Historic Bigfork Bridge Closes to Vehicle and Pedestrian Traffic

The 112-year-old bridge’s structural integrity has been deteriorating for years and is slated for replacement; however, a recent inspection prompted its emergency closure on Jan. 31

By Tristan Scott
The single-lane bridge over the Swan River in Bigfork on July 14, 2016. Beacon file photo

Due to structural concerns, the historic bridge crossing the Swan River and connecting downtown Bigfork to Montana Highway 35 will close to pedestrian and vehicle traffic starting today, Jan. 31, and continuing for the foreseeable future, according to a press release from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).

The state transportation department performs regular inspections of the bridge and, during a recent inspection, determined it can no longer reliably carry traffic, the department press release states. Construction to replace the bridge is slated to begin in 2026, according to an MDT website dedicated to the project.

Known as the Bridge Street Bridge, the iconic 112-year-old one-lane steel-truss bridge crosses the Swan River and features a separate walkway catering to pedestrians in one of western Montana’s most popular tourist destinations. Flathead County and MDT identified the bridge as a structure in need of repair or replacement in a 2017 feasibility study, revealing that, due to time, corrosion and damage, the bridge was no longer capable of carrying heavier vehicles.

With a 3-ton load maximum, emergency response vehicles and heavy county equipment, such as snow plows, are unable to use the structure or clear it of snow. The study noted that, without substantial repairs, the bridge’s load capacity would continue to deteriorate.

For years MDT has been preparing to replace the existing Bridge Street Bridge with a new structure that will allow heavier loads, including emergency vehicles, while honoring the its historic character with a matching steel truss shape and single-travel lane. The new bridge will also feature an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant pedestrian walkway.

Construction is anticipated to start in 2026.  In response to the emergency closure, MDT is investigating ways to expedite the schedule, according to the press release; however, timelines are subject to change due to factors such as funding availability, availability of contractors, utility and right-of-way coordination, and other unforeseen issues.

MDT told the public in October 2021 that construction to replace the structure would begin in 2024, but acknowledged at the time that delays were possible.

“Plans continue to move ahead for the replacement of the current bridge; however, due to the structure’s condition, early closure of the bridge due to reliability concerns has always been a possibility,” Bob Vosen, MDT Missoula District Administrator, stated in the release. “We understand the closure is inconvenient, but safety is the top priority. We thank the community for their patience and cooperation and encourage residents to reach out with any questions or concerns.”

In coordination with Flathead County, workers have placed barriers at each end of the bridge. Advanced warning signage will also be installed to notify drivers of the closure. The closure will only affect the areas immediately next to the bridge and the bridge itself. The entrances of area residences and businesses will not be affected.

Pedestrians and vehicles will be required to use Grand Drive to access downtown Bigfork. Sliter’s Park and other destinations southwest of the bridge can be accessed using Bridge Street from the Montana Highway 209 (MT 209) or MT 35 turn-offs.

Members of the public with questions or concerns can email Sloane Stinson at [email protected] or call the project hotline at (406) 207-4484, operating Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the Bridge Street – Bigfork project, visit http://bit.ly/BridgeStreetBigfork.