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This Lost Highway Leads to the Bottom of a Lake

This Lost Highway Leads to the Bottom of a Lake

We’ve visited a few lost highways before, like this one in Minnesota, or this flooded road near Devils Lake, but in my opinion, this is the most significant lost highway in the state of North Dakota, for reasons I’ll explain below.

While there are many reasons a highway becomes lost — rerouting of the road, mining, and freeway construction, for example — this road fell victim to the greatest flood in North Dakota history, a man-made flood, and now, this lost highway leads to the bottom of a lake.

North Dakota Lost Highway

About three miles north of Twin Buttes, North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold Reservation in Dunn County, Highway 8 becomes a dead end at the point shown above. In the upper left you can see Lake Sakakawea in the distance, the reservoir which forced the abandonment of this highway. There was an area on the left where we could see previous visitors had been driving around the barricades, but we chose to park here and hike the mile to the bottom.

North Dakota Lost Highway

Just a little further down the road, a second set of barricades were set up on a narrow stretch of the road, and you can’t drive around them, so we didn’t regret the choice to set out on foot.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

The appearance of the road changed with the grade. In places where the grade was a little steeper, the remains of the road were plainly visible, with weeds and prairie flowers growing up between the cracks in the heavily weathered surface.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

In other places, where the grade flattens out a bit, runoff sediment from the hills above has been settling for decades, obscuring the asphalt surface beneath a carpet of gravel and overgrowth.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

The road traces a path down the side of a butte and the scenery is absolutely amazing.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

Just as we found ourselves distracted by the amazing scenery and feeling like we were on a nature hike, we were reminded that cars used to travel the road on which we were standing at highway speeds.

North Dakota Lost Highway

The road parallels a deep ravine to the west, and there were no remnants of guard rails at any point along the road that we could see. Apparently, there was nothing to keep an inattentive driver from a quick trip to the bottom. Whether this rusted old wagon ended up at the bottom of the ravine in a tragic accident or was simply dumped, we don’t know, but aerial imagery shows it has been there for decades.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

In one spot, a section of the highway slides away from the rest due to a minor landslide in which a portion of the hillside has separated and started to creep downhill.

North Dakota Lost Highway

North Dakota Lost Highway

Above: As we neared the bottom, we found a section of the road where someone had burned a bunch of old tires.

North Dakota Lost Highway

About a mile down the road, we finally arrived at what is today the bottom. This lost highway originally would have continued down into the Missouri River Valley, but today that valley is full of water and this is the end of the line. In the photo above, the water is a small bay of Lake Sakakawea (I’m not sure if it has a name, but Mandan Bay is just a few miles west) and the water is a little lower than average.

North Dakota Lost Highway

Beyond the end of the asphalt highway, small pieces of asphalt, weathered and broken down from runoff and fluctuating lake levels that bring periodic inundation, litter the prairie grass.

North Dakota Lost Highway

Someone made the trek to the bottom for a bonfire and a couple beers.

North Dakota Lost Highway

So, where did this highway go? It went down into the valley where the water is shown in the photo above, and it would have curved to the right around the point in the upper right of the photo, where the bulk of Lake Sakakawea is today. The highway led to the town of Elbowoods and the Four Bears Bridge, which was the only crossing over America’s longest river, the mighty Missouri, for miles around.

In 1953, Garrison Dam was completed, and the Missouri River Valley became a reservoir, or Lake Sakakawea. In one of the great injustices of modern times, the Three Affiliated Tribes lost 94% of their agricultural land, as detailed by author Michael Lawson in his book “Dammed Indians: the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux”.

The Four Bears Bridge was floated upriver and re-erected with new approach spans near Crow Flies High Butte. The communities of Elbowoods, Van Hook, Independence, Sanish, and others were forcibly evacuated and disappeared beneath the waves.

In addition to the evacuation of the towns which once stood in the valley, the Garrison Dam contributed to the abandonment of farms and towns even on high ground by cutting off transportation routes between the northern and southern portions of the state. Where you once would have been able to cross the Missouri River here and visit someone on the other side in just a few minutes, the drive is now an hour or more in many places due to the size of the lake and the required drive around the east or west ends.

There are few remnants today of the pre-Garrison Dam era, but this lost highway is one of them, and we’re glad we got to visit.

North Dakota Lost Highway

Above: Looking back from the end of the road, as we prepared to hike a mile uphill. We got our exercise this day.

What do you know about this old highway, Four Bears Bridge, and Elbowoods, North Dakota? Leave a comment below.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
History Appreciation in Pembina

History Appreciation in Pembina

In Pembina, North Dakota, there are a couple of historic and significant places I particularly wanted to photograph — primarily, this beautiful Icelandic and Ukrainian Orthodox church.

Pembina, North Dakota

This church was the Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Church from 1885 to 1937, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. John from 1937 to 1987. This church is featured in our book, Churches of the High Plains, available now.

Pembina, North Dakota

Pembina, North Dakota

This church is now cared for by the Fort Pembina Historical Society.

Pembina, North Dakota

Pembina, North Dakota

The slab from a former structure next to the church. I don’t know what it was.

Pembina, North Dakota

Tours of the church can be arranged by calling 701-825-6840

Pembina, North Dakota

Pembina has another distinction. It’s hard to imagine looking at the crumbling road shown here, but this was once part of what was to be the most impressive highway in the Western Hemisphere. At the dawn of the automobile, The Meridian International Highway (in most, but not all places, one-and-the-same with Old US 81) was proposed as a north/south migration route stretching from Winnipeg to Mexico City. Later, the proposal was expanded and referred to as the Pan American Highway with plans to extend the road all the way to Buenos Aires in the south, and to the Alaska Highway in the north.

In North Dakota, the Meridian Highway lies mostly parallel to Interstate 29. Old US Highway 81 south of town, and most other sections of the road, have been repaved several times, but this section of road north of Pembina is as close as you can get to seeing the original Meridian Highway.

Pembina, North Dakota

I drove down this road in my car, heading north on the old Meridian Highway. I reached the end of the road, where it meets the US/Canadian border and got out to take a few photos. The Canadian Port of Entry was a stone’s throw away, and the border was marked by the typical pillars and an old, deteriorating cable fence.

Pembina, North Dakota

I finished taking my photos and began to drive back down the road to Pembina when I noticed a black pickup approaching. The moment I passed it, it turned around and I thought, “Uh oh.” Moments later a white pickup from US Customs and Border Patrol showed up and wanted to know what I had been doing. I gave the gentleman a quick recap on the Meridian Highway, and he turned out to be a very nice gentleman. He said they saw me walking around near the border, so they came to see what I was doing. He also said if I had been driving an old farm pickup, they probably wouldn’t have been suspicious.

No border infiltration here. Just history appreciation.

Pembina, North Dakota

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright Sonic Tremor Media



Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.