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Building bridges

From here to there isn’t necessarily far, unless a river flows between.

Humans in general and soldiers, in fact, would rather walk across a sturdy bridge then slog through the current of a river. Whether it be a fallen log across a stream, Roman stone bridges, English steel, or the engineering marvels of today, people and armies love bridges.

In late June 1941, barely five months before Pearl Harbor, this part of the Rogue Valley learned that construction of an Army cantonment (Camp White) would begin Oct. 1. The questions of the hour were, “How to pronounce cantonment,” and “Why not just make it ‘Army Post?’”

The answer to the second question was ignored, but the answer to the first was “definitely settled once and for all.” Well, not exactly.

At a meeting of the League of Women Voters, Mrs. Myron Hunt, wife of the cantonment architect, clearly pronounced it, “can-tone-ment.” This instantly brought a “look of daggers” toward Mrs. Hunt from none other than her husband.

With a flourish of precise pronouncement, as some husbands are inclined to do, Mr. Hunt loudly proclaimed that the word was pronounced “can-tahn-ment!”

Leonard Carpenter, presiding over the meeting, admitted he thought the correct pronunciation was, “can-toon-ment.”

“Tomayto, Tomahto.”

Buried near the end of the Mail Tribune story was the announcement that a military bridge was going to be constructed across the Rogue River, about a mile east of the Bybee Bridge, near today’s TouVelle State Recreation Area.

The Bybee Bridge, Army officials said, “was not adequate for the load it would be required to carry.” By comparison, although the roadbed of the new 305-foot bridge was wood, it could easily support the heavy artillery and trucks needed at the field artillery range, just across the Rogue River and to the northeast of Camp White.

Hoping to keep what they named Military Bridge safe from periodic flooding, the bridge was mounted on thick concrete pillars placed high above the Rogue.

Once Camp White was built, and for the next few years, nearby residents were warned every time the guns were crossing the bridge, and those pounding blasts were about to echo off the foothills.

When the war ended and the military began disassembling much of Camp White, the area around Military Bridge became a picnic ground. Soon, the Rogue Valley Retrievers Club was organizing yearly dog competitions at the site.

The bridge stood quietly until January 1948. A rainstorm had drowned part of Bybee Bridge under 30 inches of rain. The government gave the county permission to detour traffic over Military Bridge until the flooding subsided.

Four months later, Jackson County commissioners briefly refused an offer by the government to sell it the bridge for $1. County Engineer Paul Rynning said the bridge needed extensive repairs, and the county had no use for it.

Within weeks, the county found that use and quickly accepted the offer. Extensive repairs on the Bybee Bridge were no longer needed. The State Highway Commission had agreed to fund a $200,000 replacement. Once again, for most of 1950, Military Bridge provided the necessary detour.

By the fall of 1952, the bridge was becoming unsafe for traffic and was permanently closed. For the next two years, county workers dismantled most of the bridge, followed by the December 1955 flood that washed away anything else that remained. Everything except the two concrete pillars.

Today, standing on the TouVelle State Recreation Area Nature Trail, one needs a good eye to see those pillars through the overgrown brush and vines that have grown up over the past 65 years. They are the sturdy sentinels, standing silently as a reminder of a world that once had gone to war.

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.