By Bob Difley
Back in the simpler “good ‘ol days,” when our daily distractions didn’t include social media, smartphones, and terrorist attacks, gasoline cost a few pennies a gallon and stealing a kiss from a young lady was at the top of a young man’s list of thrills. Courting under the “kissing bridges” was the way to avoid the prying eyes of maiden aunts and vigilant grandmothers.
Though many of the day’s youth assumed that the covered bridges were built just for their amorous adventures, the architects of bridges had discovered that by building roofs over ordinary wooden bridges would protect them from the elements. And the elements then – as they are today in western Oregon – consisted of a lot of rain that had the nasty tendency to rot the wooden bridges. While a standard wooden bridge would last only about nine years, a covered bridge could survive to the ripe old age of 80 years.
The first covered bridges appeared in the middle 1800s (the first in Oregon City in 1851), but most were built around the turn of the century when an advanced building design using the Howe truss made the bridges stronger and easier to construct. In the early 1900s Oregon highway officials distributed standard bridge designs to the counties to encourage spanning the state’s many waterways.
With the shortage of steel during the world’s conflicts and an abundance of cheap Pacific Northwest Douglas fir, road engineers continued to build the wood bridges well into the 1960s, when steel and concrete proved to be stronger and require less maintenance.
Many local residents that lived near the bridges considered them an integral part of their community’s personality, character and history, and were appalled as county officials and bean counters – whose decisions were based more on economics than aesthetics – systematically burned or destroyed the antiquated wooden bridges that lay in the path of new roads and bridges.
Neighbors recalled pausing at the bridge to chat about the weather, Peggy Sue’s graduation, and the price of corn. Politicians held rallies, and many a wedding party, Saturday night dance, and Sunday cookout retreated to the protection of the bridge when gray skies threatened.
Though most of Oregon’s estimated 450 covered bridges were lost, concerned citizens succeeded in saving 50 – the most covered bridges of any state west of the Mississippi. Restorations preserved them as an integral part of the local heritage, proudly waiting for you and me to visit, photograph, admire, walk across, some even drive over (like the Mosby Creek Bridge near Cottage Grove) and, yes, to even steal a kiss in the shadowy interior.
You can walk across the bridges and retrace the footsteps and wheel grooves of those who passed before – almost feeling its soul. Breathe in the scent of the seasoned wood, feel the moist coolness of the shade, and listen to the babbling of the stream below the massive, worn floor planks.
Close your eyes and you can almost hear the echo of a horse and buggy clippity-clopping across the wooden beams and the drumming of a sudden spring rain shower on the roof, the liquid Oregon sunshine that will remind you of the practical side of covered bridges.
You will find them mostly in the western counties, some in parks, some in a state of continuing deterioration, and some on two-lane roads little changed in the last hundred years, but most preserved by organizations of bridge-lovers and volunteers like the Covered Bridge Society of Oregon
Though many of the bridges do not have a parking area, especially for large rigs, you can pull off to the side of the road long enough to view the bridges without hindering the sparse traffic on the rural two-lane roads. You can pick up maps and brochures at visitor centers, chambers of commerce, and nearby campgrounds as well as the bridge locater on the internet.
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