By Russell Neyman.
WE TAKE IT FOR GRANTED that we have several options when we need to go someplace these days. A trip from Yukon Harbor to “downtown” Port Orchard can be completed in as few as ten minutes via the “straight shot” down SE Mile Hill Road and Bethel Road, or we can choose the leisurely and scenic route through Manchester, Waterman and Annapolis. What we probably don’t notice are the dozens of deep creek and stream beds that have been bridged over. But, no, traveling here has not always been so easy.
In the era when White settlers first came here — the mid-1800’s — the thick trees and tenacious undergrowth made travel difficult, but those could be burned or cut away. The bigger challenge lay in the deep creeks that flowed between the many tall hills perpendicular to the shorelines, creating natural barriers that made it difficult to cross but impossible to traverse with a load of goods.
This year (2012) the Kitsap County Roads Department finally replaced the concrete bridge that has spanned the creek for nearly nine decades, as evidenced by the sounds of jackhammers, piling drivers, and heavy equipment that echoed across the bay for the past six months. The new bridge is at least the seventh structure built in the last 120 years to permit residents to cross. Various accounts show that there was a float, three wooden bridges, one narrow footbridge, and — including the newest one — two concrete structures. That’s a testament to the importance of traversing the creek and the barrier it has presented through the decades.
UPDATE: YHHS is organizing a modest parade (classic cars, brass band, etc) to coincide with Kitsap County’s bridge dedication ceremonies at 2 pm on Thursday, March 8th. Questions? Suggestions? Use the comments section, below.
The aforementioned early trip to Port Orchard, née Sidney, is an example of how travel was long and arduous. Even later, when roads began to appear, it took a major effort to go places. To travel by land from Manchester (known as Brooklyn at the time) to the county offices on the banks of Sinclair Inlet, the only reasonable route was via Spring Street, across the creek there onto a trail now known as Puget Drive, through the wandering lane roughly following what is now Yukon Harbor Road, up the hill on McGregor, turning right onto a roadway (Garfield Avenue), bending north, then along a zigzagging dirt path that roughly followed Salmonberry Creek. Finally, the traveler would turn on Pottery and head downhill to town, ending up on Bay Street. A trip of this type in the 1880’s would take a full day, and wagons were generally useless because of the many creeks and narrow passages. In the early days, most travel was done by foot.
A note aside: The waters fed a broad calm body of water first named “Barron’s Bay” by the Wilkes Expedition of Exploration, but it was later re-named “Yukon Harbor” for unknown reasons. One theory has it that the locals thought the new name might entice miners heading for the Alaska gold rush to pass through for supplies, but the bay is identified as Yukon Harbor is on an 1891 map, and since the gold wasn’t discovered until 1896, that seems unlikely. Prior to that, it is either unidentified or listed as Barron’s Bay.
So, from about 1870 through the 1880’s, land-locked settlers and Native Americans could ford the creek on foot IF the tide was out and there was no heavy rain or snow runoff. In the beginning, the entrance to the estuary looked remarkably different that it does today. There was no built-up land for a roadbed, and there were high banks on both sides well back from the creek, too. It was wide and flat, so crossing by foot was a possibility from time to time.If that was not feasible, the travelers had no choice but to hike inland through the heavy brush and hilly terrain for half a mile or so — not a pleasant task, to be sure — to find a place where the creek could be crossed. And the wide sandy beach extended out into the Sound, with a large treeless area just to the North that was perfect for human habitation. The Native Americans built a longhouse here, gathering for the salmon runs and enjoying the fair weather.
Later, when white civilization arrived, this space came to be known as “the Picnic Grounds” and was a popular vacation spot for Seattle’s elite. It was, actually, effectively isolated from access to the North by a large, rocky outcrop. This was later blasted away with dynamite. There are accounts of a full-sized baseball games being held here, and small “vacation lots” were eventually sold for as little as nine dollars apiece. There were about two-dozen wealthy families who visited and placed tents over wooden floors as summer cabins.
About the time the first town, Colby, was established (1884) a rope-drawn float was used. The vessel was probably nothing more than four logs strapped together with planks nailed at right angles, and passengers would pull themselves via a sturdy rope that was tied to a tree on both banks. This had its obvious limitations, especially in difficult weather. When the travelers reached the far side, there was a steep and, quite often, muddy bank to traverse, so it was an inconvenient business and not suitable for everyday use.
Boat was still the preferred means of travel, even for a short distance. The need for a bridge was further driven by the development of new villages around the original Colby township and, later, Brooklyn, which had been established toward Rocky Point. South Colby, described at the time as “a subdivision of Colby,” was established by the Cornell families in 1888 although it did not have a post office for many years thereafter. The new community housed the region’s only church and, later, the Grange Hall, so it was important to have access. A small group of houses and businesses two miles to the East also needed to stay connected. Known as Harmon’s Landing to the locals, this eventually came to be the small town of Harper.
Limited access across the creek was established with the building of a 100-foot span a short distance up from the shoreline where the creek narrowed and the banks were steep. Accounts of this short-lived bridge are scarce, so it is assumed that it was neither well-built nor very useful. It was probably nothing more than a few trees laying side-by-side with planks nailed crosswise, and undoubtedly uneven. This could have, theoretically, supported small wagons, but it did not last long. Structures built with fir or cedar, the most common material available, did not withstand the weather and rot.
