The Grays River Covered Bridge is located in the heart of Grays River in Wahkiakum County, Washington State. It is the centerpiece of Ahlberg Park and which is run by the Wahkiakum Community Foundation under the Grays River Grange. The park is named in honor of Hans P. Ahlberg and his family. Ahlberg was an immigrant Swede who arrived in Grays River in 1873. He and his family soon built a prosperous dairy farm and, as it spanned both sides of the river, a bridge was needed.
The first bridge across Grays River was a swinging foot bridge—which one can imagine might have been a little terrifying to cross in a gale and extremely awkward while holding containers of fresh milk. The farm soon needed a better system of transportation, and, to accommodate horses and wagons, the Ahlbergs built the covered bridge in 1905 for a cost of $2615.00. Originally made with bare wooden trusses, the new bridge was covered with shingles and reinforced with steel cables in 1908. The original swinging bridge was moved, but remained in use for much of the century.
Different sources offer different dimensions for the bridge, but according to an Eastern Washington University engineering study in 1991, the bridge is 155.5 feet in length, 22.5 feet high, and 14 feet wide. Though it was expensive to build in its day, the cost pales when compared to the reconstruction costs of the 1980s, which, according to the same study, came to $295,980.00.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the one-lane covered bridge is still in use by local traffic. Today the bridge and park are the site of a Grays River Grange dinner-fundraiser and the Grays River Bridge Festival. A large plaque on the park site details the involvement of the Ahlberg family. The river is still used as a swimming hole, and a swing that dangles under the bridge is used by local children to splash down into the water.
In the late 1980s the bridge had fallen into a state of disrepair and nearly torn down. A rally by the local people of Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties, however, saved the bridge. Money was raised for restoration, and, on September 30 1989, the bridge was rededicated for use. Grays River resident and writer Robert M. Pyle served as Master of Ceremonies for the occasion. From that time is has been the people of the Grays River Grange who are most active in the care and preservation of both the bridge and the park surrounding it. It is a source of pride for the whole community.
The pioneering community of Grays River had to do without a bridge in the earliest days and traveled on foot or by boat. The first settlers to Grays River were Samuel Walker and his family. Other early settlers included the Smalleys, Charles E. Schoebe, Rev. Henry O. Lamb, a Methodist Preacher, Nis N. Nymand, John E. Klint, and Hans P. Ahlberg.
The first school at Grays River was built in 1873, and the children ferried back and forth in a “school-boat” built by the Barrs for that purpose. William Worthington was the first school teacher, and the first students consisted of “three Bakers, three Barrs and Tom Birchard”. Later, when the bridge was built, school children used the bridge to cross back and forth to school. As they went, they used their school chalk to scribble notes on the wooden sides of the bridge.
In those earliest days there was no easy access to the Grays River hamlet. Mail came in fishing boats carried by fishermen or the residents themselves to the families up river. It is said that the fishermen folded the mail into their hip-boots to keep it dry. In general, “progress” was slow to come to Grays River. Home of prize dairy herds and champion butter makers, the residents none-the-less used hand cranked telephones until 1968.
Grays River itself got its name in commemoration of Capt. Robert Gray who was the first European ship captain to cross the Columbia River Bar and “discover” the river. Capt. Gray sailed up the Columbia to the mouth of Grays River and stayed there, sending Lt. Broughton in a smaller boat farther upstream in search of the Columbia headwaters. Prior to this time, the Native American Chinook people who lived in the Grays River Valley called the river “Moolhool.”
Though life in Grays River has the sense of a green, farming paradise, life was hard and the people had their share of tragedy. One such tragedy was recorded and printed in the Longview Daily News in 1954. The Grays River “The suspension bridge….is associated with one of Grays River’s worst tragedies. Mrs. Whorl, who was suffering from a nervous breakdown, went out early one morning in her night dress while her husband was milking and jumped off the bridge into the river, taking her own life” .
A final bit of history worth noting was the joy of local men from Longview to Ocean Beach to Astoria at the news that gold had been found “above the forks” of Grays River. Large groups of potential prospectors left their wives to man the farms while they journeyed up the river in search of gold. There was no gold, however. The rush lasted only a couple of weeks before the men were home again. Unfortunately it was an adventure that ended in tragedy for one Grays River resident, Joe Smalley, who died on the expedition.
The economy of Grays River began with fur trapping and Native American trade. As pioneers moved in, it became a center for logging, and then a place of large farms and dairying. The center of town included a General Store, large creamery, and a Methodist church and parsonage.
Local families who had founded a Methodist Sunday School in the late 1800s built a church on the banks of the Grays River. They named the church the Stimson Episcopal Methodist Church in honor of Rev. Stimson who was its first pastor. The church was moved early on from the banks of the river to slightly higher ground due to river flooding. Then in the late 1968s, the church was demolished and rebuilt, with a brand new sanctuary, on an uphill site about a mile east.
The congregation of the Grays River United Methodist Church is still a thriving part of the Grays River community.
Sources (accessed from the files of the Appelo Archives):
 Reminiscences of Grays River by Emma R. Barr and Mrs. Geo. Hopkins (Jessie Barr).
Glories of Covered Bridges Recalled by Ardent Admirer. Longview Daily News. Thursday, January 28, 1954. Article by J. M. McClelland includes excerpt written by Mrs. Jesse Hindman.
Champion Buttermaker by Alta Merserve in Grays River Builder.
Grays River Bridge Historic American Engineering Record. Report prepared by Robin Bruce, Archeological and Historical Services, Eastern Washington University, August 1991.
Grays River is No Longer Mossbackish. Handwritten notation ‘Col. Press 2-15-1968.
Postmarked Washington: Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties by Guy Reed Ramsey.
Historic American Engineering Record by Robin Bruce, 1991. This report is available on the Library of Congress website. You can view the whole report here.
Photographs of the Covered Bridge, Grays River, Grange Hall, Church Sanctuary, and the Grays River City sign by Jon Fairhurst, 2010.