Friday, May 24, 2024

Finding Oregon's Roots: The Stayton/Scio Covered Bridge Loop

Spanning bucolic waters in peaceful rural areas, covered bridges bring a touch of the past to modern roadways. These simple, practical structures were originally built to solve a problem: wooden bridges were easily built with inexpensive local materials, but their lifespans were woefully short, especially in western Oregon's famously moist climate. A wooden bridge protected from the weather, however,  would last many times longer, thus justifying the extra work and expense of building a covering. Many of these charming structures have succumbed over the years, but Oregon still boasts over 50 covered bridges, many of them located in the Willamette Valley.

One popular driving route visits 5 or 6 covered bridges in a 54-mile loop through fertile farmland and lush Oregon forest. Some of these bridges are the original structures, some have been replaced over the years, and one is a relatively new replica. Click here for a map of our route.

This scenic loop is often begun in the Albany area, but we are starting in Stayton with the replicated covered bridge. Head east from Salem on Highway 22; on a clear day, the Cascades rise ahead of you, promising endless opportunities for exploration, but for this trip we will just barely reach the foothills. Take Exit 13 for Stayton. Now is your chance to pick up any snacks or needed supplies, or even stop for lunch at one of the local restaurants. Stayton's historic downtown offers a series of fun, unique shops if time allows for browsing. The town grew up around a mill that was established in 1866 and many historic homes still stand, including the Brown House, an event center and local landmark.

To find the bridge, head south on Cascade Highway/First Street and take a left on Marion Street to Pioneer Park. The Stayton-Jordan Covered Bridge has a rather different history from the other five bridges on this tour. Originally built in 1936, it crossed Thomas Creek near Scio but was moved to Stayton in 1988. Unfortunately, it was set on fire by Christmas decorations in 1994, but the community came together to construct a replica of their beloved landmark. Since 1998, visitors to this lovely city park have crossed this section of the Salem Power Canal on the rebuilt bridge, which is the only bridge on this tour that can no longer be driven through. Standing inside the bridge with the waterway rushing underneath, looking up into the Howe trusses and standing on the wide wooden planks, it's hard to imagine that this is not the 1936 structure.

Pioneer Park
Stayton's Pioneer Park also boasts grand old trees, a playground, and access to 55-acre Wilderness Park. Leaving the park behind, head west on Marion Street, turn left onto First Street, cross the Santiam River, and take a left onto Kingston-Lyons Road, which sort of becomes Kingston-Jordan Road (the mapping of these rural areas seems a bit casual in its approach at times). Pass Mt. Pleasant School, built in 1846 and now an event venue. Pass through Kingston, which you will likely not notice. What you will notice is the topography of this fertile land: for those accustomed to the coziness of the valley, this is big country, and the high, wide hills roll away eastward towards the Cascade range. Note the prevalence of Christmas tree farms in this area of rich clay soil. 

Stay on Kingston-Jordan Road, keeping left at the "Y" with Sandner Road and dropping south on Highway 226  to Camp Morrison Road, where Hannah Bridge crosses Thomas Creek. Built in 1936, this pretty, 105-foot bridge is known for the large openings along its sides, which allow for plenty of natural light inside. The bridge is named for John Joseph Hannah, an 1853 pioneer who built one of the area's first sawmills. There is a small park here with a vault toilet and picnicking, as well as a popular swimming hole.

Return to Highway 226 and turn left (west), then turn right on Shimanek Bridge Drive, a narrow country route that ends at Richardson Gap Road and Shimanek Bridge (which is on your left, not your right as shown on the map). John Shimanek homesteaded this area and built the first bridge at this site, which is reputed to have included a two-hole toilet (for reasons this writer has been unable to discover). This is the newest bridge on our route, built in 1966, but it is the fifth bridge that has stood at this crossing; the first was built in 1861. Oregon's weather has destroyed four bridges here, with the last one being damaged by the Columbus Day Storm of 1962.  Shimanek is the longest covered bridge in the county, and it sports louvered openings and squared-off portals. Painted a picturesque barn red, this 130-foot-long bridge invites photography; unfortunately, there is no safe parking nearby, so enjoy driving through it on Richardson Gap Road.

Continue south through hayfields and gentle hills and turn east (left) onto onto Larwood Drive; pull over just before Fish Hatchery Road to explore Larwood Bridge. The current 1939 bridge is near the confluence of Crabtree Creek and Roaring River, and a shady, 6-acre park offers swimming and picnicking. An interesting construction on the opposite side of the creek is said to be the remains of a water wheel, originally part of an old mill. William Larwood settled this area in 1888, building a blacksmith shop and a store, both long gone.

"Roaring" River
For a quick side trip, bypass the bridge and visit Roaring River Park. This 28-acre day-use park has open lawns, trees, and plenty of parking, as well as two diminutive features. The first one you will notice as you drive in: a very tiny trout pond, known for being the smallest stocked trout lake in the county. That is an understatement, and it would seem that the trout don't stand a chance in such a little puddle, but this pond is meant for young anglers only.

The second feature will be evident when you open your car door and listen. Unlike its namesake in Clackamas County, this "Roaring River" does not roar; it mostly splashes merrily along in its narrow bed. It is said to be the only "river" that is a tributary of a "Creek."

Return to Larwood Bridge and drive west (through the bridge) along Fish Hatchery Drive and Highway 226 into the community of Crabtree, named for John Crabtree who settled here in 1845. Take a right turn onto Hungry Hill Drive to where Hoffman Bridge crosses Crabtree Creek. The creek here is deep and wide, lying between steep banks at the foot of forested hills. A rope swing advertises the very popular swimming hole at this spot; please respect the surrounding private property if you decide to take a dip. There is a convenient pullout for those who want to stop and take photographs. Lee Hoffman built the 90-foot bridge in 1936 using hand tools; it rests on timbers cut on nearby Hungry Hill.

Turn around and head back to Crabtree, continue on Crabtree Drive, and turn right on Gilkey Road, which becomes Gore Road (also noted as Goar Road). Drive between wide farm fields to find Gilkey Bridge, the last bridge on this tour. A modest sign seems to be about all that's left of Gilkey Station, founded in 1880, but the railroad that served it remains, running over Thomas Creek alongside the 1939 covered bridge. A gravel pullout allows for photography.
Drive through Gilkey Bridge and turn right at the T with Robinson Drive which leads to the town of Scio, settled in the mid-1800s. Several lovely old homes still stand, and a railroad depot building houses a history museum. Thomas creek, which we have crossed a few times during this tour, flows right through town.

Drive north through the town of Scio and turn right on 4th Street, which becomes Stayton-Scio Road. Follow its twists and turns through the countryside, recross the Santiam River, and end the tour where we began, in the town of Stayton.

These traces of Oregon's past are well worth seeking out. So bring a picnic and friend, and take a road trip through Oregon's roots.

Stayton-Jordon Bridge

Hannah Bridge

Stairs lead to a view of the river and the underside of the bridge. Be cautious on rainy days, however, as the rocks can be quite slippery.

Shimanek Bridge, the only shuttered bridge on our tour

Larwood Bridge

Water wheel

Hoffman Bridge

And Gilkey, the last on our tour

See you on the road!