When the bridge fell at Myrtle Creek

The bridge across the South Umpqua River was rushed into service in 1922 after a portion of the old bridge collapsed.

They finished the new Myrtle Creek Bridge just in time — well, almost.

It was near quitting time on June 8, 1922, as Will Roupe drove his heavy truck onto the old wooden bridge over the South Umpqua River. Roupe worked for the construction company that was paving the new Pacific Highway between Myrtle Creek and Canyonville.

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In 2007, the Oregon Department of Transportation completed a 16-month rehabilitation of the Myrtle Creek Bridge. The structure still was sound, but the approach spans had deteriorated. While preserving its historic character, and to more safely handle modern traffic, the span's roadbed width was doubled to a little more than 26 feet. The three arches remain and span 597 feet.

Drive north on Interstate 5 to Exit 108. The bridge is 0.3 mile farther on.

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Bill Miller will present the story of pioneer aviator Eugene Ely's visits to the Rogue Valley in 1910 and 1911 as part of the Southern Oregon History Series "Windows in Time." His lecture will begin at noon Wednesday, June 5, at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave., and at noon Wednesday, June 12, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

The wood truss bridge had been built not long after the great flood of February 1890 that had washed away dozens of bridges from Portland to Ashland. While a nearly completed concrete arched bridge was being built upstream, traffic at Myrtle Creek still was being routed over the aging bridge.

From the Myrtle Creek side of the river, Roupe had driven only a few feet onto the bridge approach when its wooden floor gave way. Roupe and his fully loaded truck dropped 30 feet and smashed into the boulders at the edge of the river. Roupe suffered a brain concussion, an ankle fracture and numerous cuts, scrapes and bruises, but he was still conscious.

While fellow workers scrambled down the hill to help him, Roupe, dazed and in shock, crawled out of the truck and struggled to climb up the bank. When a medical doctor, who just happened to be near the bridge, reached him, Roupe was delirious. He was carried to a vehicle and rushed to Roseburg's Mercy Hospital, where over the next few days he made a complete recovery.

The new concrete bridge had been just days away from its grand opening. Only the eastern approach to the bridge was incomplete. A hastily formed crew worked into the night and by early the next morning, without ceremony, the new bridge was opened.

The Myrtle Creek Bridge was one of the earliest designed by Oregon's most celebrated bridge engineer, Conde McCullough, a man who insisted that bridges could be designed with an artistic flair. It features three of McCullough's signature Gothic-style reinforced concrete support arches, Romanesque hand-rails and simple architectural ornamentation. The Egyptian style obelisks, prevalent in so many of his designs, are missing.

Although this wasn't McCullough's first concrete arched bridge, with its three arches it could still claim a first as the longest series of concrete arches found in one Oregon bridge at the time. McCullough said the location was perfect: The stream was wide and its bed solid rock. There would be no problems with piers settling into the river.

The idea of a new bridge to handle the expected increase in automobile traffic once the Pacific Highway (today's Highway 99) was completed had been discussed for years, but until spring 1921, there had been more talk than action.

Once the Douglas County commissioners agreed to share equally with the State Highway Commission in the bridge's estimated $188,000 cost, a contract was signed within a month and construction began.

Barely 13 months later, work was complete and the Myrtle Creek merchants who had been fighting and lobbying for a piece of the Pacific Highway in their town were finally content. Myrtle Creek's Main Street and the highway were one and the same.

If only they'd finished that bridge just a day or two earlier, Will Roupe might have been the happiest man who never fell off a bridge.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

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