RARE BRIDGES SPAN RIVERS
The Fairview Lift Bridge is located across the North Dakota border 3.5 miles east
of Fairview and two miles west of Cartwright, ND. This bridge along with its sister bridge at
Snowden, MT (pictured above) was constructed as part of an ambitious plan by Great Northern Railroad
for its never-completed Montana Eastern Railway. According to Richard E. Johnson in a 1994 article published
in "Hoofprints," (the publication of the Yellowstone Corral of the Westerners) the railway was designed as a
second mainline for the northern plains, connecting the vast open spaces between New Rockford, ND, and Lewistown, MT.
About the time World War I began, an economic downturn of the Montana Eastern Railway brought construction to a halt.
According to Mark Hufstetler, a historian with Renewable Technologies Inc., of Butte, MT, the Fairview Lift Bridge
served as a little-used branchline. He stated "At its peak, the line probably saw no more than one passenger and one
freight train each way per day."
History of the Fairview Lift Bridge
The Fairview Lift Bridge constructed by Gerrick & Gerrick stretches 1,320 feet across the Yellowstone River.
In its earlier days, the Fairview Lift Bridge not only accommodated rail traffic, but also vehicular traffic.
Planking was placed between and outside the rails to accommodate automobiles. According to Hufstetler, a watchman was
stationed at the bridge to prevent trains and automobiles from colliding. He wrote that Great Northern charged a toll
for cars using the bridge until the state highway department assumed responsibility in 1937. Don Tank, 79, Minot, worked on the bridge as a "leverman" in the 1950s.
"Levermen controlled the highway traffic," said Tank. "I worked just one summer for a couple of months. It was the lowest paid job in the division. Levermen were supposed to control the highway gates on the bridge so cars wouldn't run into the trains, but most of the time they were just left open. The locals knew the timing of the trains anyway."
According to Tank, passenger trains crossed the bridge once each day and freight trains once every other day. Other than at those times, automobiles could cross the bridge on planks laid near the ties. There was a hand-cranked telephone in the leverman's hut that was wired to the depot at Cartwright about 1 1/2 miles east of the tunnel and also Fairview to the west. The phone was used to alert the leverman when a train was approaching from either direction.
A second phone was placed at the west end of the bridge. That phone was to be used by motorists to alert the leverman that they wished to cross the bridge.
"I remember one time, it was a Sunday, and dad and I were going hunting. I was maybe six or seven years old," recalled Tank. "The gate was locked and nobody was working so dad got some wrenches out and removed the bolts on the gate and we went across anyway."
Tank said working and waiting for a train or motorcar was lonely and boring work.
"I remember one old guy who did that. He spent the daytime sharpening saws and made good money. It worked out pretty good for him," said Tank.
Automobile traffic ceased
and the planking was removed once construction of the Hjalmer Nelson Memorial Highway Bridge was completed in 1956.
Passenger rail service on the line ended in the late 1950s and the last freight rail service to cross the bridge was
on June 5, 1986.
The Cartwright Tunnel
While now closed to both rail and vehicular traffic, the Fairview Lift Bridge adjoins the only tunnel in North Dakota.
The 1,458-foot long tunnel was built in 1912 and 1913. Most of the digging was done by hand, although horse and
mule-drawn scrapers and blasting powder were used in building the approaches.
Historical Value of the Fairview Lift Bridge
In 1991, the state began a survey of historic bridges. The Fairview Lift Bridge was on the list of 127 found eligible
for the National Register. It was among 30 chosen for nomination. According to Hufstetler, who submitted the nomination,
the bridge qualifies both for its historical significance and its unique engineering. In 1997, the bridge was listed
on the National Register of Historic Places. Being that both the Cartwright Tunnel and Fairview Lift Bridge remain
structurally sound, the Fairview Chamber of Commerce has developed them into a walking trail.
Shortly after work was completed, a test was conducted on the apparatus used to raise the 1.14 million pound lift section
of the bridge. It worked perfectly. That was the one and only time the remarkable marvel of engineering was used
History of the Snowden Lift Bridge
The Snowden Lift Bridge crossing the Missouri River 10 miles north of Fairview is a twin to the Fairview Lift Bridge.
It, like the Fairview Lift Bridge, was constructed as part of the Montana Eastern Railway. Until 1986, the historic
Snowden Lift Bridge was likely the only bridge left in the country to accommodate both rail and vehicular traffic.
While modern-day liability concerns eventually forced the expulsion of automobile traffic, the bridge remains in use
by rail traffic.
History of the Bridges Construction and Components
At the time construction of the two bridges began in 1912, federal law required an 80-ft. height clearance from the
average water level on navigable waters. Being that both the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers were navigable, both
bridges were designed to accommodate the law. The best option the railroad had to accommodate the 80-ft requirement
was to install a 'lift' section in each bridge allowing one of its sections to be raised to allow the passage of oversize
river traffic. The design of this style of drawbridge is distinct from others in that an entire section is uniformly
lifted from each end. The nearly 300-ft. 'lift' section of each bridge weighs 1.4 million lbs. The 'lift' section
consists of two 108-ft. towers that house the counterweights. Each counterweight connects to the section using 16
two-inch cables (eight cables per corner). Because the weight of the section was so well counterbalanced, a 3-cylinder
kerosene engine is all that was required to raise and lower the section. Being that all river traffic ceased on both
the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in 1913, the only time the 'lift' section on the Fairview Lift Bridge was raised
was at the completion of construction in 1913 to test the lift mechanism's functionality. The last time the Snowden Lift
Bridge's 'lift' section was raised was in 1935 to allow the passage of a freight boat carrying materials for the Fort Peck
Dam. After nearly a century, (although no longer operational on either bridge) the equipment required to lift the bridge
sections remain fully intact minus the 3-cylinder kerosene engine from the Fairview Lift Bridge, which was removed several
years ago. Unlike the Fairview Lift Bridge, the Snowden Lift Bridge is uniquely designed in a fashion that the
counterweights and accompanying lift mechanisms can be moved to another section of the bridge should the navigation
channel of the river shift. The cost to build each bridge was $500,000.
Donations can be sent to
Friends of the Fairview Bridge
c/o First Security Bank-West
Fairview MT 59221
Friends of the Fairview Bridge
c/o Montana Community Foundation
Attn Heather Swingley
101 North Last Chance Gulch,
Helena, MT 59601
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