Perry arch bridge a jewel in the rough
- Story and photos by Chris Baxter
They have been described as "coastal jewels." If you've ever driven any distance down the Oregon Coast on Highway 101 within the past 70 years or so, you've surely traveled across at least one of these beauties Â— Rogue River, Coos Bay, Yaquina Bay, Cape Creek and Siuslaw to name just a few.
These bridges are what some consider to be the finest continuous set of concrete-reinforced, steel-arched bridges in the United States. The engineer who designed and oversaw their construction described them as "jewel-like clasps in perfect settings, linking units of a beautiful highway."
Although he designed and oversaw the construction of more than 600 bridges throughout Oregon in just a 16-year span (1919-1935) as head of the new bridge division of the Oregon Department of Transportation, it was these jewels of the Oregon Coast that formed the pinnacle of his bridge-building career and solidified Conde McCullough's national and international reputation in the field of bridge engineering.
Which naturally leads us 333 miles from the Oregon Coast and just a mile or so west of Perry. There, practically hidden and nearly forgotten, can be found our very own McCullough jewel still crossing the Grande Ronde River as it has done for the past 84 years: the Upper Perry Arch Bridge.
It's a jewel that has returned to the rough.
McCullough had a rather dim view of the engineering field in general, believing that, "engineers have been busily engaged in ruining this fair earth and taking all the romance out of it." But McCullough was going to change that. Beauty was to be an integral part of his projects, and his Perry Arch Bridge is early evidence of the fulfillment of that mindset.
The bridge, built in 1923, possesses many of the aesthetic design elements that characterized his personal engineering philosophy of not only building something that works, but also something that is beautiful. As far as he was concerned, wherever possible, he was going to infuse some romance in his spans of concrete and steel. His coastal jewels of the 1930s may reign as the crowning culmination of this engineering philosophy. By viewing the Perry bridge it's easy to see that philosophy was already well under way by 1923.
The classic Conde bridge design elements of sweeping arches, railings of gothic-arched panels that support beveled handrails and decorative brackets lining the outer edges of the road deck are all elements that are prominent on the Upper Perry bridge. These aesthetic elements of his bridges were meant to be seen and appreciated. McCullough considered the bridges' approaches critical. He believed that wherever possible, views of the entire span should be had as the traveler draws near. Such is the case with the Perry bridge when approached from the west.
Unfortunately, due to deterioration, many of McCullough's more than 600 Oregon bridges have been replaced and many others are rapidly approaching the point no return. The Perry bridge falls into this category.
According to Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Strandberg, the 309-foot-long Perry bridge is deemed to be "in very poor condition with the deck riddled with cracks and spalls with rails crumbling and exposed rebar in numerous locations." Due to its poor condition, weight restrictions allow only passenger car traffic to cross.
ODOT appreciates the value of these spans to Oregon history. It is ODOT's aim to save as many of them as possible. In 2001, Marty Laylor of ODOT justified the expense of saving the aging structures.
"Replacement structures would not have possessed the rich architectural detail of the original bridges. Oregon would have lost irreplaceable landmarks," Laylor said.
With this mindset, ODOT has plans to rehabilitate the Perry bridge beginning sometime next year.
That's good news for Oregon and especially for locals. We'll have one of Conde McCullough's early engineering jewels right up the road, polished and shining again, reminding us of a seemingly bygone age of travel when journeys had a little romance, when we had time to slow down and enjoy the views Â— views that deserve appreciation, like the Upper Perry Arch Bridge.