists travel through it in the dozens, smiling as they go, but none stop a chat about covered bridge history. 

After looking just a bit into the histories of these three covered bridges, my visits to them are filled with a context that surprises me in its ability to deepen my connection to these communities. Between my research and this day of covered bridge touring, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem had stuck out to me—that bridges often go. It is a poem that describes the impermanence we all face in life. But now, standing on the last bridge I’ll visit today—one I’ve ran and biked over uncountable times before—I see this line in a new light. These covered bridges were built to last, and when they didn’t, caring groups of individuals saw to it that they did. While these bridges may have changed in their locations and exact material compositions, they didn’t really go anywhere. History was important enough to those who restored them that now all can see what has been built.  

Learn more about all the covered bridges in Oregon at: http://www.covered-bridges.org/bridges.htm

By Ari Blatt