Sweet Home efforts prolong Weddle Bridge history

Settlers arrived in 1851, trudging over a small hill as they followed the course of the South Santiam River upstream. They arrived in what would become our green Sweet Home Valley.

The clear water of the South Santiam River wound its way through our own small peaceful valley, below its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Santiam. Douglas fir trees covered the surrounding mountains, standing proud and tall. In the lower elevations, many white oak trees grew, mixed with broadleaf maples and many alders growing along the streams.

In the 1940s and ’50s, we depended on jobs being available from the stands of old growth timber around our valley and into the Willamette Valley. Wigwam burners were plentiful at most sawmills, used to burn the bark slabs off logs being processed in the busy logging areas. But no more. I believe just one wigwam burner is still active, and it is on the property at Lester’s Mill.

Sweet Home was always more than just a lumber town, though. It had many things to offer the outdoors lovers. Today, in the winter skiers are attracted to the snow-capped undeveloped hidden beauty east of town. In the Cascade Mountains we boast of both our downhill and cross-country skiing. And of course, hunting for deer and elk is still fun in some areas, though it isn’t as good as when the first settlers arrived.

Today, summer brings in tourists who enjoy our two beautiful lakes, created by dams on the South and Middle Santiam in the 1960s. Water enthusiasts enjoy sailing and water skiing on Green Peter and Foster Lakes – and fish. Fishing brings in many new people, some of whom stay around our lakes for the summer. Campers enjoy our parks and campgrounds, and Linn County Parks and Recreation Department is continuing to build more camping spots to enjoy in this region.

One other big attraction in Sweet Home is Weddle Covered Bridge.

The history of today’s scenic Weddle Covered Bridge didn’t involve Sweet Home until the 1980s. The bridge was originally constructed in 1937 over Thomas Creek, west of Scio, and is rich in detail; it proudly stood through nearly five decades of constant use. In the early days of the 1930s it was used by wagons to transport people and supplies needed in the northeast section of Linn County.

This beautiful bridge was later by-passed by a concrete bridge, because it could no longer support heavy traffic loads safely due to the main truss’s failure. It had played an important role in transportation for this area and also was a social feature of Linn County.

The bridge was dismantled in 1987 and the salvaged framework was stored in a Linn County structure. Then a group of dedicated Sweet Home Community members came up with a plan to save it and put it to use in what they hoped would be a Cascade Forest Resource Center located in the Sankey Park area.

The group was made up of Scott Proctor, Howard Dew, Erland Erickson, Don Menear, Marian Nelson, Ben Dahlenburg and my husband, Bob Waibel. The group used the salvage materials that were obtained and they successfully restored the Weddle Covered Bridge over Ames Creek, working from 1989 to 1990. Many hours of labor were donated by locals who cared about the use, maintenance and future of the bridge. Work parties included “Breakfast on the Bridge” and volunteers emerged from the community, as they commonly do when Sweet Home has a need, to help put Weddle Bridge back together in its new location. Members of Ben Dahlenburg’s Building Trades class at Sweet Home High School put in many hours on the project, which drew a visit from Gov. Neil Goldschmidt in March of 1990, who presented a check for approximately $14,700 from a program begun by the state Legislature to preserve such covered bridges.

The two-year community effort was completed in July 1990 with the dedication of the bridge. Howard Dew, chair of the fund-raising effort for the project, said the 126-foot, 6-inch bridge is the largest and longest to be moved in the state – and, he believed, the United States.

“The Weddle Covered Bridge is more than just an old bridge,” Howard said. “It was a turning point from the tearing down to the restoration of these covered bridges through the creation of a fund from lottery monies by the 1989 Legislature to help preserve our heritage. The Weddle Covered Bridge was the first to receive this legislated matching lottery funding.”

The bridge today adjoins our beautiful historic city park, named for my grandfather, W.S. Sankey.

Since the bridge’s restoration, many weddings and community events have been held there and visitors come to admire our Weddle Covered Bridge.

The Oregon Jamboree has used the bridge in advertisements and as a vital element of the festival. Having worked at the Jamboree for 17 years, we know that visitors especially enjoy the Weddle Covered Bridge and the park. The coolest place to get out of the hot summer sun is on the bridge! Each year the Jamboree volunteers have their pictures taken at the bridge, a prominent symbol of our community and its accomplishments.

The bridge is also used for the city’s Harvest Festival, which in recent years has included the Walk for the Cause, which starts with participants striding across Weddle. It also has been the site in recent years for some Christmas activities.

The Ames Creek Channel under the bridge underwent some significant changes – or restoration – in 2003, as a $335,000 stream diversion project removed a mill pond that had been drained following a flood in 1996. The purpose of the effort was to improve the stream as a habitat for fish, particularly steelhead.

Along with moving the channel, crews built erosion control measures, including soil-wrapped walls and planting native plants along the banks. Crews also built five rock weirs in the channel to create pools where fish can rest on their way upstream spawning beds.

They also built several structures in the stream around old-growth logs.

A crisis arose in September of 2005 when our bridge was inspected by OBEC Consulting Engineers, a firm specializing in bridge construction. They determined that the bridge should be closed immediately to both pedestrians and vehicular traffic because the upper chord on the west side of the bridge and the tie beam on the south end had structural problems, along with two sections underneath the structure. It also needed a new roof and paint.

Thanks to a $20,000 cash infusion from the Sweet Home Economic Development Group, the city was able to come up with funds necessary to make the fixes. Over the next year, local logging contractors Mike Melcher, Jim Cota and Wayne Shilts, and Weyerhaeuser employee Karla Burcham helped procure the necessary milled timbers to replace the damaged chords and repair the structure under the bridge. It was reinforced so an ambulance could be driven across it.

City staff members from the Community Development and Public Works departments painted part of the structure after the structural repairs were made and a new roof was put on. Hoy’s Hardware donated the paint.

Having our bridge kept up does have it costs. But we think it is worth it and hope taxpayers understand where the money must come from.

Though the bridge occasionally suffers from vandalism, the city has been quite vigilant in keeping an eye on it and protecting it.

It is our hope that the future generations will be able to continue to admire the beauty of the bridge and use it for many more years of community events.