Guest Column

Titanic Bridge Carries its Final Load

Now the only way in and out of burgeoning Bigfork is via Grand Drive, which is bearing the brunt of the added traffic

By John McCaslin

Bigfork’s downtown and my dog are in a dither.

The tourist village’s vital steel truss bridge — since 1912 ferrying horse-drawn wagons, automobiles, pedestrians and their pets safely across the Swan River rapids — is kaput.

But talk about getting your money’s worth, and then some.

Completed within days of the sinking of the Titanic, the Swan River Bridge (aka Bridge Street Bridge) came with a price tag of only $4,400 — $139,142 in today’s currency. Better yet, and unlike the doomed luxury ship, it remained fully intact and operational for more than a century, earning its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The U.S. government’s Historic American Engineering Record educates that the 120-foot structure was deemed essential once the “Homestead Boom” began in 1909, bringing hundreds of new residents to the lower Flathead Valley.

Thus on June 21, 1911 the Flathead County commissioners awarded A.Y. Bayne & Company of Minneapolis the bridge contract (Bayne erected at least 15 bridges in Montana from 1906 to 1912, including the Flathead River Bridge in Columbia Falls) and in November its building crew arrived in Bigfork as the steel shipments reached the Great Northern Railway terminus at Somers.

Otherwise, the American Bridge Company, launched by business tycoon JP Morgan, designed the Bigfork span, while Flathead County Surveyor Harry P. Walters wrote the specs (the bridge’s wood-plank sidewalk and unique metal pipe guardrail were devised later by a Flathead crew).

According to the Record: “Other than the county’s occasional replacement of the timber deck, the addition of the existing guardrails in the 1980s, and the attached walkway, there have been no alterations or modifications to the superstructure of the bridge since its construction in 1912.”

That is until two weeks ago, when Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) inspectors declared the village’s iconic centerpiece structurally unsound and abruptly shut it down (I believe Luna and I were the last to traverse its icy walkway, defying officialdom to reach her favorite dumping ground at Sliter’s Park).

As the sun rose, residents and community leaders alike, their jaws agape, stared helplessly at the shuttered bridge, its renowned Christmas lights display replaced by reflective barricades and chain link fencing. Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke joined the gaggle in record speed, promising to do something.

Here’s the good news: when Bayne set out to build the bridge in November 1911 it provided a target completion date of “two months.” Given the typical winter, however, it wasn’t until April that the Flathead County News could report its final touches were at hand, “to be put in place as soon as possible in order that the good work may not be passed up for a bum job.”

The point being, if a construction crew equipped with rudimentary tools of yesteryear could otherwise erect a pin-connected steel truss bridge in two months’ time then surely our modern-day bridge builders could accomplish the task in similar short order (of course they’d have to work in tandem with state and county officials to cut some of the red tape).

And MDT supposedly is gearing up to do just that — well before 2026, when it had already planned to replace the century-plus span during “one construction season,” keeping as much of the bridge’s original character as possible: the steel truss shape, single travel lane and adjacent sidewalk.

In fact, the trending word among Bigfork residents and businesses along Electric Avenue is “expedite.”

There’s even talk of erecting a temporary pedestrian suspension bridge, which would make Luna and those residents held hostage on the other side of the river quite happy.

Until then, the only way in and out of burgeoning Bigfork is via Grand Drive, which is bearing the brunt of the added traffic. And to think the tourists haven’t even showed up yet.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.