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Old Highway 99 crosses over the Steinman Bridge and then loops back under it. The bridge was completed in early 1915. - Bill Miller

Fourteen miles of trouble

The First World War had come to the Siskiyous, and John Sweeney was playing referee.

As European armies mobilized in August 1914, German and Russian laborers in the mountains of Southern Oregon had already drawn blood in battle.

Before Sweeney stepped in and ordered an uneasy truce, a bare-fisted brawl had knocked out some teeth and broken a nose.

Sweeney worried that unless he grouped his work crews by nationality, sentiments over the European war would stop construction on the new Pacific Highway.

That January, Sweeney had signed a contract with Jackson County, agreeing to build the first 14 miles of the highway from the California border to within seven miles of Ashland.

The Saturday night brawl was only the latest trouble Sweeney had faced in the past eight months.

No complete road survey was ready, so while waiting for a surveyor to stake the official line of the highway, Sweeney put construction on hold and set his crews to work clearing terrain in those few areas that had already been marked.

But, when the survey was complete, the route had changed by as much as three miles, adding a quarter-mile to the length of the highway and forcing Sweeney to redo some of his work.

The contract also called for constructing two concrete bridges over the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, but inaccurate county surveys led to even more delays.

Construction on the Dollarhide Bridge finally began in May and almost immediately ran into trouble.

Concrete support columns were poured, and while they were drying, the whole plan of the bridge changed. When the center span lengthened and the other two spans were shortened, the columns had to be moved.

The bridge was almost complete when engineers realized they had underestimated clearance needed for the railroad. Additions to the support columns lengthened the bridge and forced a realignment of the highway.

The Dollarhide Bridge was completed in November 1914, one month after work on the long-delayed Steinman Bridge had begun.

The final plan for the Steinman hadn't even been delivered to Sweeney until October, five weeks after the contract said the bridge should be completed. It would be plagued by the same problems faced by the Dollarhide, including being too close to the rail line.

While his crews worked, freezing winter temperatures forced Sweeney to continually heat water and gravel to avoid frost damage to the concrete. Night and day, a worker kept the fires burning.

Sweeney's 14 miles of road were completed in March 1915 and, when Jackson County officials refused to pay him an additional $120,000 for the extra work and expense, Sweeney sued.

In February 1919, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with Sweeney and ordered the county to pay.

A year later, the dirt highway was paved to the California border, but not by Sweeney.

At the highway's dedication ceremony, the blunders continued as several cubic yards of Oregon concrete were mistakenly poured in California.

"Don't worry," said an unnamed Oregon official. "They need a good start anyway."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

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