Montana: its mountainous landscape, its lucious vegetation, its gorgeous bridges. In the state about the size of France with 2 million inhabitants, it holds a vast array of historic bridges, many of them built between 1890 and 1930 and made of steel. Most of them were built by the bridge builders originating from the Minneapolis School of Bridge Builders. Featuring the likes of Commodore Jones, The Hewett Family, Lawrence Johnson, and Alexander Bayne, these were men who owned and operated bridge building companies in Minneapolis and became the counterweight to the American Bridge Company when it was created out of 28 well-known bridge companies located in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 1901, dominating the western landscape with hundreds of truss bridges built using several truss types.
The Old Red Bridge, spanning the Flathead River near Columbia Falls is one of several bridges that came from the Minneapolis School of Bridge Builders. Constructed in 1912 by disciple Alexander Bayne, the bridge features two Pennsylvania petit spans, with each one being over 200 feet in length, totalling 442 feet. The bridge withstood the test of time, including flooding, which was a common problem for residents of Columbia Falls at the time of the bridge’s opening. One of the floods in 1913 caused the center pier to erode and the bridge spans to tilt. While that was corrected, the bridge served traffic until it was closed off to vehicles in 1989 and to pedestrians three years later. To ensure that no one crossed the bridge, workers removed the approach spans and fenced off the bridge from both ends after the decision was made to close the structure to all traffic.
The current situation with the bridge is as follows: The bridge is the last bridge in Montana featuring two Pennsylvania petit spans- this after the demolition of the Fort Keogh Bridge in 2012. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2010 because of its association with Alexander Bayne and his contributions to bridge building in Montana and points to the west. And lastly, since 2010, attempts have been volleyed between restoring the structure or removing it altogether. This included a proposal to restore the bridge and convert it into a bike trail, featuring a park complex, as proposed in the link. County officials have been adamant about doing anything with the bridge because it has become an issue of liability, especially in light of the recent floods in 2011 and 2012.
Already proposals to dismantle the bridge were brought up, which they claim to be the most viable issue as other measures to keep people off the bridge would be futile. The county, which owns the bridge, is fully aware of the historical significance of the bridge and the paperwork that is required before tearing it down, which includes informing the state historical preservation office (SHPO) about it. Yet as many in the community are attached to the bridge and its history, plus due to its potential to be preserved as a recreational bridge, both the residents of Columbia Falls as well as Flathead County are not ready to let go of the bridge until all options to preserve and restore the bridge are exhausted.
At the present time, efforts are being rekindled to restore the Red Bridge, although at a snail’s pace, which is slower than in 2010. The main factor that is keeping the bridge from being restored is money. Cost for restoring the structure is estimated at $2.5 million, not including plans for a bed and breakfast, restaurant, kayak landing and boat ramp near the bridge as possible sources of funding for the project. Originally, $500,000 had been earmarked for the bridge restoration by the county through a federal grant, but was shifted towards other projects because of the lack of commitment towards providing funding for the bridge from other groups. “I see it more as an issue of show me the money,” stated city manager Susan Nicosia, who brought the issue of restoring the bridge to the attention of the Columbia Falls City Council in May. It has led to the questions of how much it will cost for restoring the bridge, how should the bridge be restored, how much money will be garnered from the public and private sectors to restore the bridge and through which means.
Greg Fortin, who is leading the latest efforts to saving the Red Bridge, under the name of Old Red Bridge LLC, is currently consulting a non-profit restoration company specializing in restoring historic bridges in hopes to have a starting point in the project that has been lagging due to several external factors that has hindered the willingness of the county and the City of Columbia Falls to say “yes” to the project. According to him in an interview with the Chronicles, having a consultant as an outsider will help in terms of many items needed to restore the bridge, ranging from grant writing to any grass roots efforts needed to repair and reuse the bridge again. He hopes that the bridge would one day be part of the Gateway to the Glacier Trail, which is proposed to run from Glacier National Park to Columbia Falls, but currently has an existing trail between Hungry Horse and Coram. More information about the trail can be found here.
The Old Red Bridge LLC needs your help. Apart from pushing for more efforts towards restoring the iconic landmark in Columbia Falls, funding ideas and donations are needed to make the project happen, with the eventual goal of reopening the bridge to recreational traffic and producing income through tourism in the area. The ideas of having boat ramps , food and lodging are advantageous for passers-by travelling through the city by boat, bike or car, yet it cannot be realized without your help. Go to the facebook page Old Red Bridge, follow and find out how you can get involved in the restoration efforts. The contact person is Greg Fortin, who can provide you with information and let you know how you can help.
The Red Bridge is an integral part of Columbia Falls’ history and surrounding landscape. Eventually it will become a magnet for tourists and historians, especially if the bike trail to Glacier’s National Park is realized. But it can only be done if one shows them the money and manpower available. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will follow-up on the preservation efforts as events unfold and the future of the Red Bridge is more clearly known.
The author wishes to thank Greg Fortin for the interview and photos, and may the wishes of the organization to have the bridge reopen for recreation come true.