When the Old Steel Bridge was put into place spanning the Flathead River in 1894, just south of what is now Highway 35 and along Holt Stage Road, it offered a solution for everyone who needed to get across the waterway in a more reliable way than by cable ferry.
For more than 100 years, the bridge held strong for people crossing from bank to bank, even putting up with the type of traffic it wasn’t built for, such as automobiles.
But after it was decommissioned in 2008, the bridge has languished on the riverbank, waiting for a new life.
And last week, local blacksmith Jeffrey Funk found a way to make that happen. He and his crew methodically took apart the bridge, saving it from the scrap heap, and destining the wrought iron pieces for future use in tools, art, and architectural uses.
“Frankly, I had my eyes on it before they tore it down,” Funk said.
Other sections of the bridge had already been removed and cut up for scrap, he said, and he didn’t want that to happen to the remaining structure. The wrought iron used to make the bridge, which he considers the “old growth” of iron, isn’t made anymore, replaced by steel.
“I can make things with this I simply cannot make with steel,” Funk said.
There weren’t any automobiles here when the bridge made its way into the valley by train, and a team of oxen pulled it into place. From 1894 until 2008, the bridge served for everyday use, helping people cross the river regardless of the weather.
After it was decommissioned, Pete Skibsrud bought the bridge, hoping to transform it back to its former glory somewhere else, possibly spanning the Stillwater River near Flathead Valley Community College.
However, the money and the logistics weren’t there, and the bridge sat at the fishing access bearing its name.
Funk said he was involved with the project when Skibsrud came onto the scene, and wanted to help revitalize the structure if possible. But when that didn’t seem like it was in the cards, he offered to take the metal so it could be saved from the scrap heap and be made into new creations, all the while acknowledging where the metal in these creations came from.
The blacksmith has taken on similar projects in the past, using materials from a decommissioned bridge in Bigfork. Finding wrought iron these days can be a chore, he said, but it’s the metal he prefers to work with.
“It’s a material that’s really wonderfully plastic under the hammer of a blacksmith,” Funk said. “I don’t want that material to get melted down, because they don’t make it anymore.”
The bridge has held up well over the last century, Funk said; when he took the structure apart, it was sound. The footings were the problem, he said.
After strategically dissecting the bridge over a period of three days, Funk was left with about 14 tons of material. Much of the compressed material will go on to be part of architectural structures, and the remaining 7,000 pounds of bar stock will be used for various blacksmithing projects.
Since there’s so much metal, Funk said he would be using plenty of it for his own projects, including forging axes, gates and tools, as well as selling some of it to other blacksmiths around the country seeking out wrought iron.
He will use some of it to make a creation for Skibsrud, Funk said, as a way of saying thank you for the years he fought to keep the bridge from disappearing. He also intends on forging some pieces for the Museum at Central School in Kalispell.
There are also plans for a small interpretive site at the fishing access where the bridge was, Funk said.
Overall, Funk said he is pleased he could extend the life of such an historic structure.
“I kind of like to immerse myself tactilely in history,” he said. “I can feel the history under my hammer.”
For more information on Jeffrey Funk, visit www.jeffreyfunkmetalworker.com.
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