Iconic architecture for you to tour in McKenzie County — FREE!

Bridging cultures, counties and communities – the Four Bears Bridge

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge into the piers

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.


From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now-flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the U.S. Geological Survey

1940 Four Bears Bridge at Elbowoods, 13 years before the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the valley and moved the bridge. (From the U.S. Geological Survey)

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.

Dismatntled at it's first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

Dismantled at its first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

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.

A construction barge under the old Four Bears Bridge while the new bridge was built.

Two construction barges under the old Four Bears Bridge move two precast concrete bridge segments in to place to be lifted and attached to the growing structure.

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 arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The sweeping curves of the bridge are designed to visually replicate the curves of the nearby hills in the Badlands.



Our Recommendations

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

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.

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it's apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four Bears Casino and Lodge

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it’s apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four  Bears Bridge.


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 how the new bridge was built

Click here to read John Weeks excellent description of the bridge and the parks

How to get therearrows-from-wc-to-four-bears-bridge

 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.


Check out a 90-year-old tribute to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation

Memorial Congregational Church from distance at sunset

The Memorial Congregational Church sits by itself on a December afternoon on a Mountrail County prairie where it was moved in 1953.

Cong church MS sept 09

In the fall of 2009, the prairie grasses surrounded the solid church building that once stood along the Missouri River.

You know there are stories behind those abandoned church buildings — such as this one.  What’s the story there?  Take a trip on Highway 1804 to step back in time.

For me, it was easy to ignore the abandoned prairie church building along Highway 1804 as I headed up north to Parshall, North Dakota. But once I stopped to check it out, I uncovered layers of monumental history.  Now, I stop often to step into the history.

charles hall

Charles L. Hall, born in England in 1847 moved to New York and became an architect, working in a local mission until he moved to the Dakota Territory.

The story goes back to 1871 when the Dakota Territory was organized and an architect from England worked in a New York mission.  Charles Hall felt the call to minister to the same people who had ministered to Lewis and Clark 67 years earlier, the Mandans.

The same year that the 7th Cavalry marched to Little Big Horn, Charles Hall floated the Missouri River for two weeks up river to get to his destination. He got off a steamboat armed not with a rifle but with the “Sword of the Lord.”  He landed at Like-a-Fishhook Village where he met with a community of Mandan and Hidatsa people.  (The village is under Lake Sakakawea, now, southwest of White Shield, ND.)

What Custer couldn’t do with a rifle, Hall did with the Gospel. Hall built a school, a community building, successfully lobbied for a bridge (Four Bears Bridge) to cross the Missouri and eventually built this church building at Elbowoods, North Dakota.  It’s the only physical reminder of a work he began about 140 years ago in western North Dakota. It was a long challenge to get it built– yet it still stands today.

Con church next to missionHall labored among the area’s farmers, ranchers and other residents, both white and Native-American for 10 years before the first man converted to the Christian faith.

Trust was earned slowly, but once earned, it became invaluable.  Later both whites and enrolled tribal members met together to worship and socialize.Susan Webb Hall Memorial Church

After 45 years feeding, teaching, healing whites and Natives, the locals followed the architect-missionary’s plans to build this solid building next to the mission and school he started at Elbowoods.

When the building was dedicated, crowds came from as far as 30 to 50 miles over rugged Badlands trails and barely passable roads to join in the dedication.  Dignitaries from Bismarck, Minot and New York also came to the dedication.Cong church cornerstone

In his years on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Hall helped the members of the Three Affiliated Tribes rise above the limits placed on them by the dictatorial federal government Indian Agency at Elbowoods.  The Indian Agency was so harsh, Hall later testified, that the Indian Agent required tribal members to stop and bow their head when he walked by.  If they received visitors, the visitor would first have to meet with the Indian Agent before going to meet the family or friends they came to see.

That kind of government attitude that could be part of the reason why local residents living in poverty would pay $10 a month to have their children schooled, fed and cared for by Hall’s mission school instead of going to the free government school.  Wages at that time were about 60 cents a day – if someone could find paying work.  The Mandan were an agricultural people; they tilled the river bottom along the Missouri River and grew corn, squash, pumpkin, sunflower and tobacco.  To afford the school with its training, food, health provisions and social network families took their produce by horse-drawn wagon to sell in towns such as Minot, 60-miles north.  They used their money to support the mission, its school, church and community programs.

The nearby cemetery is still used as a final resting place for tribal members. Until 2014, it was surrounded by a woven wire fence

The nearby cemetery is still used as a final resting place for tribal members. Until 2014, a woven wire fence surrounded the cemetery.

The Elbowoods Congregational Mission church building was dedicated to Charles Hall’s second wife, Susan Webb Hall. He had lost at least two children and his first wife to the tireless work of reaching local people with improved diet, health and education. The church people were both white and native; racial distinctions were erased at the Cross.  Together, they built the building by themselves, by hand. They didn’t borrow a penny to build it. It cost them $5,500, with $3,500 coming from their own donations, and another $2,000 donated by friends of Charles Hall.

When the federal government flooded out the people who lived along the Missouri River and the towns such as Elbowoods, hundreds of families were forced to move out of their homes. A hospital, a school and many businesses were flooded. Locals moved five church buildings out of the valley, including the Susan Webb Hall Memorial Church building.Cong Church MCU looking up in the fall

Starting on a Friday night, as the flood waters moved up in to town, and up on to the foundation of the building, local farmers and ranchers worked non-stop to lift the building from its original footings at Elbowoods. By the time they got it up a bit of a hill, the flood was already taking over the original site.  Their work was not done until they moved the building nine miles north near the communities of Lucky Mound, Parshall and White Shield.

Cong Church I Love YOu Grandpa

Click on the image to see it full screen and to see the love note to Grandpa.

Cong Church stepsToday, the building is more than 90 years old and stands alone on the prairie where it was moved during the man-made flood. When it was moved to its current site, neighbors saw it move in. They said it seemed to them the church was all lit up. A story on the relocated church quoted the neighbors who said “It gave them a queer feeling as they had never lived near a church before.”

No windows or doors remain on the old structure, though it appears to be solid in its old age.  No furnishings remain inside, no furniture or other features, just a love note to a grandfather.

Mem Cong Church steeple and moonIt’s a sacred place and vandals have not left graffiti or other degrading elements.  The bell tower is as empty as the rest of the building, though it once held a donated bell that called people to worship through out the early Missouri River Valley.

Memorial Congregational Church in the autumn of 2009

Autumn of 2009, the church stands isolated and preserved. (Click on the image to see it full screen.)

I don’t know about a queer feeling, but it certainly is inspiring to know the history behind the building, a part of North Dakota history that few know.   Charles Hall left an account of the work in his collection of documents assembled in the book 100 Years at Ft. Berthold, 1876 to 1976.  I’m thankful to one of the tribal elders, Mary Bateman who lent me her copy.  What would you suggest as a way to make the historic landmark more famous?

(you can click on any of the images to see them full screen)