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McKee Bridge spans a century

The centennial of the McKee Bridge will be celebrated Saturday by some of the same Applegate families whose ancestors grew up crossing the span, and who later helped protect it from the ravages of time.

The McKee Bridge Centennial Celebration will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the bridge and in the nearby park. Activities will include raffle prizes, a silent auction, classic cars, vendors and live entertainment, and the McKee Bridge Historical Society will have its mobile museum on hand. To get there, follow Highway 238 to Ruch, turn south and follow Upper Applegate Road nine miles to the McKee Bridge Store.

The 122-foot span over the Applegate River, eight miles from the California border, was built in 1917 by contractor Jason Hartman and his son Wesley on land donated by Aldelbert "Deb" McKee.

The bridge was constructed at one end of the most treacherous sections of Eastside Road, according to a book written by Evelyn Byrne Williams.

With an increase in traffic from the Blue Ledge Copper Mine, which provided metals for munitions during World War II, the county constructed a pair of bridges — McKee Bridge and, six miles downriver, Cameron Bridge — to provide a detour for Eastside Road.

Williams, Deb McKee’s niece, who was born a handful of years after the bridges were constructed, remembers crossing both bridges. Cameron Bridge was later replaced by a modern concrete crossing. McKee, she notes, was built for $6,300, a far cry from the tens of thousands raised by supporters over the years.

The bridge was deemed unsafe for vehicles in 1956 but was kept open for pedestrians. It fell into disrepair by the early 1980s. With county officials debating its fate, Applegate residents raised more than $40,000 in labor and materials for repairs.

The McKee Committee was formed in January 1989 with the goal of raising $25,000 for preservation and maintenance. The McKee Bridge Historical Society, formed in 1999, raised more than $56,000 after dry rot was found in 2012 to secure a $547,048 federal grant awarded to Jackson County, which officially owns the bridge.

Williams, 91, said she has memories galore of the bridge, including picnics, swimming trips and Grange Hall meetings.

"Where the bridge is now, that was the most treacherous part of the road. It was a one-way, and you couldn’t pass people on either side. It was called Dead Horse Hill, because a horse did fall off there and was killed,” she said.

Windows in the sidewall of the bridge were added after a vehicle crash occurred because of lack of lighting inside the bridge, she said.

"I was 3 years old when we moved into a house where you could see the bridge, and I remember seeing the '1917' that was (painted) in the white circle on the bridge. Years later, when they had painted both ends of the bridge white, I said to my mother, 'I remember when there was a circle up there with something in it.' She wasn't sure what I was talking about," Williams said.

"No one else remembered it, so I thought I must have dreamed it. Five or six years later, my sister was going through some old photographs, and there it was. When we became a society (in 1999), I said, ‘We’ve got to put the '1917' back on.’ "

While Williams can't remember a time before McKee Bridge, her mother told tales of students who attended one of two schools nearby, and of using a makeshift trolley to ride across the river.

"Before McKee Bridge, if the water was low enough, you crossed it by wading across or you rode on a trolley that was made with a bucket on a cable," she said.

McKee Bridge Historical Society President Paul Tipton said a local historian will be on hand Saturday to collect stories from locals about the bridge.

"It’s incredible to think that something that cost a little over $6,000 to build could cost so much to save, but it was important to people at the time it was built, and I think it’s still really important to the community,” he said. “It’s a half-million-dollar footbridge in the middle of rural Oregon.”

Williams' daughter, Applegate resident Janeen Sathre, noted, “If it hadn’t been for a group of people getting together to raise money to have it restored and to save it, it wouldn’t still be here. One hundred years on a wooden structure like that is a long, long time."

Williams credited the local families with saving the landmark.

“When your ancestors had 14 kids, there are bound to be some of them still around. Now we just need good weather to celebrate,” she said. “At least some of the celebration will be covered. Mom will be sure to be early enough to get a spot on the bridge.”

— Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

This how the McKee Bridge looks today after numerous efforts by locals to keep it alive. [Courtesy McKee Bridge Historical Society]
A trolley — basically a big bucket on a cable — was once used to transport people across the Applegate River before the McKee Bridge was built in 1917. [Photo courtesy of Evelyn Byrne Williams]