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The Seven Spans of Curley Creek | South Kitsap History

The 1904 bridge under construction.  - William Alberts, From the Jay Blackburn Collection
The 1904 bridge under construction.
— image credit: William Alberts, From the Jay Blackburn Collection

By Russell Neyman.

Chairman, Yukon Harbor Historical Society

There’s more to the bridge that crosses Curley Creek than meets the eye. While the locals — especially the ferry-bound commuters and grade school parents — are celebrating the re-opening of the concrete structure that allows them the shortest route to their destinations, those of us who are historians understand that this is a very special and significant place.

Mother Nature certainly understands that. There was a time when the salmon runs were so thick that lumbermen and local Indians simply waded out into the stream and threw their dinner onto the shore. Those same fish brought other wildlife: bears, bald eagles, and killer whales. Yukon Harbor was, for hundreds of years, a breeding ground for orcas and other whales. They migrated here every year, devoured the salmon, and made steamship passage treacherous. As the fish disappeared, so did the orcas and eagles.

And the Suquamish tribes held the creek and the wide, sandy flatland to the north as sacred, too. They journeyed here every winter to hunt and fish, and built a small village on the beach. They called the place “boo-cohl-bee” (a phonetic spelling) which loosely translates to “a gathering of various people from different places.” That phrase and word eventually gave the nearby town, Colby, its name. The creek itself probably drew its moniker from the anglicized name of a local Indian.

When the first settlers arrived they were confronted by a vast, complex wilderness. Other than a few game trails, travel inland was nearly impossible until formal roads were built in the very late 1800s. Yes, the lumbermen harvested the timber, but they left behind huge piles of debris that intertwined with the dense undergrowth to create a tangled, impenetrable mass. And there was the weather, too, and the mud that came with it. The settlers cut, burned and cleared what they could, but the many deep and, at times, fast-moving creeks made land travel extremely difficult. Curley Creek, winding up from the apex of Yukon Harbor to Long Lake, was one of the most formidable.

Without a bridge, travel by wagon or even by horse was simply too difficult. A trip to the Colby General Store to pick up the mail from nearby Harmon’s Landing (Harper) or Brooklyn (Manchester) was a major undertaking, and if you lived on the other side of the creek you had to use a boat or wait until the tide was very low. That is why steamships were in use on Puget Sound all the way through the to the 1920s.

Since a town first popped up near the estuary — long-forgotten Colby was Kitsap’s very first jumping-off point with a Post Office established even before that of Port Orchard — the locals needed a way to cross the creek safely. The first effort was simply a log raft, pulled across via a rope. Then, about the time the post office opened, two temporary small bridges were hastily built, neither lasting very long. Finally, about 1890 a local carpenter named Benjamin Keith was hired by the townspeople to build a permanent bridge that reached an incredible 400 feet in length and was 20 feet tall. Keith’s structure would dwarf the one being built today.

Impressive as it was, it didn’t last very long. About 15 years later it was replaced by a sturdier and taller version, but again the harsh winters took their toll. We know about these two structures thanks to a collection of photographs by a William Alberts passed on to us by a local resident, Jay Blackburn. The two bridges, seen side by side in Alberts’ images, are testimony to the technology of the early 1900’s and the ingenuity of the men who built it.

In 1929 – the same year as the disastrous stock market crash and the start of The Great Depression – the federal government finally built a concrete structure. It was capable of carrying heavy trucks and, theoretically, Sherman Tanks, but that modernity carried a price. To build it the engineers needed to extend the land, adding boulders and pilings from the Colby (north) side. The narrower channel limited the flow of water and wildlife up and down the creek.

That bridge lasted 80-plus years and is a source of many fond memories for the families that lived here during the ’30s and ’40s. The kids played a sort of daredevil game with the tide, the idea that the last one who jumped from the bridge into the channel below without breaking his leg or neck was somehow the victor. Of course, fishing from the span has always been a favored activity. Somehow, the creek, Blake Island, and summers on Yukon Harbor are permanently intertwined for those generations, as evidenced by the countless stories that are sent to our historical society each year.

So this new bridge is The Seventh Span, wider, safer, and — hopefully – less of an obstacle to the wildlife. It’s hard to believe that civilized man has put that much effort to overcome a natural obstacle with an innocuous name like Curley Creek.

For more about local history, including features about Colby, South Colby, Manchester, Harper and Blake Island, see the Yukon Harbor Historical Society website: YukonHarbor.Wordpress.com. The society can also be reached by email at

YukonHarborHistory@ymail.com.

 

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