Bridging cultures, counties and communities – the Four Bears Bridge
This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. The Missouri River has been a transportation corridor and a barrier since before Thomas Jefferson. That’s why he commissioned the Corps of Discovery to learn more about the river.
Until about 1925 there was no way to cross the river in this part of the United States.
America had fought a World War and had become a powerhouse in world politics, but travelers still couldn’t cross the Missouri River, except by unreliable and unsafe ferries.
A national lobbying effort prompted Washington to pay for a bridge across the Missouri River on Highway 8 south of Stanley in Mountrail County and north of Halliday in Dunn County.
In 1950, after the Second World War, the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Missouri including one in Garrison, North Dakota. The water would have covered the original Four Bears Bridge on old Highway 8.
So, the government paid to have the original bridge dismantled and moved about 70 miles upstream.
The bridge was built to 1925 standards – two eight foot driving lanes, no shoulders, no walkways. By modern standards, it was functionally obsolete. It was too narrow and too low of clearance Two large farm trucks could not meet on the bridge.
During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $54 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design. It has won several international design contests and been recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in to the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.
The sweeping curves of the bridge are designed to visually replicate the curves of the nearby hills in the Badlands.
Walk the bridge to see the history in artwork of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation. The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge with tributes to their ancestors along the railing of the walkway. The pedestrian walkway includes medallions of the cultural history of the Three Affiliated Tribes and tributes to leaders, sacred animals, and historical events. The railing also includes silhouettes of sacred animals.
There are benches on which you can sit and absorb the sights and sounds. The concrete trail at the park will lead you down the riverbank to observation points below and alongside the bridge. From here you can clearly see the medicine wheel on the opposite hillside. This ancient sacred place accurately points the four cardinal directions.
On the east side of the bridge, the Mountrail County side, drive to the maintained historical site on the south side of the road above the medicine wheel. The point is called Crows High or Crow Flies High and includes storyboards of Native American history. Over the edge of the parking area to the north, straight down is what remains of the flooded town of Sanish. When the lake level is low, many of the foundations are visible.
Click here to read John Weeks excellent description of the bridge and the parks
How to get there
From Watford City drive east on Highway 23 about 40 miles to the far eastern border of McKenzie County. There can be a fair amount of truck traffic on the road, but don’t get in a hurry. Many passing lanes are built into the route between Watford City and New Town.
The Four Bears Bridge is one of McKenzie County’s 5 affordable (low cost or free) landmarks visitors and travelers tour year-round. For a free 20-page ebook on all five of the McKenzie County landmarks, enter the word “McKenzie” in the subject line of this email form.
If you want regular tips on quality opportunities in Western North Dakota, be sure to subscribe to this blog.