Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Mighty rivers require mighty bridges and several impressive examples have spanned the North Dakota stretch of the Missouri River.  The river valley near the former town of Sanish has been home to several.  First, the Verendrye Bridge, a steel truss bridge completed in 1927, crossed the Missouri at Sanish.  In 1934, the first bridge to be known as Four Bears Bridge was built downstream near the town of Elbowoods.  They served North Dakota dependably through the thirties and forties.

In 1947, construction began on the Garrison Dam project, one of the last of the big water projects.  When complete, it would flood the Missouri River Valley and create the reservoir we know today as Lake Sakakawea.  The lake would flood the town sites of Sanish, Elbowoods, and Van Hook, plus it would leave both the Verendrye and Four Bears Bridges underwater.  A much taller, much longer bridge was required.

The Verendrye Bridge was demolished, but the center span of the Four Bears Bridge at Elbowoods was dismantled and floated forty miles upstream to be erected atop taller piers near Sanish, creating a new Four Bears Bridge, almost a mile long, and spanning Lake Sakakawea.  That is the version of the Four Bears Bridge depicted here.  It was replaced in 2006 by a new, modern Four Bears Bridge, making it the third bridge to wear the name.

We’ve long been fascinated by the legacy of these long gone places, specifically because their physical presence has been erased.  Not long ago, we put out a call for photos, and we got a response from a native-born North Dakotan that included all of the incredible photos you see here.

These photos were contributed by Staci Roe after she ran across them by chance some years ago.

When I lived in Broken Bow, NE we had a twice yearly hospital rummage sale which I volunteered for. One of those years a box of belongings for Marvin L Knapp was donated to the sale. As one of the volunteers proceeded to throw it away I told her to wait.

Staci saved the photos you see here — photos of the construction of the footings for the Four Bears Bridge at Sanish.  We don’t know much about Mr. Knapp (he was an Army man, his nickname was Shorty, he was stationed in Sanish for a time) and although we believe he took these photos, we can’t say for certain. They were taken in 1948 or 1949.

Considering the quality of the photos and the historic value of the collection, it’s scary to imagine how close they came to going into a trash can.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Above: The Verendrye Bridge spans the Missouri River.Building Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Above and below: views of the future site of Four Bears Bridge, from opposing sides of the river.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Construction begins on the first footing. Eventually the entire river bottom you see here would become the bottom of Lake Sakakawea, with only the bluffs in the background still above water.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears Bridge

The identities of the men in these photos is unknown, but look at that crew… this photographer caught a perfect group shot that reminds us a lot of the New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam photo from 1932.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Another fantastic shot of unidentified workers by an unknown photographer.

Building Four Bears Bridge

What a great shot… workers suspended in mid-air, and look at all those incredible vintage automobiles.  Awesome.

Building Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears Bridge

Above: The first pier is nearly complete.  Below: a second pier goes up.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Above and below: you can see the beginnings of a third pier, and off in the distance, piers begin going into the Missouri River bottom.

Building Four Bears Bridge

We visited the Sanish area in 2005, and we snapped a photo of this bridge with the new Four Bears Bridge under construction directly adjacent. This bridge was knocked down in a controlled demolition in 2005, captured excellently here.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Building Four Bears Bridge

Order the Book

Building Four Bears Bridge

Roads had to be built both for future traffic, and to help the construction crews reach the site.

Building Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears BridgeBuilding Four Bears Bridge

Eventually, long sections of bridge were built to close the gaps between the neighboring bluffs and the new piers which would support the center span of the Four Bears Bridge.

Building Four Bears Bridge

Four Bears Bridge

Above: The completed Four Bears Bridge accommodates the rising waters of Lake Sakakawea.

Photos submitted by Staci Roe, photographer unknown
Original content copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC

13 Responses to “Building Four Bears Bridge”
  1. Michelle says:

    These are awesome! What a great find! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nancy Flynn says:

    Fortunate find indeed!! thank you to your contributor.. This is how so many pictures are lost as they have no value to someone else. and they are indeed treasures. thank you for doing what you do., it is a labor of love and hopefully some profit.

  3. john Edward Xavier says:

    Thanks for saving these pictures, and thanks to those who assembled this post as well.

    One thought on the “vintage” autos pictured. For the times they were pretty darn new. So, what is really being shown there is how public works and infrastructure projects directly go into the economy as the specialized work pays well and the payroll goes into the economy.

    In that line, for the latest Four Bears Bridge, I was honored to be on the ribbon-cutting day (and my then-girlfriend, Laura Boeringa, and I may have been the first couple to bicycle across and back on the bridge, ever!) – a very affirming day, with plenty of sunshine. The Bismarck Tribune featured several articles about the newest Four Bears, not just about the design. The Tribune also interviewed at least one Native American woman who had learned bridge-building, and had worked on the new bridge. She was quite proud of her hard-working ethic and her specialized skills which would serve her well, she hoped, for future construction projects.

    If I ever find my photos of that day of the grand opening, I’ll forward them. Thanks for this great coverage of an important topic.


  4. Staci Roe says:

    Awesome job with narrating and organizing the photos!

  5. Corey says:

    Excellent photos and captions. Thanks for doing this.

  6. Lynn Mickelson says:

    Thank You, Staci!!!!! Thank You, staff, for putting these together on the site. Wonderfully done photography for the day and the photo equipment that was available at the time. Thank You, again, for a wonderful web site.

    Lynn Mickelson

  7. Mike says:

    These are tremendous photos. I researched the first and second Four Bears Bridges for five years and didn’t see these images. They’re great. They also tell a lot about the land that was flooded (taken) by The Army Corps of Engineers. The large and prosperous Miller Ranch at the base of the bluffs on the east side is visible in some photos.
    The Elbowoods Four Bears Bridge was dismantled, floated to trucks, hauled to Sanish, placed on barges again and floated in to place. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards north, the Verendrye Bridge carried traffic. Why the extreme cost of moving a bridge 50 miles when one stood just yards away? Easy, the Federal Government paid for it. The original placement of the Elbowoods bridge was Federal land on both ends. The Verendrye Bridge connected federal land on only one end. So, Uncle Sam footed the bill rather than forcing local governments to pay for it.

  8. mary anthony says:

    great pictures and what a history of the great state of North Dakota Thank you all for all your wonderful stories and pictures.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] The valley you see in the photo above would eventually fill with water to become Lake Sakakawea, necessitating a new Four Bears Bridge. […]

  2. […]  They are from the estate of Marvin L Knapp and the photographer is unknown.  Photos of the construction of the footings for Four Bears Bridge were in the same […]

  3. […] See also: Building Four Bears Bridge […]

  4. […] foundations of the town’s former structures, and we received some incredible photos of the construction of the Four Bears Bridge recently too, but we’re still seeking more photos of the town […]

Leave A Comment