People return often to walk this historic tunnel and lift bridge.
Pack up your walking shoes, camera, flashlight, and a picnic lunch for an afternoon trip to North Dakota’s only historic tunnel and lift bridge. This little jaunt will give you time along the North Dakota/Montana border towns. It will take you back in time to 100 years ago when hard work meant hard labor — really hard!
From Watford City, head west on Highway 85/200. It’s a 31-mile trip and will take you only about 35 minutes to drive.
Highway 200 west
Get food and fuel in Watford City. Or, along the way, if you want food or fuel, there are three places to stop.
- Patriot Fuels at Arnegard or the
- Wild Bison Travel Center south of Alexander.
- Cartwright Cenex Service Station
Patriot Fuels is under the giant American Flag, and Bison Travel Center is at the junction of Highway 85/200 and Highway 68. And of course, the Cartwright Cenex station is in Cartwright.
Highway 85 continues north to Williston, but you will follow North Dakota State Highway 200.
(Incredibly, Highway 200 is a unique highway. Though it is a state highway, it continues as a state highway both east into Minnesota and west into Montana to Idaho. All the states decided to keep the number designation of 200. Montana Highway 200 is also the longest route signed as a state highway in the United States.)
Two national economies — oil and farming
Head west on Highway 200, you’ll pass through two native economies — farming and oil. It’s big farmland. So, notice the large farm machinery you pass by. The region is cattle country, and ranches here date back to before statehood. Read more about the country’s farm production by clicking here.
It is also oil country.
The Bakken Oil Play has billions of barrels of oil and natural gas, making it the second-largest oil area in the nation behind the Permian Basin in Texas.
Read more about it here. Industry officials say only about 10% of the petroleum is extracted now, promising a long life of oil production perhaps into the next century.
Look for active well pumps (also known as dipping donkeys) or tall structures next to working oil pumps. These are “workover rigs” keeping the wells in top shape. (Some of the wells are two miles long, drilled horizontally.)
The closer you get to Cartwright, you’ll drive more hills, and see more rocky features in the landscape. Thirsty? Want fresh cold spring water?
Swing down into Cartwright. The town boasts of a free supply of cold well water. That’s why Main Street divides by the standing water well pump.
Help yourself. The water is very tasty and pure. Perhaps you have noticed running parallel to the highway a little south is an abandoned railroad bed. That’s the rail line that created the tunnel and lift bridge.
Just past Cartwright, the abandoned rail line disappears into a quarter-mile-long hand-built tunnel. You can read about it here.
Bridge then Tunnel
Stay on Highway 200 across the bridge over the Yellowstone River. Immediately on the west side of the bridge is Sundheim Park, on the south side of the road.
Park your car along the shoreline of the Yellowstone River, or in the parking lot up the rise to the south.
The short walk across the historic tunnel and lift bridge is unlike anything else in this part of the nation.
Follow the walkway across the bridge. It’s safe. It’s protected on either side by a chain-link fence, so you won’t fall off.
This is the Fairview Lift Bridge. Fairview is on the state border, so it can rightly be called a North Dakota community, though the heart of Fairview is in Montana.
The quarter-mile-long Fairview Lift Bridge is an engineering feat. The middle section was built to lift for steamboats on the river.
However, by the time the bridge was completed and the rail line attached, steamboats no longer operated on the Yellowstone River. The lift section was raised once to test it. That’s all.
What’s amazing about this railroad bridge is that it was also an automobile bridge — a dual-purpose bridge. Cars and trains took tuns, with trains, of course, getting the right-of-way. So, cars had to be sure no train was coming through the tunnel to meet them in the middle of the crossing. Drivers called a watchman who would tell them if it was safe to cross with no oncoming trains.
You can walk across the bridge to the tunnel.
Now is when you’ll need that flashlight. It’s bent so you cannot see the other end of the tunnel. There are no lights and it gets very dark.
The wing flapping you hear above or ahead of you? Pigeons.
The construction of this tunnel is astounding. Built from the top down by local farmers and ranchers who aided the construction crew, the material removed was carted from the Cartwright area to the Watford City area and used to bury trestles in a marshy area west of Watford City.
After you explore the bridge and tunnel, it’s time for a picnic. Sundheim Park is a wonderful park in which to cool off and enjoy the valley. Picnic here, take a walk, nap, or skip rocks across the Yellowstone River.
Incidentally, the Yellowstone River at this point is just a few miles from where it merges with the Missouri River. It’s a 700-mile-long river that starts in Wyoming and ends in North Dakota. Read about it here.
In May, this is the spot for excellent paddlefish snagging.
It’s a short little season in May when anglers use special fishing gear to snag a prehistoric-looking paddlefish.
The steaks are said to be quite tasty. And for at least one company, paddlefish are a source of caviar.
The rest of the year, anglers use the boat ramp or fish from shore for pike, walleye, and catfish.
This leisurely excursion is a good time to unwind. Expect to spend about 90 minutes to two hours at the bridge and tunnel.
Sidney for refreshments, or sight-seeing
You’re just 12 miles from Sidney. It’s a booming modern town with a good business district and fine dining. From here, you can reverse your travel or take an optional return route. From Sidney back to Watford City the way you came, through Cartwright, is about 55 miles.
Optional Return Route
The optional route adds about five miles to the drive from Sidney to Watford City. So, for a change, take the slightly longer route, and stay on Highway 200 from Fairview through Sidney, Montana. It’s a 60-mile drive on this alternate route. Head west into Fairview, then south to Sidney on Highway 200.
On the south edge of Sidney, highway 200 goes west. You’ll head east on Highway 68.
We like this route for the rough country scenery, and then into the rolling hills of the Northern Great Plains of Montana and North Dakota, the northern end of a 10-state region called the Great Plains — a geologically identified region. It’s a vast region with many songbirds, different grasses, and wildlife. If you make the return trip later in the day, as the sun lowers behind you, the lighting is very impressive. The shadows and colors are rich with photo opportunities.
Depending on how long you enjoy the historic tunnel and lift bridge, you can allow about 4 hours for this adventure. Leave Watford City at noon and you’ll be back in Watford City in time for supper.