The BNSF railroad plans to take down the existing rail bridge across the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan. BNSF plans on building a new bridge to accommodate increased freight traffic. Amtrak carries passenger traffic on the rail line through Minot, some 110 miles north. Rail passenger advocates continue to press for a passenger train through Bismarck as well. The new bridge may have two lines which would accommodate passenger and freight if that day ever comes.
BNSF dismisses the idea that anyone but themselves have any legal interest in the existing bridge. Defining legal ownership that gives absolute control of anything to the owner has been problematic throughout history. Currently cattle can be owned as chattel property by a rancher. That owner can buy and sell those animals as he or she pleases, but it is against the law to neglect those animals by not feeding them. Ownership in this case is both a right and an obligation.
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In the case of the railroad bridge, millions of public dollars have gone into the building of that architectural masterpiece. The railroad was given every other section of land, four sections deep on both sides of the rail line, an 8-mile-wide corridor of land ownership for the public purpose of hauling people and freight and crossing the Missouri River.
The design and construction of this bridge is so intertwined with the history of North Dakota that they are inseparable. It is not ancient history. The bridge, designed in 1880 and completed in 1883, withstood the flood of 2011 which carried a 17-mph current against those bridge piers. Those piers are clad on the north side with steel to protect the bridge against ice flows. Can anyone imagine the force of those ice flows the bridge has resisted over all these years? I cheer for the bridge designer and for those skilled and dedicated workers who built it every time thunderous ice flows are hurled against it and the bridge still stands!
It is too simple to say that BNSF owns the rail bridge and can do with it what they want. It would be equivalent to saying the owner of the original painting of the Mona Lisa can burn it in public.
I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Construction started in 1869 and was completed in 1883. The Brooklyn Bridge is a major tourist attraction. That bridge carries heavy trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians. The Bismarck rail bridge is historically equivalent to the Brooklyn Bridge. It is something to see. Visitors will marvel at the courage and the intelligence of those who designed and built it and those who have maintained it for 140 years.
Can you imagine the advertising value for tourism if that bridge is preserved as a pedestrian walkway across the Missouri? Can you imagine the value it will have for the riverfront development of the cities of Mandan and Bismarck?
Harold Hamm gave $50 million to the Theodore Roosevelt Library at Medora. So did the state of North Dakota. Wealthy industrialists are not new to North Dakota. Remember Andrew Carnegie and James J. Hill? The conversion of an historic rail bridge to a pedestrian walkway is not big money to either wealthy industrialists or the state of North Dakota. It is right for Hamm and the state to contribute to the Roosevelt Library, and it is right to ask the state and wealthy folks to save this bridge. Let us be dedicated to that proposition and not worry about who owns it.