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A Bridge with History

A couple of well-placed sticks of dynamite and — KABOOM!

The roof and structure of the bridge shattered into oversized toothpicks that scattered left and right, before plopping into the river and rushing downstream.

Writing a few days before Christmas 1911, a Gold Hill newspaper reporter called the blast, "the straw that broke the camel's back." The reporter wrote in a festive mood, saying the remnants of the old Centennial covered bridge looked "like a well-picked Christmas turkey."

Major timbers had been secured with cables and, once recovered, would be used to build bridges across the county's smaller creeks.

"Like a turkey carcass," the story continued, "the bridge will be of usefulness to mankind long after its original purpose has been fulfilled."

The bridge had stood for 35 years, bearing thousands of people and millions of tons of freight, but not always happily.

Calls for a new bridge came shortly after the railroad ran through town in 1883. The rails ran low over the east approach to the Centennial Bridge, forcing wagon drivers to "duck your head or get it knocked off."

Miners complained the bridge wasn't safe for heavy machinery, farmers said it was too narrow to carry a wide rack of hay and horses went berserk when trains whistled and rattled on by.

Before the Christmas dynamite blast, a steel bridge had been constructed between the railroad bridge and the Centennial on the north. It was expected to last for decades, but barely 10 years later, in 1922, State Bridge Engineer, Conde McCullough reported the steel structure was already deteriorating. Plans were drawn for a concrete arch bridge, which would cross the river south of the railroad bridge. At the same time, the Pacific Highway (Highway 99) would be rerouted to avoid crossing under the railroad.

In a failed protest, Medford businessmen said replacement of the bridge was a waste of taxpayer dollars. They proposed realigning the highway so it bypassed Gold Hill on the south side of the river and connected to an existing road west of Rock Point.

The new bridge was completed in 1927 with Jackson County contributing nearly 40 percent of the $55,500 construction cost.

Not expecting much foot traffic, the bridge was designed without sidewalks. By 1940, pedestrians crossing over its narrow 20-foot width, feared for their lives as they dodged more and more automobiles.

Over the objections of many engineers in the highway department, who were already planning to move the highway south of the river, the 3-foot wide wooden sidewalk was attached to the bridge in 1948.

By the mid-1950s, the highway was finally moved across the river and followed the route of today's Interstate 5. Gold Hill businesses closed. Motel owner George Brownell went so far as to move his buildings to Medford.

It was the classic good highways vs. good business decision. With the Oregon economy so dependent on highways, the fate of the bottleneck at the Gold Hill Bridge had always been inevitable.

Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com

Travelers used to be forced through the bottleneck at Gold Hill, but Interstate 5 bypassed the route. bill miller photo