At the same time, nearer the entrance to the estuary and much more conveniently situated, was a longer but more sophisticated footbridge, designed to accommodate lumberman
going to their jobs and also the schoolchildren for their daily trek to the one-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of Colby Village. The school was located at what is today the intersection of Cole Street and Yukon Harbor Road. The footbridge stood as late as the 1930’s.
In 1890 the locals finally decided that something more permanent was needed, so a long wooden span was contracted. It was built under the supervision of Benjamin H. Keith and, according to his son, Harry Keith, measured 400 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 20 feet high. It was made with cedar timber and logs harvested from the local stands of timber, and lasted about 14 years. The bridge had a trussed span directly above the stream, which permitted the passage of small steamers and barges. No piers or wharfs had yet been built anywhere nearby, so the clearance had a double-purpose, serving as a “derrick” so that cargo could be lifted off of boats from above and carried to its destination.
At that time the creek and the bay were both teeming with wildlife. Salmon by the millions swarmed upstream in the early fall, and that brought schools of killer whales who fed on the fish. Also seeking the spawning fish were bear and bald eagles. There are accounts of lumbermen simply wading into the stream and grabbing large spawning fish in their hands, tossing their catch onto the bank. Deer, grouse, and ducks were plentiful despite the expansion of timber operations.
Construction of the taller, grander 1904 bridge across Curley Creek, with its shorter 1890 predecessor shown in the background. Note the trussed span in the middle that allowed small steamers to tow lumber barges to the shingle mill upstream. Blake Island can be seen in the distance. The logs in the foreground are probably being staged for construction of the bridge.
The winters were hard on the not-so-durable cedar, so when the first full-sized bridge began to falter, a new one was built. A thriving shingle mill had been constructed a few yards upstream, and the finished goods needed to be transported to market via barge, so the new span included a trestle to give clearance for small steamers.
As the photos here indicate, the bridge was built using a donkey engine that raised and dropped a pile-driver, sinking timbers deep into the sandy soil. The then state-of-the-art machine was simply a steam engine mounted on a sled, and was transported by ropes tied to nearby trees, dragging itself by its own power. It was pulled across the span a few feet at a time, then secured to the bridge so that it could lift and drop the pile-driving weights.
It is not clear how long this bridge lasted. It is known that the first concrete structure — the one being dismantled in this year — was built in 1929, the year of the stock market crash that began the Great Depression. It’s construction marked the end of an era of prosperity and industrial growth for the area. It was one of the last projects of the “Roaring Twenties.” Luckily, the bridge was completed before the disaster struck.
This renovation dramatically changed the terrain around the mouth of the estuary, as the bridge-builders built up both sides of the creek with rocks and landfill. That allowed the new structure to be shorter and sturdier, and since there was no longer the need for steamships and barges to pass through — the shingle mill long since having disappeared — it was not so tall, either. When the bridge was modernized, the Southworth Drive roadway was widened and flattened, and the excess fill was pushed into toward the water’s edge, effectively eliminating the famous Picnic Grounds. The narrower, more controlled creek had an obvious impact on the wildlife, and the silt from upstream gradually filled in the wide valley.
One wonders if the Native American who once frequented the creek would even recognize the place!
But the new bridge restores the creek opening to some extent. It is three times wider than the ’29 structure, going from the existing 35-foot opening to 95 feet, and that might just be the thing needed to re-energize the salmon runs and other wildlife that have been waning. It will have a pair of 12-foot lanes and five-foot bicycle lanes, plus shoulders and viewing platforms.
Wonderful stories of life in and around the creek and bridges abound. (See anecdotes provided by JoAnn Lorden, Earl Whitner, Jay Blackburn, and others elsewhere on this website.)
The Native American tribes considered it a favored spot, and the first settlers did as well. In the 1940’s, kids leaped off into the not-so-deep water below in daredevil games, and it has always been a good fishing spot. The salmon runs have diminished, but in the early fall fish can still be seen leaping into the air near the creek entrance, following some ancient internal instinct to come to this spot. Various government agencies are doing what they can to invite the salmon back, hopefully re-capturing some of the natural beauty that has always been part of the creek. It’s easy to get a sense of the importance of this place to the people and ecology of Yukon Harbor.
Like the six preceeding spans, he shiny new bridge dramatically changes the estuary and belies the history that has occurred here. Long ago hundreds of people — important people — stood at this point and considered their options.
This article will be updated and amended as new information is uncovered. YHHS would love to hear from you if you have any old photos of the bridge, creek, buildings or people from the Yukon Harbor area. RN, Feb 2012.
Feature article and artwork copyright 2011 by Russell Neyman.
A note about these photos:
Jay Blackburn, a local resident who grew up in the Curley Creek Area, came to us with these photographs two years ago, offering them to the Yukon Harbor Historical Society. We were faced with two obstacles: one was that the photos were large format glass negatives, and the other was that we do not maintain a museum or warehouse where these can be maintained. We offered to facilitate having the negatives scanned and converted to digital format, and suggested that he donate them to the Kitsap County Historical Society.
We were surprised to learn that it is not easy to scan glass negatives and that it requires specialized equipment, and the process had many starts and stops that lasted nearly a year. The ones you see here are just a few of the extensive collection, and these were done using only rudimentary scanner technology, which explains some of the fuzziness and lack of detail. The complete collection in higher definition is now archived at the KCHS Museum.
Our thanks to Jay Blackburn for his patience and assistance. — RN.