A picture of the Milltown “Black Bridge” (Photo by Kim Briggeman for the Daily Montanan).
“The new bridge across the Blackfoot river at Milltown is now open to traffic, according to an announcement yesterday by the county commissioners. The old bridge was closed last February and a detour was made necessary. Another bridge several hundred feet north of the present structure was used. … Work on the bridge is not quite finished, but it has reached a stage where traffic may be resumed.” – The Missoulian, Nov. 10, 1921
We drove it, we strolled it, we biked it and jogged it. Some jumped and even dived from its sides. But few thought of the Black Bridge of Milltown as a community treasure until we almost lost it.
November is a milestone month for the county bridge over the Blackfoot River, these days the uppermost of five in the bottom half-mile. With little fanfare, the steel two-span bridge was opened on Nov. 9, 1921, to the Model T’s and International Harvester Speed Trucks of the day. It replaced a failing wooden three-span built 14 years earlier to accommodate the filling reservoir behind William Andrews Clark’s hydroelectric dam.
More than eight decades later, on Nov. 3, 2008, dignitaries including Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester gathered with community members to mark the “re-birth” of the bridge and dedicate it to the youth of the area. By then it was for foot traffic only. A local grassroots effort led by a group calling itself the “SOBs,” for Save Our Bridge, had convinced Missoula County to find an innovative way to do just that: Remove the center pier of the old two-span from midstream but restore the iconic end sections to make it a single span. Leading the first walk across that day were the SOBs, followed by Bonner School eighth graders.
Come hell or high water, the old lady was good to go for another hundred years.
A Bridge is Born
A century ago a steel bridge was a welcome necessity for travelers who’d spent most of 1921 navigating the rough approaches to a detour bridge. The new span replaced its “rather fragile” predecessor through which the county’s 15-ton tractor had broken in April 1919, blocking the Yellowstone Trail to and from Missoula for 10 days.
On the last day of 1920 Missoula County commissioners awarded the Security Bridge Co., of Billings a $100,000 contract to build a replacement. Work began in February. The new bridge consisted of two 166½-foot steel spans with concrete flooring on concrete piers. It required some 225 tons of structural and reinforcing steel, along with 40-foot concrete approaches.
The project soon ran into issues. In mid-February, three prominent men from the Blackfoot Valley appeared before county commissioners Charles Prescott, G.F. Peterson and Fred Watson to protest what they called the closing of the road between Missoula and Bonner. Charles Jakways of Ovando, Blackfoot stage driver Robert Phelps and Potomac rancher Albert Hall complained that Security Bridge had failed to build and maintain adequate access roads to the detour bridge to the north.
Little is known about Phelps, the stage driver whose work depended on getting to Missoula. Albert Hall’s Montana roots dated back to the 1880s when he arrived from New Brunswick and helped drive down some of the first batches of logs for the Big Blackfoot Milling Company. By 1890, when he married Ida McDonald in Potomac, he was a well-known rancher, and his descendants remain deeply entrenched in the Potomac Valley.
Jakways played a largely overlooked role in the development of this part of Montana. According to his obituary in 1927, he opened the Bonner station of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1886, part of which still stands. Jakways later moved to Ovando where he ranched, opened a mercantile and engaged in the growing business of telephones. In 1904, using fenceposts and trees, he and partners strung line from Ovando to Drummond as the Big Blackfoot Telephone Company, the main telephone provider in the area today. When Joseph Dixon of Missoula took his seat as governor of Montana in 1921, he appointed Jakways state game warden two months after Jakways lodged his complaint about the county bridge at Milltown.
“It is extremely dangerous to attempt to drive an automobile over the road to Bonner,” the Blackfoot contingent told county commissioners. The Missoulian agreed, pointing out this was the main tourist highway in Montana and “must be kept in shape for travel.” Commissioners said the matter was in the hands of the Bureau of Public Roads and the State Highway Commission but agreed the Security Bridge Co. should make the road passable.
“At the present time it is said that the detour is deep with mud and filled with boulders,” the newspaper reported a week or so later. “It is thought that straw or sawdust placed in the road would make it passable.” Word came in early March that Security Bridge pledged to make repairs as soon as possible, though it promised “little relief to automobiles until frost went out of the ground.” The company said sledge hammers were being used to pound off the tops of high rocks but it was impossible to get gravel. Dirt fill quickly turned to mud.
Construction of the bridge itself proceeded on pace, and on Oct. 18 came indications the project was winding down. Security Bridge Co. advertised in the Missoulian a pair of 8-year-old geldings, each 1,200 pounds, along with a double harness and wagon. In early November, even as the Higgins Avenue Bridge in Missoula was fully opened following a repaving job, the newspaper reported the approaches to the new Milltown bridge were to be completed within the week and the bridge would be opened for traffic “probably by November 10.” They beat the prediction by a day. On Nov. 9, a warm and sunny Wednesday, county officials announced that the Blackfoot River bridge at Milltown was open to traffic.
Into the Future
For most of 30 years, the Black Bridge was the main state highway route. That changed in 1950 when Highway 10 was rerouted across a new bridge where the old Missoula-to-Bonner electric streetcar span stood. The Black Bridge remained structurally sound, but its roadway was just 18 feet wide, not enough for the postwar generation of cars and trucks. The new highway bridge was 30 feet curb to curb. Early reports were that the contract called for removal of the Black Bridge. But on June 16, upon making final acceptance of the bridge, the engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads said, “It is the understanding that the present bridge will be retained for local use.”
The Black Bridge would live on.
