Monday, September 25, 2023

A Bridge to Somewhere – The 1911 Bigfork Steel Bridge

by Kyle Stetler
| April 6, 2022 12:00 AM

While a sturdy bridge seems like something that will last forever, we know that can’t always be the case. At this point many of you likely know that in 2023, or perhaps 2024, the iconic silver bridge crossing the Swan River at the south end of Bigfork will be removed and a new bridge constructed. But even before the silver bridge was completed nearly 110 years ago, people still had a need to get across the river. The first approach taken was a simple ferry operated by George Akin. Then, in 1906, Akin's ferry across the Swan River was replaced by a new wooden bridge constructed by brothers Hank and Dan Collins for the sum of $2500. Not only were there the bridges in Bigfork itself but Holt Bridge was also built across the Flathead River to the northwest of town and the Kearney Rapids bridge upstream on the Swan River. As Bigfork continued to grow, however, and the transportation network expanded, everyone soon realized the town would need something more robust. And for over 40 years, until 1954 when the Highway 35 bridge was constructed, our little downtown was the main throughfare along the east side of Flathead Lake, with the steel bridge carrying all that traffic.

By 1911, the citizens of the burgeoning village successfully lobbied the Flathead County commissioners to build a new bridge in the village. The commissioners awarded the A. Y. Bayne & Company of Minneapolis a contract to construct the bridge on June 21, 1911, for an estimated cost of $4,400. Although the county commissioners awarded the contract in June, it was not until mid-November 1911 that the Bayne Company began construction of the bridge. On November 17th, the Bigfork Flathead County News reported that the bridge crew had arrived in Bigfork and the steel for the bridge was being transported to the construction site from the Great Northern Railway’s terminus at Somers. The article also noted that the original older timber bridge had been condemned by the county.

And even though only 5 months had elapsed, the project was perceived as progressing slowly for some as noted, once again, by the Flathead County News in late April 1912: “The approaches and railing on the new bridge . . .ought to be put in place as soon as possible in order that the good work may not be passed up for a bum job . . ..” And although the newspaper had predicted project completion within two months, it was, in fact, not completed until the May of 1912.

The new bridge also represented a more modern and reliable form of construction. From 1888 to 1915, many pin-connected steel truss bridges were built in Montana. The pin-connection approach streamlined the fabrication process for eastern bridge manufacturers and simplified the on-site erection process. The bridges arrived at construction sites as, essentially, a very large steel model kit that had already been manufactured to the conditions of the crossing location. Indeed, most of the construction time involved for the erection of these types of bridges involved the setting of the concrete foundation, not the actual assembly of the structural steel. While pin-connections facilitated the process of constructing a substantial number of steel bridges, they also had the added benefit of being a relatively inexpensive undertaking for Montana counties before 1915. Beginning in 1915, and thereafter, the Montana State Highway Commission changed the process to include its oversight of the bidding process and provide standard designs that replaced the pin-connected Pratt trusses with riveted Warren truss bridges.

Even more important though, in conjunction with the completion of the new bridge, is that a direct route between Bigfork and Polson along the east side of the lake was established by 1913. This also had a long-term impact by easing access to the area for motorists and recreationalists and by 1927, the town’s population had grown to 250 people. A 1939 Federal Writers’ Project document even described the community as a “huddle of little gray houses in a hollow just below a dam and powerhouse that supplies electricity to Kalispell and much of Flathead County.” Somehow, they forgot to mention the bridge and vital link that the community served. While the decades have passed and we’ve added more of those little gray houses, the little silver bridge has kept pace and welcomed new residents and visitors’ alike day after day, year after year. The bridge even gained historic status in 2015 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And while the end is drawing near for our old steel bridge, the new bridge will look very similar to the old one, even though it might take a couple of years to get that historical patina to it.


Original 1906 Log Truss Bridge Across the Swan River in Bigfork (Mansfield Library, University of Montana)


The New Steel Bridge in Bigfork in a 1916 Post Card (Denny Kellogg Collection)


General location of Old Steel Bridge and Kearney Rapids Bridge. (photo provided)


Log Truss Holt Bridge Across the Flathead River Near Eagle Bend Golf Course Built In The 1940s To Replace Holt Ferry (Kehoe Family Collection)


Log Truss Holt Bridge Across the Flathead River Being Blown Up (Kehoe Family Collection)


Original Kearney Rapids Bridge Across the Swan River Upstream From Bigfork (Denny Kellogg Collection)