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.
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.
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 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.
We visited in July, 2017, and captured the photos you see here.
In the lift towers, the concrete counterweights still hang, waiting to raise the lift span and fulfill their destiny.
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
Black & White photos by the Historic American Engineering Record
Color photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media