Nonprofit group to form

Emily Sakariassen, president of Preservation North Dakota, holds a This Place Matters banner as members of the newly formed Friends of the Rail Bridge filled the stage. Sakariassen said PRB was lending support to the preservation effort to save the historic railroad bridge linking Bismarck and Mandan. At the organizational meeting held on Tuesday in the North Dakota Heritage Center, the grassroots group passed a resolution to establish FORB as a nonprofit organization, said member Susan Wefald. "We need that to enter into a dialogue with BNSF about saving the bridge," she said. "We had all these people working on ways to save the bridge so we need to find a way to bring all these efforts into one organization." Wefald, of Bismarck, said it was encouraging to form a unified group to save a bridge that dates to Dakota Territory days of the early 1880s. 

For Mark Zimmerman and other members of Friends of the Rail Bridge, the BNSF Railway bridge straddling the Missouri River is an “iconic image” of Bismarck-Mandan.

Hence, the effort to save it.

About 67 people interested in the bridge’s historic preservation gathered Tuesday night for a meeting on the bridge’s history, engineering and preservation, said Susan Wefald, who has helped lead the group interest.

The group voted unanimously to form a nonprofit to potentially take ownership of the BNSF bridge for a path to connect recreational trails on the Missouri River’s east and west banks, according to Wefald, who said Friends of the Rail Bridge also intends to seek a fiscal sponsorship from the North Dakota Community Foundation.

“We’re at the very baby steps here of this organization getting started,” Wefald said. “One of the main advantages of having this organization now is to have anyone who’s concerned and interested in this project to be able to come together to share all their thoughts and information and what they’re finding out about this bridge and be able to share in a common forum.”

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the group's nonprofit application would involve a number of steps, including registering as a charitable organization and contacting the IRS regarding tax exemption. 

Zimmerman said the interest he’s seen in preserving the bridge has wowed him.

“What I’m excited about is it’s young folks, young married folks with young children saying, ‘Let’s have this recreational opportunity,'” he said.

Such an effort isn’t entirely new to North Dakota; Wefald and Zimmerman pointed to the Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel west of Watford City, which a group from Fairview, Mont., maintains as a walking path over the Yellowstone River.

“We’re wondering whether something similar could happen in our community,” Wefald said.

“This can be done in North Dakota,” Zimmerman said.

Working groups of Friends of the Rail Bridge will meet in a month to further discuss issues such as promotion, bylaws and writing to local leaders. Wefald stressed the nascence of the efforts.

“We want to organize so that we’re a reputable, respected nonprofit organization so that, if we have the opportunity to take ownership of the bridge, people know we’re going to do a really good job,” she said. “But that could be years down the road.”

Amy McBeth, regional director of public affairs for BNSF Railway, said: “BNSF’s preferred alternative is to build a new bridge and remove the existing structure given the challenges that exist with allowing the current bridge to remain."

She also said a permitting process with the U.S. Coast Guard is ongoing. Demolition would cost about $4 million, according to a BNSF estimate the bridge group cited.

The railway has recognized the interest in preserving the bridge said Wefald, adding that now is the time to organize.

“It’s time to get all the people in the community who are working and trying to save the bridge (to) work together for the common purpose of finding alternative uses other than having this bridge demolished, if that’s an option,” she said.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.