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.
Above: The Verendrye Bridge spans the Missouri River.
Above and below: views of the future site of Four Bears Bridge, from opposing sides of the river.
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.
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. Can you identify any of the men in these photos? Please leave a comment, or contact us.
Another fantastic shot of unidentified workers by an unknown photographer.
What a great shot… workers suspended in mid-air, and look at all those incredible vintage automobiles. Awesome.
Above: The first pier is nearly complete. Below: a second pier goes up.
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.
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.
Roads had to be built both for future traffic, and to help the construction crews reach the site.
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.
Above: The completed Four Bears Bridge accommodates the rising waters of Lake Sakakawea.
Photos submitted by Staci Roe, photographer unknown, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy