Bridges over troubled waters — spanning the Crooked River Canyon

Once well-used 'High Bridge' remains a top tourist draw, along with two other spans over the 300-foot gorge
The Crooked River “High Bridge” carried autos across this deep canyon on Highway 97 from 1926 until 2000. For more Snapshot stories, go to Miller

There was a crooked river and a tiny wooden bridge, and the tourists didn't like it when they tried to span the ridge. So up above the canyon, high above the flows, they built some better bridges and joined the dry plateaus.

Near the town of Terrebonne, north of Redmond in Central Oregon's high desert, the Crooked River Canyon is more than 300 feet deep and lined with sheer basalt walls, separated by more than 400 feet of air.

If you go

The Crooked River bridges are a close and easy walk from the Peter Skene Ogden State Park, a beautiful rest stop and picnic area along Highway 97. A paved walkway, edged by a protective rock wall and dotted with informational panels, leads you between the trio of bridges. Signs will tell you to closely watch your children, and warn of the hazardous cliff "where many dogs have died." Drive your favorite route to Highway 97 in Central Oregon and continue north. The no-fee park entrance is on the left, nine miles north of Redmond.

The first known white man in the area was Canadian explorer Peter Skene Ogden. In 1825, while on his way south to the Klamath Lake region, he crossed over a dry canyon river that many believe was a parched version of today's Crooked River.

Though his exact route isn't known, he may have forded the stream at Trail Crossing, about one mile upriver from today's Highway 97. Here, where breaks occurred in the canyon walls, centuries-old American Indian trails converged on each side of the river.

For the high-desert settlers of the 1840s, these trails and this crossing were the most important link between Northern and Southern Oregon.

By 1902, a rough and narrow road had been scraped from the canyon cliffs and a wooden bridge was built across the river. It lasted only until 1927, but driving down those steep walls would surely have been a terrifying ride in a Model T Ford.

Over the next 100 years, three more bridges were built, and each still perches over the dizzying depths of the canyon.

First, there was the Oregon Trunk Railroad bridge, a steel arch begun in 1910 and dedicated with the traditional golden spike in September 1911.

With steel nerves and no other way to cross the canyon, workers climbed rope ladders or waded though the river to get to the other side. Later, 300 feet above the gorge, they would "walk the plank," crossing over on narrow boards that bounced with each step.

In 1926, the highway was rerouted across the new Crooked River Bridge, a steel arch designed by Oregon's renowned bridge builder, Conde McCullough. Locals nicknamed it the "High Bridge," and the name has stuck.

Although not as elaborate as many other McCullough bridges, it does include one of his favorite additions, a stairway leading underneath the structure to a scenic overlook. At Crooked River, this stairway is chiseled from lava rock.

Traffic on Highway 97 increased from a few cars a day in 1930 to nearly 10,000 cars on some busy days in the 1990s. McCullough's bridge was only 26 feet wide, and as automobiles went faster and trucks got bigger, something had to be done.

Construction began in 1997 on a new Crooked River Bridge — a cast-in-place concrete arch, 79 feet wide and 535 feet long — and it opened in September 2000. It was named for local WWII hero Rex T. Barber.

McCullough's bridge became a pedestrian walkway and today is the ideal place to view the river canyon and see the other bridges on each side.

From all appearances, the tourists now think it's cool.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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