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Tunnel and Bridge

Looking across the Fairview Lift Bridge, the opening of the Cartwright Tunnel can be seen in 2015. 

Fans of North Dakota's only railroad tunnel would like to save the aging structure despite a cost-prohibitive outlook.

The Cartwright Tunnel and adjoining Fairview Lift Bridge, along a former Great Northern Railroad line, comprise a walking path in the Yellowstone River Valley about 30 miles west of Watford City. The structures were built a century ago, with the lift bridge raised just one time as an operational test for steamboat traffic.

Trouble spots along the tunnel's entry points, particularly its east entrance, have led the Fairview (Mont.) Chamber of Commerce to install caution signs for walkers.

Chamber president Ray Trumpower said the group would like to ideally repair and restore the tunnel. While an engineering survey has prepared a plan to do so, the $500,000 guesstimate to fix the imminent issues is cost-prohibitive. Several contractors haven't been interested, Trumpower said.

The National Guard has helped with repairs in the past, but not this time, he said. Some people have called him about possible fundraisers to fix the tunnel, but any bake sales or concerts would prove too small.

"A fundraiser ain't going to do it," Trumpower said. "That's not really going to raise that money."

The site is a popular spot, above Sundheim Park on the Yellowstone River. Trumpower said he gives tours and often encounters others on the path. 

"There is virtually always somebody out there," he said.

About 1,000 people turned out for the Lighting of the Bridge event held last month at Sundheim Park, which sold out of chili and coffee, he said. 

The bridge and tunnel are popular with geocachers and as backdrops for engagement and high school senior photos, said Cartwright resident Sharon Schirman, adding that paddlefishing at Sundheim Park also brings people to the bridge and tunnel.

"However, it doesn't seem to be as well known for those who are not local unless they are here for paddlefish season," Schirman said.

The area is an historic one, too.

The Far West steamship made record time to Bismarck in 1876 carrying the news and wounded soldiers of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, passing under the site of the bridge. The Corps of Discovery once camped in the area, too, Trumpower said.

Photographer Mike Kopp, of Beautiful Badlands ND, said the tunnel is a reminder of the local labor that built it.

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"It’s a monumental testiment to the kinds of farmers and ranchers we have out in western North Dakota," he said. "I think the history of that line, that tunnel, the bridge is definitely worth keeping."

Kerry Finsaas works downstream at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. She's also a part of the Fairview chamber and Friends of the Fairview Bridge group.

"It’s a very popular site and we would hate to see where it would ever come to a point where it would have to be closed to the public," she said.

Trumpower said imploding or sealing the tunnel may be impossible. 

"It’s too substantial a structure. To seal both ends off, it’s tough and expensive to do," said Trumpower, adding that it may take a generous donor or contractor to take on the repair project.

"We’re just going to keep working at it," Trumpower said. "That’s what we’ve got to do. You can’t walk away from it."

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Capitol Reporter