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Standing against the floods

With his wipers wrestling against the rain and his headlights barely lighting the road ahead, Alvin Eaton drove his semi truck and trailer 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 the Central Heating Company of Eugene had just turned off Crater Lake Highway onto Highway 234, heading west toward Gold Hill.

A little after 6:30 p.m., Dec. 2, 1950, he and his heavy load reached the center of Dodge Bridge 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, 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 there 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 lived far away from towns where they could sell their goods. Their choice was either a dirt road to Gold Hill, some 15 miles away, or a 10-mile route over another dusty road that went north along the Rogue River, then crossed over the river on the unreliable Hannah Ferry, and then continued south to Eagle Point.

In 1909, Burdette Dodge had purchased over 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 Jackson County he would donate the land for a road to the river if commissioners 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 the 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 overall. The $9,000 worth of work came just in time.

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

In 1951, a year after Alvin Eaton made his near fatal fall and the bridge finally collapsed, 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 that strengthened cracked beams and reinforced bridge rails, have continued to keep the old Dodge Bridge safe and sound.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.