The Pioneer Bridge
By Gary VanDeWalker
Ribbons of HighwayJune 2015
By Gary Vandewalker
Photograph use permission courtesy of the Siskiyou County Museum, Yreka, CA
Fred Tice held six leather ribbons and with the crack of a whip could turn 24 hooves with precision around the curve of mountainside. His brave passengers peered through curtained windows at the churning river below the steep cliffs. When he turned 21, the baby faced man with curly, oiled dark hair took up a whip and would live to be one of the last surviving stagecoach drivers of California and Oregon. One of his final turns at the ribbons, as the reins were called, was in 1931, when he drove his six-horse team across the Pioneer Bridge in California for its dedication.
Interstate 5 passes over the Siskiyou Mountains, weaving through the passes to the town of Yreka. Just north of the city is Highway 263, once part of Highway 99, the main throughway in the mountains. When I-5 replaced Highway 99, a short portion of 99 was bypassed by cutting the new Interstate high above into the hillside. The remaining road below was renamed Highway 263 and held a masterpiece, the Pioneer Bridge.
The steel cantilever bridge traverses the Shasta River Canyon. Looming 267 feet above the river, the Sacramento State Capitol building could be tucked underneath. Its construction eliminated the need for more than two miles of stage road, and a necessity of fording the river.
The original road and fording followed the paths laid down by Native Americans, then traveled by trackers. They were beaten down by pack teams of 70 mules, bringing supplies to the mining towns south of the California-Oregon border. Stagecoaches and their drivers soon rutted the road while carrying their passengers.
While running the ribbons, drivers carried a hickory or oak handled whiplash. The drivers played the eight-foot leather lash like an instrument. It turned in the air, making sounds telling the horses what to do. The lash never touched the horses. A whipped horse meant the driver was no longer employed. Their driving and whip skills earned them the title of “Knights of the Whip,” inspiring young boys to dream of their own teams.
The roads the Knights traveled became the modern highways and interstates. Many parts of the routes settled into two-lane country drives, often named “Old Stage Road.” The stages disappeared around 1887 when the railroad connected Oregon and California. The river ford and a new road built in 1914 were replaced by a new highway and the 794-foot bridge in 1931, connecting the two states with uninterrupted roadway.
For the dedication of the Pioneer Bridge, the governors of California and Oregon drove north and south, meeting at the bridge. Now silver haired, Fred Tice took up his whip and ribbons and drove a team of horses with stagecoach across the span. A bronze plaque commemorated the August 29 afternoon, fixed to a granite boulder at the northeast corner. Words were inscribed in honor of Fred Tice and all who had driven this path with him.
“To the pioneers of stage and team, who blazed this trail and crossed this stream, to you whose courage led you on, through trials and hardships fought and won, to you whose faith in God and man, inspired the work of this great span, with pride and homage ever true, ‘this bridge’ we dedicate to you.”
To visit the Pioneer Bridge, drive to Exit 786 on
Interstate 5. Exit and continue 2.5 miles along the
Klamath River on Highway 96. Turn left onto Highway
263 and continue 2 miles to the Pioneer Bridge.