Getting to the tunnel
When you visit, you will say, “Wow.” Everybody does. We did. It’s more than a person expects, but the opportunity won’t last –time is taking its toll.
(Nov 2021 Update: Money has been secured and repairs to the tunnel are underway.)
It’s an enjoyable drive west through ranchland with a very sparse population. We felt our spirits open as we continued through the unencumbered beauty of the region. Abandoned farmsteads, and active ranches line Highway 200 west of Alexander, North Dakota
We knew we were edging closer to the last hills of the state. Barely on the North Dakota side of the ND/MT border, the giant structure of the Fairview Lift Bridge made its appearance. The towering structure was still a half-mile away, and its unique design refused to be ignored. We knew that nearby, the Cartwright Tunnel would add to the one-of-a-kind visit – both are huge monstrosities.
Together, they offer something found nowhere else in this part of the United States. They are North Dakota’s only lift bridge and only railroad tunnel.
Sadly, the east end of the tunnel is collapsing. It will be sealed off for safety – after 85 years of standing solid.
The awe of the moment is only enhanced when we learned of the history of the bridge and the tunnel. They are historic tributes to the hard work of settling the region and connecting it to the world.
The Fairview Lift Bridge
We drove through Sundheim Park a beautiful, spacious treed area, but hardly noticed it. We were transfixed on the colossal connections of steel. Up a ramp to the parking area, we parked, anxious to walk across the bridge. It’s fenced in with pedestrian decking and benches along the way to sit and watch the Yellowstone River 100 feet below before it joins the Missouri River a few miles north.
Soaring above the massive counterweights rose 108 feet above, making us feel very small. The history of these counterweights, were learned, were a story of immediate obsolescence. They would have allowed the bridge to raise for passing steamboats – but that never happened.
Here’s the background:
Starting in 1913 and finished a year later, the bridge was built as a dual purpose bridge for both rail and auto. It cost $500,000 and was the most expensive section of the rail line connecting New Rockford, North Dakota with Lewistown, Montana.
It’s only one-lane for both trains and cars. For drivers, it could be scary to cross the bridge, hoping a train was not headed toward you.
A watchman was stationed at the bridge to prevent trains and automobiles from colliding. The Great Northern charged a toll for cars using the bridge until 1937 when the state highway department assumed responsibility. The lift was to allow steamboats to use the river, but it was used once after completed, only as a test in 1931. The government shut down riverboat traffic on the river that year so the lift was not needed.
Don Tank lived the bridge
Here’s how one historian tells the story of a “leverman,” or “watchman:”
Don Tank, 79, Minot, worked on the bridge as a “leverman” in the 1950s. “Levermen controlled the highway traffic,” said Tank. “I worked just one summer for a couple of months. It was the lowest paid job in the division. Levermen were supposed to control the highway gates on the bridge so cars wouldn’t run into the trains, but most of the time they were just left open. The locals knew the timing of the trains anyway.”
According to Tank, passenger trains crossed the bridge once each day and freight trains once every other day. Other than at those times, automobiles could cross the bridge on planks laid near the ties. There was a hand-cranked telephone in the leverman’s hut that was wired to the depot at Cartwright about 1 1/2 miles east of the tunnel and also Fairview to the west. The phone was used to alert the leverman when a train was approaching from either direction. A second phone was placed at the west end of the bridge. That phone was to be used by motorists to alert the leverman that they wished to cross the bridge.
“I remember one time, it was a Sunday and dad and I were going hunting. I was maybe six or seven years old,” recalled Tank. “The gate was locked and nobody was working so dad got some wrenches out and removed the bolts on the gate and we went across anyway.” Tank said working and waiting for a train or motorcar was lonely and boring work. “I remember one old guy who did that. He spent the daytime sharpening saws and made good money. It worked out pretty good for him,” said Tank.
An automobile bridge was built a few yards downstream so the dual-purpose of the bridge was no longer needed for cars after 1955. During the great railroad withdrawal from North Dakota in the mid-1980’s the rail line was shut down. Later it was listed on the National Historic Registry and opened to the public as a visitor attraction.
We walked across the quarter-mile bridge, amazed at the intricate latticework connecting one beam to another. The web of connections creating a strength strong enough to carry a fully loaded freight train.
After taking a few personal moments on one of the benches, we continued on.
About 300 feet east of the bridge is North Dakota’s only railroad tunnel. The wooden wrapped entrance invited our curiosity, “Come in here. Satisfy your curiosity.”
It’s dark beyond the opening, but we stepped inside.
As we learned later, the work to make this tunnel is probably more impressive than the tunnel itself. It was carved by hand in the rock of the Badlands; area farmers, ranchers, and workers blasted and chipped their way through the hill, carting the rock out of the tunnel by mule cart.
Tunnel-builders lined the tunnel with large wooden planks to hold back natural decay of the landscape – until now. We couldn’t see much of the wooden lining of the tunnel but kept on kicking our way through the dust and rocks on the floor.
A slight bend in the tunnel prevented us from seeing the opposite end. We stopped for a moment in the middle, absorb the immense size of the cavern; it’s tall enough for large trains and like the bridge, it’s a quarter mile long. It gets completely dark in the center.
The End is Near
We have made several trips to the bridge and through the tunnel, but the last trip was depressing. The first sections of wooden supports were pulled down by vandals.
It is collapsing. In years past, the North Dakota National Guard repaired the tunnel as needed. Not this time.
The needed repair is greater than that what has been done in the past, and could cost more than a half-million dollars. If money is not available and repairs are not made, the ends will be sealed, or the tunnel will be imploded.
We have heard of a group that is working to keep the bridge open, to not blow it into itself. We look forward to working with the Friends of the Fairview Bridge at Fairview, Montana.
- What do you think should happen to the tunnel? Leave a comment, please.
- Want to help? Here’s what the Friends of the Fairview Bridge are doing:
- Click here to read about their latest move from their meeting this month.
- Here is the contact information: Friends of the Fairview Bridge at P.O. Box 374, Fairview, MT 59221, firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-489-2624.
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