Built in 1923, the Mill Creek Bridge, near Prospect, is scheduled for a rehabilitation project in 2012.

Who really drew the Mill Creek Bridge?

If you think all history is carved in stone, you're in for a big surprise.

"History," said historian Simon Schama, "is understanding who we THINK we are, by remembering what we THINK we did."

The historic Mill Creek Bridge is a small, but good, example.

This stone and concrete structure just west of Prospect arches across the Rogue River where its rapids crash over a boulder-strewn precipice into a deep canyon.

For most of its 88 years, its history seemed clear.

Completed at the end of 1923, the bridge was obviously the work of Oregon's most celebrated bridge engineer, Conde McCullough.

It made perfect sense. McCullough saw bridges as works of art and the evidence was overwhelming.

Finished just three years after McCullough's first project in Oregon, the Rock Point Bridge near Gold Hill, the Mill Creek Bridge was almost an identical twin.

Both are narrow bridges without sidewalks, arching across the river with urn-shaped concrete balusters supporting gracefully beveled concrete handrails.

The Jackson County Road Department even had a copy of McCullough's original plan for the "Prospect Bridge," and there, hiding in plain sight, were all the reasons why this wasn't his bridge.

The stairway and viewing platform under the bridge, a favorite in many of McCullough's designs, were never built. The four light poles, seen in the earliest photographs, were not part of McCullough's plan, and where McCullough wanted a bridge roadbed nearly 20 feet wide, when completed, it had shrunk to 14 feet.

It was easy to ignore these exceptions. Weren't they just cost-cutting measures during a time when the state was spending a lot of money building bridges and highways?

Not until Jackson County recently received funding to rehabilitate the bridge did the facts begin to trickle out.

The county asked ODOT's historian and Cultural Resource Program Coordinator, Chris Bell, to help the project by researching the bridge. What he found changed almost everything we thought we knew.

"Conde designed the bridge, but the Federal Bureau of Public Roads took over in October 1922 and drew their own plans," said Bell.

"Why the takeover? It's not quite clear to me yet."

During 1923, the Oregon Highway Commission, predecessor of ODOT, was improving the Crater Lake Highway as far as Prospect, and the federal government was improving the road from there to the lake.

Perhaps that's why control of bridge construction changed hands, but that is difficult to prove.

It would be easier to find that "needle in a haystack" than uncover contemporary newspaper stories about the bridge's construction. Extensive searching has uncovered only one.

"The Bureau of Public Roads and the State Highway Commission are constructing a bridge over the Rogue River near Prospect," it said.

Had that story not really been about the Medford-based California Oregon Power Co. and how it would supply free electricity to the bridge lights, it's likely the bridge project would never have been mentioned at all.

"I still have research to do to get to the bottom of this," said Bell. "What a fascinating story this is."

We agree, Chris, and we plan to be with you every step of the way.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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