Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pass Creek Covered Bridge, Drain....Oregon's Oldest?

In the 1870s, if you took the stage coach from Scottsburg or the Willamette Valley to southern Oregon, the route went through an area north of Yoncalla, over Pass Creek.  To make that busy passage easier, somebody, probably the stage company built a bridge.  A wood truss, covered bridge.  A bit later, after Charles Drain purchased 340 acres from Jesse Applegate and set up what first became Drain’s Station and is now the city of Drain, the Oregon & California Railroad came through and followed the same route.  They too built a bridge over Pass Creek, another wood truss, covered, span.  The railroad replaced its wooden bridge with a new steel through truss bridge.  This much is certain.  Another thing that is certain is that the City of Drain, which owned the smaller covered span, relocated it for use as ped/bike bridge in 1987, where it remains, after replacing it at the original location with a mundane concrete slab.

But what isn’t clear, and is one of those gnawing little puzzles that drives me crazy, is what is the connection, if any, between the 1987 bridge and the 1870s bridge.  Most sources date the Pass Creek Covered Bridge, the only one of three similar bridges that stood in Drain, as having been built in 1925.  The problem is I haven’t found any primary sources to support that.  No ODOT drawings, no reports in the paper of “bridge construction.”  Nothing.  (Though I AM still looking!)  Several old-time locals report the current Pass Creek bridge (meaning the one that is now in the park) was built in 1906, or was “rebuilt” in 1925, using some portion of the earlier span.  There isn’t any documentation for either of those projects either, at least none that I’ve found.  Photos show that the design of the portal changed sometime after 1906, and the pitch of the roof was lowered.  Was that the “massive rebuild?”

 Here’s what we do know.  The existing bridge is just about the same size as the historic one and the trusses have hand-hewn top and bottom chords.  Now Drain, in northern Douglas County, was like so many cities in that region (especially ones on a railroad line), a mill town and it’s hard to believe that even in 1906, when there were multiple mills within a stone’s throw of the bridge site (Pass Creek provided water power) that anybody would take the trouble to HAND hew a chord.  And surely NOBODY would do that in 1925, so it seems logical that they reused the truss, and just changed the roof and modified the portal.  At least that's what I think.

At either 1906, or perhaps even the 1870s, the Pass Creek Covered Bridge may have a legitimate claim as the oldest covered bridge in Oregon  (the Drift Creek Bridge, in Lincoln County, was built in 1914).  Bill and Nick Cockrell, in their revised Roofs Over Rivers, the definitive guidebook to Oregon’s covered bridges, date Pass Creek as “1925 (1906).”  Fred Kildow, another covered bridge expert, in The BridgeTender, wrote “…this just might be the oldest continuously used covered bridge location in the state.”  And it just might.   If there is any of the 1870s bridge left, you might not need the “covered” limitation either.  I certainly can’t think of a standing bridge, any standing bridge, in Oregon built before 1880.  Can you?


  1. While I know the build date on The Pass Creek has long been in dispute, and it does have some unusual detailing, I would not count hewn Chord sticks as among those details I would describe as unusual. On the contrary, Hewn Chords are a part of your almost unique 20th Century wooden bridge legacy. The hewing done in these bridges for the same reason Hewn timbers appear in other timber structures largely built of sawn timber, they were hewn for length, length beyond the limitations of area mills – In most Oregon instances this was to avoid Bottom Chord scarfs / splices.

    The most notable example of this maybe being Lane County's Pengra ca 1938 which has one piece Bottom Chord sticks 126' in length.

    One of the reasons for the build date conjecture for Pass Creek seems to be some holes or empty joints in the Chords that have people theorizing that they are recycled from '06 or earlier. Can anyone share photographs of these? Some sense of their intended use might provide a clue as to if the sticks were used in an earlier construction.

  2. Thanks for your comments Will. You are right about Pengra, of course, but its a much longer span than Pass Creek (which is just 60 feet) and those single timbers chords were almost certainly beyond the scale of a mill, even in 1938. There is also a report that the Currin CB has hand hewn trusses, too, so that feature on its own may not be the smoking gun I imply.

    Still, the Pass Creek Bridge, is a pretty small span and is located right in town, and there were timber mills within a stone's throw of the bridge site. I'm having a hard time thinking they would hew a chord in 1925 (or even '06) but I guess it's possible. MOST Oregon bridges of that period are milled and it would be odd for this one, in Drain, to be otherwise, I think. However, it IS true that Pass Creek is different. I Don't know about the holes or empty joints. I didn't see any in the photos of the chord that I have but will post anything that I find. And I'm still looking for a documentary source to try and figure out what exactly they did in 1925 (or 1906).