With his wipers wrestling against the rain and his headlights barely lighting the road ahead, Alvin Eaton drove his semitrailer onto the bridge.

With his wipers wrestling against the rain and his headlights barely lighting the road ahead, Alvin Eaton drove his semitrailer onto the bridge.

The sun was down, the moon long gone, and the rising Rogue River was raging toward the sea.

Eaton, a driver for Central Heating Company of Eugene, had turned off Crater Lake Highway onto Highway 234, heading toward Gold Hill.

Just past 6:30 p.m., Dec. 2, 1950, he and his heavy load reached the center of the span at the very moment it gave way.

Down 30 feet to the water in seconds, Eaton barely clung to the truck as he screamed for help. Luckily for him, nearby residents heard him and struggled to pull him to safety.

With a broken nose, a few bruises and an overnight stay at Medford's Community Hospital, Eaton was lucky to be alive.

The venerable Dodge Bridge that had stood for 39 years wasn't so lucky. The rain-swollen river ripped it apart and swiftly rushed its fragments downstream.

Until 1911, the farmers and ranchers of eastern Sams Valley were far away from towns where they could sell their goods. Their choice was a dirt road to Gold Hill, some 15 miles away, or a 10-mile trip that went north along the Rogue River over another dusty road, crossing over the river on the unreliable Hannah Ferry, and then continuing south to Eagle Point.

In 1909, Burdette Dodge purchased more than 2,000 acres fronting the river and established the Riverside Ranch, hiring a manager and work crew to run it.

Within a year, he and partner Frank Theiss began circulating a petition asking for a bridge. Dodge told the county he would donate the land for a road to the river if they would agree to build a bridge.

Without taking bids, the county gave Portland's Columbia Bridge Company the $12,000 construction contract. Bids were waved because Col. Frank Ray, builder of Gold Ray Dam, had offered to donate $6,000 if the Dodge Bridge and a bridge across Big Butte Creek in the Upper Rogue were built immediately.

The steel bridge, sitting on concrete pillars and spanning 220 feet with long approaches on each side, opened in December 1911.

In 1926, the county, working with the State Highway Department, replaced the bridge deck, realigned the approaches and strengthened the structure. The $9,000 worth of work came just in time.

In late February 1927, when one of the largest floods ever to hit the Valley ripped away both approaches to Dodge Bridge, the rest of the steel structure was able to stand strong.

In 1951, a year after it collapsed and Alvin Eaton made his near-fatal fall, scrap metal recovered from the old bridge was sold to the Alaska Junk Company for $1,042, and the state began designing and building a replacement.

The next flood, in 1955, weakened approaches and once again closed the bridge while repairs were made. Another rehabilitation project after the 1964 flood, and a $373,000 project in the fall of 2010 to strengthen cracked beams and reinforced bridge rails, have kept the old Dodge Bridge safe and sound for more than 60 years.

Who knows? With a little more green paint, she just might be good for another 60.

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