Rehabilitation of the historic Grays River Covered Bridge is celebrated at a rededication on September 30, 1989.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/29/2006
  • Essay 8044
On September 30, 1989, residents of the small community of Grays River in southwest Washington hold a rededication ceremony to celebrate the rehabilitation of the oldest covered bridge in the state that still carries a public highway. The 155-foot Howe truss timber bridge was built across the Grays River in western Wahkiakum County in 1905 to help local dairy farmers get their goods to market. It was covered three years later to protect bridge timbers from the weather. The covered bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, but by 1987 it had serious structural deficiencies. Because of the landmark bridge's status as a tourist attraction, Wahkiakum County, which owns the structure, funded the 1988-1989 rehabilitation project that essentially built a new bridge using the original design configuration and as much hardware and siding as could be salvaged from the original.

Grays River, called Moolhool by the Wahkiakums and other Chinookan speakers who populated it for centuries, flows into the Columbia River at Grays Bay about 20 miles before the big river reaches the ocean. Grays River and Bay are named for American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806), who explored the bay, and possibly the river, in 1792 when he became the first non-Indian to enter the Columbia River. Eight decades after Gray's voyage, settlers, many of them Scandinavian immigrants, began farming the Grays River valley. A small agricultural community, which also took the name Grays River, developed some 11 miles up the river's meandering course from Grays Bay.

Hans Ahlberg Promotes a Bridge

Until 1905, there were no vehicular bridges across Grays River. Although there were some footbridges, horse carriages and farm wagons could only cross the river by fording it at low tide (the tidal action of the lower Columbia extends up Grays River to the town site). Because the steamboats that connected Grays River to the outside world landed on the river's northwest bank, farmers on the southeast side of the river had difficulty getting perishable dairy products to market.

Led by Hans P. Ahlberg (1842-1934), a Swedish immigrant and community leader who had founded the Grays River Grange in 1901, local grange members and farmers lobbied Wahkiakum County commissioners to build a bridge that would allow carriages and wagons to cross the river. The commissioners agreed and the bridge was constructed in 1905 at a cost of $2,615. The easier access to markets that it provided helped to boost the area's economy.

The bridge crossed the river about a mile and a half east of the community of Grays River, on land owned by Ahlberg just down the hill from his homestead and farmhouse. It is believed that the firm of Ferguson and Houston of Astoria, Oregon designed the bridge. Much of the work was done by local residents whose labor counted toward their tax assessments, a common practice in the early 1900s.

The bridge was built entirely of timber -- readily available in thickly forested Wahkiakum County -- in a Howe truss design. (The Howe truss is a configuration of the supporting timbers in which the top and bottom chords -- horizontal members -- are parallel. There are verticle members and diagonals forming an X pattern.) The bridge was a total of 155.5 feet long, including a south approach 11.4 feet long and a 26-foot north approach. It was 14 feet wide with a 12.5-foot-wide useable lane.

Western Wahkiakum County's prodigious rainfall made wood plentiful, but it also quickly weathered exposed timber. In 1908, the bridge was covered with board and batten cedar siding and a tin roof to protect the support timbers from the weather. In 1915, wood porches with cedar shingle roofs were added to protect the two entrances.

Landmark Status

More modifications followed over the years. Steel cables braced the bridge against the extra wind stress resulting from its cover. In the 1940s, a concrete and wood center pier was constructed to shore up the sagging bridge and in the early 1950s the timber deck was replaced with steel. A corrugated metal roof replaced the tin roof in 1975 and in 1987 a new center pier was built after floods the year before washed out the old one. The covered bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 23, 1971, and by the 1980s was drawing thousands of tourists a year to Grays River.

A 1987 inspection disclosed that the historic bridge suffered from substantial dry rot and other problems, reducing its load limit below five tons so that farm trucks and other heavy loads could no longer use it. Because of strong local sentiment and support for the bridge and with the state's 1989 centennial approaching, Wahkiakum County chose to rehabilitate the covered bridge rather than replacing it with a modern design. It awarded the $295,980.00 reconstruction contract to Dulin Construction on August 23, 1988.

Although the design configuration of length, width, and height, and the outer appearance, matched the original bridge, the rehabilitated bridge was essentially a new structure. In order to accommodate heavier trucks and meet Federal Highway Administration standards, it was built to H-15 (15-ton truck) loading capacity using a two-span steel, through Howe truss design. The steel beams that composed the portal frames of the bridge were covered with a two-inch-thick timber facade so they would resemble the original bridge's timber beams.

Workers salvaged and reused as much material as possible from the original bridge, including enough of the cedar siding to cover the downstream side of the bridge that is most visible to travelers. (New cedar siding on the upstream side would weather to resemble the original appearance.) A new timber deck matching the original was installed in place of the 1950s steel and asphalt surface.

Celebrating the Bridge

The rehabilitation work was substantially completed on September 28, 1989, and the formal rededication ceremony was held two days later on September 30. Fittingly, the Master of Ceremonies for the event was Robert Michael Pyle (b. 1947), the Lecturer of the Grays River Grange. Pyle, an award-winning author acclaimed as one of America's leading nature writers, was (and is) a Grays River resident who lives and writes just above the bridge in the Victorian farmhouse that was built and occupied for many years by H. P. Ahlberg, the Grange founder and driving force behind the original bridge. Pyle said "The bridge symbolizes Wahkiakum County ... it joins people together and links the present to the past" (Bruce, p. 5).

The 1989 festivities marked the start of a tradition as the Grays River Covered Bridge Festival became an annual occasion celebrating the historic bridge.

Sources: Robin Bruce, "Grays River Covered Bridge" (Historic American Engineering Record, HAER WA-28), Library of Congress American Memory website accessed December 22, 2006 (; "Grays River Covered Bridge," State of Washington, Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation website accessed December 18, 2006 (; Robert Michael Pyle, Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007); "Robert Michael Pyle" in Water Under the Bridge: Oral Histories from Grays River Valley by Ruth Busse Allingham (South Bend, WA: Pacific County Historical Society, 2001); Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: A History of Wahkiakum County (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997), 66-67, 92, 106, 127, 130; Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman: WSU Press, 2005), 74-75.

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