Preservation group working to save historic railroad bridge over Missouri River

The nonprofit is hoping to prevent demolition of the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge so that the span may be repurposed into a walking and biking pathway between the two cities.

The cross-hatching metal of a rail bridge is mirrored in a still river with a beautiful sunset.
View at sunset of the historic 1883 Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, taken from the east bank of the Missouri River in Bismarck.
Contributed / Friends of the Rail Bridge

BISMARCK — A group looking to save a historic railroad bridge over the Missouri River is mulling its legal options in an ongoing quest to keep the span from being torn down.

The Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, built in 1883, is targeted for demolition as BNSF Railway seeks permitting from the U.S. Coast Guard to construct a new bridge.

The nonprofit Friends of the Rail Bridge group is asking for an administrative hearing on a sovereign lands permit from the North Dakota Department of Water Resources, which it says would provide opportunity for public comment on a number of significant issues.

Attorney Lyle Witham said issues that need addressing include ownership of the riverbed beneath the historic bridge and the bridge itself, and whether a sovereign lands permit should be issued to tear down the bridge and build a new one.

The group maintains it’s not necessary to tear down the historic bridge in order for BNSF to build a new one. They say the historic bridge should be repurposed into a biking and walking trail.


Rendering of an existing railroad bridge and a new one alongside it
A rendering of proposed changes to the 1883 Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, including a walking and biking path. The group Friends of the Rail Bridge maintains the historic bridge and a new BNSF bridge can coexist.
Contributed / Friends of the Rail Bridge

Bismarck and Mandan have numerous trails adjacent to the Missouri River, which could connect to a pedestrian pathway on the repurposed bridge, making it a recreational staple for the communities for generations to come, the group said.

Mark Zimmerman, Friends of the Rail Bridge president, said preserving and repurposing the bridge would elevate existing assets in the community.

Rendering of a railroad bridge where walking and biking paths would be included
A rendering of proposed changes to the 1883 Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, making it a walking and biking path.
Contributed / Friends of the Rail Bridge

“This transformation will go beyond recreation and tourism, including fostering civic pride, increasing historical awareness, and stimulating economic development along the river. Some of our greatest attractions in the area are the historic sites within the view of this great bridge,” Zimmerman said, in a news release.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

It was crossed in the early years by notables including former presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Sitting Bull.

A sepia-tone historic photo of a train crossing Missouri River
A train travels east across the Missouri River to Bismarck, North Dakota, in this undated historical photo.
Contributed / Friends of the Rail Bridge

Margie Zalk Enerson, a Friends of the Rail Bridge board member, said if the bridge hadn’t been built, Roosevelt might never have set foot in North Dakota.

“We want all these millions of visitors to come, but the historic bridge that brought him across, this same bridge, is going to be torn down unless we stop it,” she said.

More information about efforts to preserve and repurpose the historic Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge is available at

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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