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May 8: National Historic Preservation Month - Fairview Lift Bridge

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May is National Historic Preservation Month. Once a week on Dakota Datebook we’re featuring historic structures and places in North Dakota related to our transportation infrastructure. Today, our topic is the Fairview Lift Bridge.

Railroads helped fill out the cities and towns of North Dakota. By 1910, much of the state contained established railroad lines. However, many railways continued to try different routes. The Fairview Lift Bridge was constructed around 1913. It was supposed to be part of a Great Northern transcontinental line through North Dakota and Montana, and while the project did not succeed, that branch of railway was used for decades within McKenzie County. It was last used in the 1980s.

The Fairview Lift Bridge is the only vertical lift bridge in the state. It was constructed on track between Fairview, Montana to Watford City. The bridge crosses the Yellowstone River just east of the state line. 300 feet east of the bridge is the Cartwright tunnel, which was the only completed railroad tunnel in the state of North Dakota.

Lift spans had to be built into the structure because the Yellowstone River was considered a navigable waterway, though commercial river traffic had actually decreased by the time of construction. According to reports, the lift span had only been operated once, to test it out.

When a gas pipeline was laid across the bridge in 1930, special consideration of the lift had to be implemented. Because of the lift on the bridge, the pipeline had to be laid in a way that a section of it could be disconnected and raised with the bridge, with just a temporary interruption to the flow.

As automobile traffic increased, planking was added to the bridge deck. Since trains still used the bridge, a watchman was employed to reduce safety risks. At first, the Great Northern Railway monitored car access and charged a toll. In 1937, the North Dakota State Highway Department took on this responsibility. Residents of Williston held a picnic to celebrate the elimination of the tolls.

In the 1950s, a highway bridge was constructed north of the lift bridge, ending the car traffic. The old Fairview Lift Bridge remains largely intact today, honored with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


  • The Minot Daily News and Daily Optic Reporter, May 19, 1953, p7
  • The Pierce County Tribune, Thursday, September 2, 1937, p2
  • The Ward County Reporter, Thursday, August 21, 1913, p3
  • National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Fairview Lift Bridge
  • The Flasher Tribune, Thursday, September 11, 1930, p3

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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