Snowden Lift Bridge: Destiny Unfulfilled

Snowden Lift Bridge: Destiny Unfulfilled

Officially known simply as the Great Northern Railroad lift bridge, this place is most commonly known as the Snowden Lift Bridge, after the tiny railroad stop of Snowden, Montana, and sometimes the Nohly Bridge, Nohly being another former railroad stop in the steam locomotive days. Snowden Lift Bridge is located on the Missouri River, in Richland County, Montana, about two and a half miles west of the North Dakota border. Snowden Lift Bridge is also just miles from Mondak, a ghost town we’ve visited previously.

Snowden Lift Bridge

The Snowden Lift Bridge was built in 1913 by Union Bridge and Construction Company, based on designs by J.A.L. Waddell for Waddell & Harrington. The design was considered an improved version of the Halstead Street bridge in Chicago, which Waddell constructed in 1894.

At the time this bridge was built, boat traffic on the upper Missouri river was all but outmoded already. The era of the steamboat boomed between the early 1800s and 1860, with sidewheelers and sternwheelers steaming from Montana all the way to the mouth of the Missouri, north of St. Louis. The muddy waters, however, created poor visibility of the bottom, and the Missouri claimed so many boats that the average lifespan of a Missouri River steamboat was only four years. Steamboat traffic on the upper Missouri declined through the late 1800s and railroads had long been the chief mode of transportation by the time this bridge was constructed in 1913, but it was built anyway, with a vertical lift span to allow for the passage of boats and barges.

Snowden Lift Bridge

The vertical lift section of the bridge was the longest in existence when Snowden Bridge was built in 1913. A control house on top of the lift span contained a kerosene-powered engine capable of raising the span in about 30 minutes. There are no irrefutable records on how many times the span was raised, but according to John Weeks (his comprehensive site on highways and bridges is here) the lift span was raised no more than 16 times, several of those times to allow barges to pass during construction of the Fort Peck dam. It would never fulfill its destiny as a grand gateway for steamboats to regularly access the Upper Missouri, though.

Snowden Lift Bridge

Snowden Lift Bridge also carried vehicular traffic at the same time it functioned as a railroad bridge via planking that allowed vehicles to drive right on top of the tracks. A series of signals alerted drivers if a train was approaching, and drivers paid a toll for the privilege of crossing the bridge. If it sounds dangerous, it was, however, a 1981 study found the bridge “so dangerous, it was safe,” because drivers were exceptionally careful when crossing.

The power house on top of the span was removed in 1943, and the bridge was left in the lowered position, ending the era of the lift bridge. Today, the Missouri River is navigable only as far north as Sioux City due to dam construction. Vehicle traffic continued to use this bridge as late as 1985. As for railroad traffic, although we heard a train whistle in the distance, we did not see any trains pass while we were there. The rails appeared shiny, though, so trains must still pass through here, at least occasionally.

Snowden Lift Bridge

We visited in July, 2017, and captured the photos you see here.

Snowden Lift Bridge

In the lift towers, the concrete counterweights still hang, waiting to raise the lift span and fulfill their destiny.

Snowden Lift Bridge

Snowden Lift Bridge is a twin to Fairview Lift Bridge, about 20 minutes away, on the rail line between Fairview, Montana and Cartwright, North Dakota. Fairview Lift Bridge, on the Yellowstone River, was raised only one time, and is accompanied by the Cartwright railroad tunnel, which, as of 2017, is in danger of demolition.

See more of Snowden Lift Bridge in this video, starting at 1:33

Snowden Lift Bridge

Black & White photos by the Historic American Engineering Record
Color photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media

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6 thoughts on “Snowden Lift Bridge: Destiny Unfulfilled

  1. Another excellent article describing a local icon that will not be here much longer. I appreciate these articles and photos for their historical perspective as well as for the engineering accomplishment. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Whenever I see these pictures of the prairie, I am homesick. The landscape and sky of the northern plains is in me. Thank you for what you do.

  3. Some thoughts. First, when built, Snowden and Fairview bridges were over waters considered navigable, so War Dept. (now Department of Defense) regulations mandated moveable or lift style bridges.

    Second, should the deep water channel of the Missouri shift, the lift mechanisms could be moved to the appropriate section of the bridge. I understand all the main sections of the bridge would lift, if mechanisms were in place to do so.

    Finally, BNSF regularly runs unit oil trains through that bridge, connecting their transcontinental routes through Glendive with their route a few miles north of the bridge. This section of BNSF runs from Glendive north to Sydney, MT, Fairview and over the Snowden bridge to the Snowden siding a few miles to the north.

    Great article. I did manage to drive over the Snowden bridge a few times in the 1970’s, always a neat experience.

  4. Very similar to the lift bridge built at Yankton, on the Missouri, except the Yankton bridge has two levels for traffic. The counter-weights were removed years ago, and with the new bridge, the old lift bridge is now a walking bridge.

  5. Actually, the Great Northern line ran from Fairview, MT through Cartwright, and all the way to Watford City, ND. I can only imagine how BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern kicking themselves for pulling all that track out, what with the oil boom going on right now! But the economics of the time pretty much spelled the doom of the line, especially back in the days of rationalizing underperforming branchlines. When I worked in the Oil Patch in 2009-10, I got to walk some of the Watford City line, and went through North Dakota’s only railroad tunnel. I’m sad to hear that it is in such danger of collapsing.

    Thanks for a great, informative article! Greetings from Minnesota.

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