Bismarck-Mandan could soon see a dramatic change to its skyline as a new railroad bridge is built as soon as next year.
BNSF Railway is in the early planning stages for a new crossing over the Missouri River to take over the role of one of Bismarck's oldest and most recognizable landmarks.
Company Spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the current bridge, built in 1882, is reaching the end of its useful lifespan. Though routine repairs have been done in the past several years, it's an old piece of infrastructure. While still structurally sound, the spans of the bridge date back to 1905, she said.
"It’s just the lifespan of the physical asset, part of our bridge management plan includes evaluating our physical infrastructure, including the bridges across our network," she said.
Despite its age, the bridge still allows 14 to 16 trains filled with oil, coal, crops and consumer goods to cross the Missouri River every day, according to McBeth, who said she understands the bridge is significant to the city and she expects community input will figure into new designs.
"We would anticipate that people will be interested," she said. "We will want to be talking with the community."
She said the company is still evaluating whether to take the old bridge down.
Building the bridge was a major feat in railroad history, opening the way for travel westward.
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“It was profound,” said Walter Bailey, executive director of the Bismarck Historical Society, of the bridge's effect on the region. “It really opened the way to settlement in the west river country and was a major influence on the growth of Bismarck.”
Planning for the bridge began in the early 1880s as the Northern Pacific Railway attempted to complete its transcontinental crossing. The company couldn't build the rest of the railroad without a bridge to transport supplies across the Missouri River. To people in Bismarck, the crossing was critical to bring people and confidence to town.
It also brought people to the city for jobs and expanded farming westward. Mandan began as a workers' village on the west side, and locals would commute across by train to visit each other.
The bridge is still vital to the local economy, Bailey noted, but it's also known for its beauty and engineering history.
State Geologist Ed Murphy chronicled the bridge's feats and struggles in the North Dakota History journal in 1995. Murphy took an interest in the bridge while investigating slope stability, an issue that would plague the structure for its first 70 years.
The wild river presented challenges to engineer William Morison, of New York. The waterway was too wide, so he built a dike to narrow it. Dangerous ice jams came frequently, so he added steel edges to slice through it. There were few qualified workers, so he ordered in contractors from Chicago and Minneapolis.
Very soon after its construction, the east pier began sliding into the river. In the first 15 years, it moved 4 feet. The slope behind the pier was sliding in, partly due to water leaking from the treatment plant and reservoirs above. It took multiple engineering efforts — including installing pipes to drain the hill and physically pushing the pier back into place — to finally correct the problem enough that, by the 1960s, the bridge slid only one-third of an inch westward on a yearly basis.
McBeth said she couldn't say whether the bridge might still be sliding.