Covered bridges entered Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the 19th century along with pioneers settling the Pacific Northwest. Over 400 of these wooden relics of a past time are estimated to have been raised in Oregon, mostly from 1905 to 1925, but only 51 remain today. Of these, many still serve as pieces of today’s transportation infrastructure.
A Covered Bridge Road Trip
In the late 1980’s the legislature began appropriating money to refurbish these structures Today Oregon has more than any other state west of the Mississippi.
This drive touches six of the best covered bridges in the Willamette Valley, but truth be told, the tour only begins in Marion County. Two of the six bridges listed actually are there, while the rest sit just south of the border in Linn County.
But why a bridge with a roof?
Simple answer is these bridges weren’t topped just for giggles. It rains a lot here, and roofing keeps Pacific Northwest weather from rotting the timber roadbeds into sawdust.
However a corollary question then comes to mind — how come bridges built today aren’t covered? Again a simple answer — progress. Once better materials like steel and concrete came into widespread use there was little need to cover them for protection.
Gallon House Covered Bridge
My tour begins in the historic mining town of Silverton, just north and a little east of the state capital. A bit north of town is a covered bridge built in 1916, the Gallon House. This name comes from a liquor dispensary that once operated out of a shack on the northern side – a “gallon house”. Silverton was once dry and prohibited selling liquor within city limits. However Mt Angel, a city located a little further to the north was not. The creek flowing under this bridge was the county line, so “businessmen” met legally on the north side with customers from the south side and sold liquor by the gallon.
Stayton-Jordan Covered Bridge
The path now turns south and into low hills along the Cascade Highway, paralleling a survey line which in the mid-19th century divided the Oregon Territory in half. After a 30 minute drive through these rolling hills the outskirts of Stayton appear, and I navigate through town to the newest location of this bridge.
Originally located several miles to the southeast, in the 1980’s the county replaced the original wooden bridge there with a concrete structure. Alarmed local citizens came together and developed a plan to move the original north across the Santiam River to Stayton’s Pioneer Park, where today it serves as a footbridge over a peaceful canal.
Shimanek Covered Bridge
My route continues further south and into the roller-coaster foothills bordering the Cascade mountain range.
Shimanek is the fifth incarnation of a bridge originally built in 1861, whose unique red paint, portal design and louvered windows reflect a style found on no other bridge in the area. The current structure dates to 1966, when damage resulting from the 1962 Columbus Day Storm forced the county to rebuild it.
Hannah Covered Bridge
I turn east and head deeper into the foothills to visit one of three remaining spans that cross Thomas Creek — a bridge named for John Hannah, a pioneer who logged the area in the mid-19th century.
According to Hannah’s granddaughter at least one other bridge crossed the creek at this spot before the present bridge was built in 1936. This one adopts the characteristic Linn County style, which has large side openings providing views of the Douglas fir forest surrounding it. This is more than appropriate since its purpose was to allow easy access for logging.
Gilkey Covered Bridge
Now the road turns west and descends from these often damp foothills into the valley’s flat bottomland.
Also known as the Thomas Creek Bridge, it was built in 1936, just after Oregon’s primetime of bridge construction earlier in the century.
Although nothing of the boom town originally surrounding it remains today, for a time it was the major shipping point in the central Willamette Valley when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880.
Larwood Covered Bridge
Turning east once again, I find this bridge nestled in a canyon within the Cascade foothills.
Built in 1939 at the confluence of the Roaring River and Crabtree Creek, it’s one of several on this tour that’s found its way into the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Located just downstream from a fish hatchery, anglers often cast a line beneath it "“ I'm told that today both trout and bass are biting.
As this is my final destination, Linn County Wayside Park at the base of this bridge is the perfect picnic spot. Set alongside the two melodic watercourses there are tables, charcoal grilles, and restrooms.
When You Go:
This entire drive is approximately 4 hours, from Silverton to Larwood, but of course your results will vary. Use this time as a low-ball estimate, allowing extra to take in the interesting things to see and do along the way.
Written by: Steve Smith
Steve inherited the wanderlust and has always needed to see what’s around the next corner. In his college years he enjoyed many memorable (and cheap) forays into Mexico sleeping under the stars, but today that’s all changed. Since 2006 he’s contributed stories and photographs to In The Know Traveler, and in 2014 he assumed an editor role with the same. Published both in digital and print formats, his international assignments have taken him to the Middle East, Asia, North/Latin/South America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Follow his Facebook page Steve’s Roadtrippin’ Travels that spotlights both his photography and how his road travels intersect with digital storytelling using dynamic space-age mapping technology.
Covered Bridges of Marion County map built by Steve Smith
For more on the USA at ITKT
For more of Steve’s ITKT travel stories