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July 27: Fatal Fall from Bridge

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Before the Garrison Dam was built, the Missouri was a wily river. Its greedy undercurrents had proven treacherous on several occasions.

On this date in 1955, painter Donald Ryland of New Town was working 135 feet above the river on the Four Bears Bridge when he lost his balance reaching for a paint stick. He managed to grab a steel beam, but before others could reach him, he lost his grip and fell into the rising reservoir.

Ryland tried to swim, but a short distance from the shore, he went under. The river gave him up three days later about four miles downstream. An autopsy revealed he had no broken bones, but his fellow workers assumed he was stunned from the fall.

Ryland’s death was not the first at the construction site. Working at such heights was dangerous and just two years before, Sylvester Mahr of Minnesota fell to his death when scaffolding on one of the bridge piers collapsed. Mahr and several others plummeted into the pier’s coffer dam. One man, Edwin Zook, was seriously injured, breaking his shoulder. Had it not been for a carpenter near the accident, he, too, may have died. Zook had landed on the muddy bottom of the coffer dam with his head stuck in the mud. The carpenter, C.R. Happe pulled him free and got him to solid ground.

Merle Willhite had fallen 80 feet, but was not seriously injured. George Peltier managed to cling to a cable as the scaffolding fell. Raymond Ceynar had just stepped from the section before it collapsed. Another man escaped injury when he fell into the river and was submerged long enough to avoid being hit by the collapsing scaffold. Zook, Mahr and Willhite were taken to the hospital in Stanley, where Mahr died.

The old Four Bears bridge spanning the Garrison Reservoir was just over a mile long, the longest in the state. In October 2005 it was demolished, replaced by the new Four Bears Bridge, which had been completed that September.

Dakota Datebook by Tessa Sandstrom

“Victim of bridge accident; body found four miles downstream,” New Town News. August 9, 1955: 1.
“Fall from new bridge fatal to local man,” New Town News. July 28, 1955: 1.
“One bridge worker killed; another injured here,” New Town News. September 17, 1953: 1.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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