Preservation of the Craig Bridge
The Bridge's History
The original bridge provided access to farmers with their produce from the east side of the Missouri River to the Montana Central Railroad (MCRR) tracks at Craig on the west side and to the old Benton Road between Helena and Great Falls. Area rancher Frank Wegner promoted the construction of a Missouri River bridge at Craig aggressively, beginning in the early 1890s, as a way to tie the area and its development to Helena.
The project became entangled in the politics of the railroads. Construction on the MCRR roadbed from Butte to Great Falls began in 1886, after railroad tycoon Jim Hill and local prominent citizen Charles Broadwater arranged a deal with Copper King Marcus Daly to give the MCRR exclusive access to copper from Butte and silver from Basin. Daly got low freight rates to the smelter in Great Falls for his part in the bargain. The line would connect to the railroad Hill built from Minneapolis through Havre to Great Falls. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which already had lines in and around Helena, tried to block the MCRR, both in the courts and physically, by building several tracks in the MCRR's path and at one point, even by parking a locomotive in the way.
These complications led to organized resistance to the bridge project by some Helena businessmen, but Wegner's election to the Lewis and Clark County Commission in 1900 helped to tip the balance in favor of the bridge at Craig. Lewis and Clark County let a contract to the Elkhart Bridge Company for $9,000 in late 1902 for the bridge's construction. After a slow start to the project and several delays, the company finally completed the bridge in March 1904.
The New Bridge
MDT let a $3,360,000 contract in April 2004 for a new bridge at this location, 100 years almost to the day from the completion of the old bridge, for almost 400 times the cost. The new bridge opened to traffic in January 2006. It took as long to complete as the one it replaced. MDT advertised the old bridge's availability for adoption throughout the project. A last minute agreement between the Department and the Bridgeworks Conservancy saved the bridge from being dismantled and sold off for scrap.
After loading the three truss spans on trucks, one truck per truss, the bridge left the Missouri River site on the morning of 21 March 2006. The convoy made 34 miles the first day, spending the night on the Lincoln Road (Montana 279).
The next day it traveled on local roads to the northern outskirts of Helena and spent another night there, making the last leg of the trip on 23 March to arrive at the former State Nursery property west of Helena. The trusses traveled a total distance of just over 45 miles to their new home.
Its Final Resting Place
The bridge now resides on the site of the former State Nursery on the west side of Helena, adjacent to US Highway 12. Its new owners, the Bridgeworks Conservancy have announced that they intend to provide new piers and abutments and will erect the bridge on them across Ten Mile Creek. The conservancy plans to dedicate a portion of the site as a public park. They will allow cars and light trucks, as well as pedestrians, to use the bridge.