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Troubled Bridges Over Waters

Charles Hillinger's America

September 25, 1987|Charles Hillinger

SCIO, Ore. — They call it the Battle of the Bridges.

The second covered bridge in a year is being torn down in this Oregon hamlet, known as the "covered-bridge capital of the West." Workers will begin dismantling a third next week.

" Scio means peaceful. There hasn't been much peace around here lately," said Mary Van Agtamel, mayor of the town of 560.

"A year ago we had eight covered bridges within a 10-mile radius of Scio, the heaviest concentration of covered bridges anywhere west of the Mississippi," she said. "In a few days we will have only five covered bridges left. We may have to change the town's logo."

The logo is, of course, a covered bridge.

Linn County commissioners, who are ordering the bridges removed, contend that the structures are old, decrepit, unsafe and too costly to repair. They are backed by local farmers and loggers who want the bridges replaced with wider concrete-and-steel spans that can support heavier loads.

Public hearings on the issue have lasted late into the night and generated an unusual amount of heated discussion. And a group called Save Our Bridges has rallied at the covered bridges and engaged in emotional--and so far non-violent--encounters with anti-covered-bridge forces.

"It just makes me sick that something as precious as a covered bridge can be torn down," Fred Kildow, 72, said with a sigh Thursday as he watched work crews dismantling the Bohemian Hall Bridge over Crabtree Creek.

"People have got to wake up and stop this destruction. If it doesn't stop, the anti-bridgers will get their way and knock all of them down," said Kildow, founder and former president of the 200-member Covered Bridge Society of Oregon.

Kildow has been camping out at the site since the removal began and is compiling a photographic record of it.

An Outrage

Nancy Stanko, 31, a Portland housewife who had come to Scio to watch the removal, called it an outrage. "Families are breaking down all over the country. Now they're destroying our covered bridges. What's the world coming to?" she wondered aloud.

Farmer Glenn Clayton, 66, also was watching the removal of the 130-foot-long, 24-foot-wide bridge, built 40 years ago and named after a nearby abandoned lodge once used by Czechoslovakian settlers of the area.

"It's about time they got rid of that bridge," Clayton said. "Sure it's quaint and nice to look at, but . . . it was rotting away. It shook and swayed every time I drove my truck over it. I didn't feel safe going over that bridge."

According to Clayton, the bridge has been the scene of numerous accidents because it is barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

"Every time I hauled a truck load of beans, corn or grain to the market," he said, "I had to detour eight miles around the bridge because the load was too heavy. I won't have to do that with the new bridge."

Challenge Bridge Lovers

Joe Fery, a 43-year-old farmer who lives across Crabtree Creek from Clayton, challenged the bridge lovers to "buy them or move them away."

A year ago, just that happened. The Jordan Covered Bridge at Scio was torn down and replaced with a concrete bridge. Linn County allowed residents of Marion County to the north to take the old bridge. It has since been repaired and is used as a foot bridge in Stayton.

"We hope we can raise enough money to move the Bohemian Hall Bridge to downtown Scio and use it as a foot bridge over Thomas Creek," said Don Rhodewalt, 62, president of the Linn County Covered Bridge Assn.

"Now the old Weddle Bridge is slated to be razed and Marion County wants it, too. We're trying to raise money to keep the Weddle Bridge here in Linn County where it belongs."

The 50-year-old Weddle Covered Bridge over Thomas Creek was closed to vehicular traffic in 1981 when a new concrete bridge was built to replace it a short distance downstream. Three months ago, it was closed to foot traffic as well after a main beam snapped and the bridge began tilting to the west.

Temporary scaffolding was erected in an effort to prevent the bridge from falling into the creek. Farmers are concerned that once the rainy season starts, debris will collect in the scaffolding, further undermining Weddle Bridge and flooding farmland.

An effort by the Linn County Covered Bridge Assn. to block removal of the bridge until it could be repaired was rebuffed Wednesday by the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

"A lot of people around here are calling the county commissioners anti-bridge," said Commissioner Larry Johnson of Sweet Home. "It isn't true. I enjoy the nostalgia of covered bridges as much as anyone else.

"These bridges, however, are no longer safe. They are not designed to handle today's traffic. We would like to repair the Weddle Bridge and continue to use it as a foot bridge, but we don't have the money ($60,000 to $70,000). We would have to take the money from the general fund and lay off employees to fix the bridge."

Rhodewalt and the covered-bridge enthusiasts claim the county is planning to remove still another bridge, the heavily used Shimanek Covered Bridge over Thomas Creek on Richardson Gap Road. But Johnson denies it.

Kildow is skeptical.

"We had 450 covered bridges in Oregon in 1915. By 1963 we were down to 105," Kildow said. "That year floods wiped out 40 of them leaving us 65. Since then, 14 covered bridges have been done away with. Now we're down to 51.

"Oregon is still one of the leading covered bridge states in the nation, but we won't be for long at the rate we're going."

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