by Tiffany Sweeney
One hundred years. That is the time that the Tenth Street Bridge has spanned the Missouri River in the heart of Great Falls. One hundred years of grandeur and beauty and controversy.
A bridge across the Missouri River created connections to the outlying communities in the north that would prove critical. In 1917, legislation allowed the use of county funds to be used within city limits, creating the vision of connection to move forward with the building of the bridge at Tenth Street. The funds approved by voters for the construction fell short of the bids received for building; yet commissioners came through by running a design competition. Ralph Adams, a structural engineer from Spokane, and George Shanley, a local architect known for the Rainbow Hotel and the First National Bank Building, were the winners of the contest thanks to their vision reflecting that of Paris Gibson.
Construction first began by building a railroad trestle across the river. Crews used handcars to move the mixed concrete to the wooden forms, creating the cast-in-place arches. The slow and steady work would eventually become Montana’s oldest and longest reinforced concrete, open-spandrel, ribbed-arch bridge.
In 1920, the bridge was completed with eight sweeping arches, stretching a full 1,130 feet across the Missouri River. The Great Falls Tribune called this new construction a “carved monument above the water.” The Montana Highway Commission commented that the bridge was of “the most advanced ideas of modern bridge building.” Yet, the bridge was a “bridge to nowhere.” It couldn’t be accessed without a 30-foot ladder to reach the deck. Construction for the city proved to be financially difficult. The county had jurisdiction over the waterway. Eventually, by the city and county working together with federal aid for the north end of the bridge, the bridge could finally be completed.
The story behind the bridge does not end there. With time, the bridge began to deteriorate and in 1971, the State of Montana and Cascade County identified it as a top priority
to be replaced. The deck had to be closed temporarily in 1975 for repairs. Nine years later, the city and county governments began the process to be rid of it completely.
Demolition of the bridge would become a priority in order to replace it with a new bridge on a new site. Citizens stepped up to save the bridge because of its place in our local and state history, and eligibility was explored for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The lead citizen, Arlyne Reichert, saw this bridge as much more than a structure and took to the power of the pen, writing a letter to the editor of the Great Falls Tribune in 1994 and launching her into what she describes as the love of her life beyond her husband: saving the bridge. As the debate continued into the courtroom, loyal supporters worked diligently in the background, and on April 25, 1996, the Tenth Street Bridge became an official listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the bridge is owned by the city, but those loyal supporters remain in Preservation Cascade, Inc., including Reichert who serves as president, ensuring the life of the monument remains and thrives. This non-profit organization has raised funds totaling more than $1.5 million strictly through donations, events, and grants. It was with these funds that you can now see the bridge lit in glory on special occasions since 2007. The vision that was once held by Paris Gibson has evolved through the creativity of Preservation Cascade, where they are now integrating the Tenth Street Bridge into Great Falls’ beautiful River’s Edge Trail, complete with safety railings throughout the structure, and purple lights shining bright on holidays, for memorials and birthdays, and for other occasions.
This year marked 100 years since the completion of the bridge. A celebration was planned in August to celebrate its history and how far it has come via The River’s Edge Trail Luminaria Walk. The celebration has been postponed due to the current pandemic but will take place when possible.
Historic Montana (a website from the Montana Historical Society) states, “Historically and aesthetically important, the Tenth Street Bridge combines skillful engineering with graceful elegance to complement Great Falls’ most significant natural resource: the Missouri River.” Yet, it is more than skill and elegance. Reichert believed in this bridge as our link to the past and our connection to the present and future. The Tenth Street Bridge is a continuous reminder to us all that we can evolve with the changing times and still stand proud and strong in the face of adversity.