It remained open as a secondary crossing for vehicles until 1978 when, pocked with potholes, it was closed by the county to motorized traffic. It became the most popular walking/biking route between West Riverside and Milltown/Bonner/Piltzville. Ironically, the 1970s were the decade of the Black Bridge’s most widespread fame. Starting in 1973 and continuing for the next dozen springs, it provided a picturesque backdrop for the start of the Missoula “Marathon,” a seven-mile run into Missoula that morphed into the current Missoula Riverbank Run around town. For years after the closure of the Western Lumber Co. mill on the west bank of the Blackfoot in the early 1930s, the river below the Black Bridge served as a swimming, fishing and skating magnet for youth of the Milltown and Bonner areas. From 1931 to 1933 a hockey team played home games in the Garden City Hockey League on a rink below the bridge. The Milltown six were dubbed the “Flying Frenchmen” because they were made up mostly of Thibodeaus. By the early 1960s ice skating on the river was at an end for a number of reasons but other recreational pursuits remained popular. Jumping or diving from the bridge’s railing, piers and even its top into the deep pool of water below was a rite of summer for many.
Dam Removal and Salvation
The decision in 2005 to remove Milltown Dam posed a dilemma for the Black Bridge, which was built during reservoir conditions. Its center pier that anchored the two spans wouldn’t sustain the forces of a free-flowing river. An additional death knell was its impedance of the migration of bull trout (the confluence, after all, was named by the Salish “the place of the big bull trout.”)
The Black Bridge’s importance as a pedestrian crossing and community connector was acknowledged by the decision to replace it with a new truss bridge with ironwood or concrete decking. It took a community uprising to convince the county that some vestige of the old black steel bridge should be preserved, even if it should cost more. Starting in late 2006 the Save Our Bridge committee gathered 550 signatures on a petition. “Save Our Bridge” bumper stickers began popping up and yellow ribbons appeared on the trusses. A large “Save Our Bridge” banner hung from the downstream side of the bridge, visible to passing highway traffic.
Missoula County engineer Tim Elsea devised a plan that retained the original nature of the bridge while meeting the requirement to remove the piers from the river. Elsea considered the original bridge design of two spans supported by a single concrete pier in the middle. His vision was to remove one span entirely and elongate the other one by cutting it in half and adding four 18-foot sections to the center span to reach across the river without a supporting pier in the river.
The idea resonated with officials and community members alike and was hailed not only as an engineering success but as a bridge to uniting community members at odds over the Superfund cleanup. Money was found to cover the additional million dollars required, bringing the price tag to $2.6 million. Some of it came from new grants and some from reallocating money which involved the community giving up some planned trail amenities.
A Time to Celebrate
Access to the bridge was closed for most of a year starting in December 2007 while the refurbishments took place. The ribbon-cutting was planned for Nov. 3, a Monday on the eve of election day 2008. Baucus, Tester and Schweitzer were joined by Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath, Elsea and county commissioners past and present, as well as representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resource Damage Program. The Piltzville Walkers, the group of men and women from which the SOBs grew, were out in force as well.
A “Save Our Bridge” sign that Paul Layton and friends had strung from the railing a year earlier leaned against the same railing with a prominent “d” added at the end of the word “Save.”
“We were able to preserve a historical landmark in our community,” Layton said. “I guess we’re so happy we could probably dance.”
At the suggestion of longtime Milltown resident Jim Willis, the Bonner Community Council agreed to dedicate the bridge to the youth of the greater Bonner area.
“It’s their bridge, and it’s up to them to protect it,” Willis said. “They use it more than anybody else, so I thought it should be dedicated (to them).”
Sadly, as is the case with many of the SOB members, the Laytons and Willis aren’t around for the Black Bridge’s 100th birthday. Peggy and Paul Layton passed away months apart in 2018 and Willis died last May.
Back Into the Future
In 2011 the Missoula City County Historic Preservation committee honored the bridge restoration project with a Group Contribution Award. The honorees list is a roll call recognizing that great things can happen when everyone pulls together. Recipients for the award included Missoula County Commissioners; Paul Layton and the Save Our Bridge Committee; the Bonner Milltown Community Council; the Milltown Redevelopment Working Group; Missoula County’s Elsea, Peter Nielsen, and Greg Robertson; Gov. Schweitzer; the EPA’s Diana Hammer, John Wardell and Sandy Wardell; NRDP’s Carol Fox, Rob Collins, and Doug Martin; Senators Baucus and Tester, and Mary Price of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
At age 100, the Black Bridge isn’t so busy anymore. Kids still ride their bikes to and from school and people walk their dogs across and below it on a new river trail in Milltown State Park, sometimes stopping to rest and ponder on one of the bridge’s benches. Cross-country runners from Bonner School gather with their coaches in mid-workout during the fall. A young woman embraces the solitude to practice hula-hoop meditation on the deck, and local search-and-rescue squads can be seen rappelling below the bridge in training.
It’s a mile-and-a-half walk to Bonner’s new Kettlehouse Amphitheater, but on a busy concert evening the parking lot at the west end of the bridge is often full. It’s a river bridge now, so no deep pool of water below to plunge into. And no 15-ton tractors are allowed onto the bridge to break through its deck of Brazilian ironwood.
“This community has been through a lot and will continue to go through a lot,” Attorney General McGrath said on the bridge’s “re-birthday” in 2008. The new bridge “is a symbol of the community coming together, and also a symbol for children for generations to come.”
“There is,” Baucus said, “a lot of power in a bridge.”
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