The historic McKee covered bridge spanning the upper Applegate River is closed to pedestrians after inspectors determined its supporting timbers had suffered significant wood decay.

The historic McKee covered bridge spanning the upper Applegate River is closed to pedestrians after inspectors determined its supporting timbers had suffered significant wood decay.

The Oregon Bridge Engineering Co. urged county officials to close the bridge immediately after completing an analysis of an inspection made earlier in the month. The entire span, including the approaches, was closed Oct. 24.

The analysis found significant decay in structural timbers in one area of the bridge.

Built in 1917, the bridge has been restricted to foot traffic since 1956. It is just off Upper Applegate Road about 16 miles south of Jacksonville.

Jackson County has requested that OBEC determine how much weight the bridge can carry and the cost of the repairs, said Mike Kuntz, the county engineer.

"Depending on the outcome of the load rating, there is a chance the bridge may be reopening to pedestrians," Kuntz said. "But it's my estimation that it is more likely to stay closed until the repair work is done."

The fear is the bridge could have a structural failure like the historic Wimer covered bridge in 2003.

Although it was open to vehicles, it collapsed while a grandfather and two of his young grandchildren were walking across the span, injuring the three. That bridge has since been rebuilt.

In a letter to the county road department on Oct. 25, OBEC's principal engineer Gregory W. Ausland reiterated the firm's serious concern "for the safety of the public due to the potential collapse of the (McKee) bridge."

The significant wood rotting problem was found in the bottom chord of the north truss, Ausland said.

"We strongly recommend that the county close the bridge immediately to all potential users," he said.

Noting the county shared the firm's concerns, Kuntz said he doesn't expect answers to questions facing the future of the McKee bridge until late in the year, at the earliest.

"The county would look to the society to cover the costs," he said, referring to an understanding with the McKee Bridge Historical Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the picturesque structure.

While the bridge technically belongs to the county, the society has taken on the responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance. The county provides available labor and equipment, Kuntz said.

"The county doesn't have the budget for it," said society president Bob Van Heuit of the bridge's upkeep. "In the past, we have bought the materials. They (county) usually provide labor and equipment."

Like Kuntz, Van Heuit said the load rating and estimated repair costs will determine what happens next.

"Right now, we are waiting for a cost estimate," he said. "And this could be a very expensive repair."

In addition to holding fundraisers, the society likely will apply for grants to repair the historic structure, he said.

The McKee bridge underwent an $88,000 restoration effort in the mid-1990s — work that included structural reinforcement and new cedar siding. The project was paid for by a grant provided by state lottery funds and individual contributions.

Like many of Oregon's covered bridges, the span design employs Howe truss construction, combining diagonal timbers and vertical iron rods.

Built by Jacksonville resident Jason Hartman and his brothers to allow easy crossing of the river by trucks hauling copper ore from the Blue Ledge Mine, McKee bridge was constructed on land donated by Adelbert "Deb" McKee.

The span, Oregon's fourth-oldest surviving covered bridge, is the highest in the state at more than 40 feet above the stream during the average summer flow.

In addition to the McKee and Wimer covered bridges, there are two other covered bridges remaining in Jackson County. They include the transplanted Antelope covered bridge in Eagle Point, which is under the city's jurisdiction and open only to pedestrians, and the Lake Creek covered bridge, located on private property.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.