“Hey, you wanna check out a historic town? It’s the home of a champion basketball team, a hospital, a mission, a couple large schools, a bustling retail community,” he asked her. “It’ll mean a bit of a hike.”
“Sure. How much of a hike?” she asked.
“Depends on which way we go. From the south, it’ll be just a short easy hike down an old road to the water. But the town won’t be there,” he teased.
“Huh? Then why go? You’re not making any sense. Where did the town go? What town?” she asked.
“It didn’t go anywhere. I’m guessing it’s still there. You just can’t get there. Here, I’ll show you. We’ll go look for Elbowoods.”
He hauled out one of the tools the mild-mannered explorers depend on, maps. The pair liked old maps, they were most useful for adventures such as this, searching for Elbowoods. Travelers today, using modern maps drive right by the rich history of the plains.
On a 75-year old reproduction of a North Dakota railroad map, he pointed out the historic town of Elbowoods. Another map showed that it was on Highway 8 where it crossed the Missouri River in the northwestern quarter of the state south of the Mountrail County town of Parshall.
They pair packed a cooler with snacks and water because he promised it would be an easy hike with plenty of opportunities to sit and absorb the environment.
They drove Highway 200 across the state to Halliday in Dunn County. Highways 8 and 200 share a short stretch of highway near Halliday. Highway 200 goes on its east and west direction, Highway 8 goes north past Halliday and Twin Buttes.
They looked for remnants, hints, and history as they drove up Highway 8 past Halliday and Twin Buttes. (Highway 8, a state highway, comes up from South Dakota near Hettinger, North Dakota. It’s part of a state highway system that once was called the “Bowbells to the Black Hills” Highway before the valley was flooded to make Lake Sakakawea.)
North of Halliday they skirted ranchland with herds of cattle in the hundreds. It was early spring, so there wasn’t much green yet.
“I gotta tell ya, it’s been 15 years since I last took this drive to the south shore of Lake Sakakawea, looking for evidence of old Highway 8 and Elbowoods. You could drive right up to the water’s edge, “ he said.
They drove on to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nation. At the Twin Buttes water treatment plant and the road stopped at barricades. So, they walked. That part of his prediction was right: it was an easy walk. “I wonder why more people don’t stroll down this easy hike,” he wondered aloud. The road and the entire shoreline below are public access.
“Look at this, she said. I’m in a no passing zone.” She pointed at the yellow lines on the broken and covered pavement.
“Looks like someone didn’t want to follow the road,” he said as pointed down over the edge of the ancient roadbed.
Tagged rocks broadcast to the world the dates and initials of previous visitors.
It was easy to see that this section of highway would have been a challenge to maintain. One side, the slope ate out the grade below the road. The other side dropped boulders and mudslides on the pavement.
At the bottom of the hill, the pavement disappeared. So, the mild-mannered explorers followed the water’s edge.
Lake Sakakawea was invented in 1953 when the Army Corp of Engineers built Garrison Dam on the Missouri River and flooded out the people, farms, ranches and towns along the river’s edge — including Elbowoods. The inlet had once been a slope that the highway followed – now under water. It was easy to see where the highway had run between two bluffs, one jutting up from the north, one from the south.
History lies beneath the water.
The valley was an abundant farm and ranch region. It was home to indigenous people for hundreds of years. Modern convenience settled in the town of Elbowoods and a ferry connected Elbowoods on the north side of the Missouri River to the south side of the river.
Then, in 1925, a bridge replaced the ferries, the Four Bears Bridge. Its southern end was marked with a giant monument to Chief Four Bears.
Ranchers who lived along the Missouri River Valley would often congregate on the bridge for family photos. The bridge was an engineering monument in 1925.
In 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers took the Native American and white-owned land and flooded the river valley to form Lake Sakakawea, the bridge was dismantled and moved to New Town. 50 years later at its reborn location, it was deemed functionally obsolete and was replaced. The town of Elbowoods and other towns such as Sanish and Van Hook were gone forever.
In 2005, just as the new Four Bears Bridge was completed, the tip of the giant monument to Chief Four Bears made an appearance. The water level had dropped to near-record lows, revealing shoreline, and other long-flooded lands. A hike out on the frozen water showed visitors just the tip of the monument that once towered over the Four Bears Bridge and the Missouri River.
The impression it leaves.
The mild-mannered explorers returned to the truck, sat on the tailgate, rested and quenched their thirst.
She was quiet when they got back to the pickup truck. He asked her, “What are you feeling?”
“You know, “she said. “This makes me kind of sad. There’s a lot of family roots under that water. Just think, there are families where the younger generation has no concept of what their grandparents’ farms and ranches were like, or where they were. Underwater. It’s all gone forever.”
Want to learn more about Elbowoods?
Here’s the story of the bizarre way Elbowoods stuck to the rules and won the 1942 championship title
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