Terry bridge has history of connecting community

By Katrina Shumway
Special to the Tribune

     There’s something eerie about being down at a river in the dead of winter. It’s quiet. Way too quiet. You can look up and see the semi-trucks driving down the interstate, but the sound doesn’t reach. The cars traveling down the highway, the sound of the motorists crossing the river doesn’t reach your ears. The animals are gone, the birds are gone, there’s no sound but the river moving. Then out of nowhere, you hear a groan and a crack. You look up wondering if there’s some sort of lightning storm or dying person in the bushes — when you see the ice break apart and move downstream. It goes down past the bridge, hits the columns, but this time it stays. I remember how it’s not the first time ice has gotten stuck on those columns in the past 100 years, and I know it won’t be the last.

    The columns you see sticking up from the river when you drive Montana Secondary Highway 253 were built in 1910. Originally, there was a bridge on top of them, but the Yellowstone River is a force not to be reckoned with. The bridge was built to allow the Custer County community of Terry to come together and to bring in commerce and trade. But building the bridge a mile north of Terry wasn’t an easy sell. Terryites weren’t the only people who had to vote on the bridge, the rest of Custer County residents had to do so as well. 

      During 1909, the Stockgrowers Journal of Miles City was printing articles that put the Terry bridge in a bad light and were hoping the voters in Miles City and the rest of Custer County would vote in favor of a bridge five miles west — currently where the Calypso Bridge stands. The Terry Tribune wanted to address these remarks. Chas Bolder, a rancher on the north side of Terry said, “It would be impossible to build a road through that section, for it is hard enough for a bird to fly over the route, so rough is the country” (Tribune). 

        Donald McRae, a sheep farmer continued those thoughts saying “…he once tried to traverse the road down Crooked Creek and had to give it up on account of its condition” (Tribune). 

             From personal experience, this is not an easy place for cars to get to. To this day, everyone who we send up to visit Calypso, walks. The badlands are too harsh up there. A hundred years ago, much like today, no one would be able to get their car up there. With Terry natives, particularly north side residents and B.F. Bragg, the ferryman, giving their insight on the better bridge location, Custer County voters voted yes on building a bridge a mile north of Terry.

In 1910, the Terry Tribune announced the winner of the bid for the Terry Bridge. The Security Bridge Company of Minneapolis and foreman W. O. James would build the bridge with a budget of $47,000 (Tribune). 

      Founded in 1906 by William and Arthur Hewitt, the Security Bridge Company was the premiere bridge building company in Montana until 1926 (Axline). The bridge was completed October 8, 1910 with 500 people coming out to celebrate the opening (Tribune). It was a huge deal for the community. 

     J.B. Shaw, one of the citizens most directly affected by the bridge spoke on behalf of the north side residents. He commented on the bridge bringing the community together, making everyone better Christians and how this bridge will bring people and commerce to the community. Now, the north side residents could make it into town more often. The ferry only ran when the water was running which meant only making it to the other side of the river six months out of the year. The north side residents would be “better Christians” (Tribune) by being able to make it to church, and the community would flourish out of “…its swaddling cloths and take on the metropolitan air of town — a few years hence and it will be a city, with its city hall, trolly cars, water works, paved streets, skyscrapers, electric lights, automobiles, fire engines and so forth” (Tribune).     

      He also thanked B.F. Bragg, the ferryman for always being there to take them across the river. With the bridge installed, where his ferry used to be, Bragg later quit the ferrying business and became a rancher on the north side of the river (Prairie County).

     Twenty years later in March of 1930, proving that the Yellowstone River will do what it wants, an ice jam took out a span of the bridge.   

       With the reality of needing a new bridge upon the county residents yet again, a man by the name of Walter Mackin took it upon himself to build the second Terry Bridge (Tribune). A surveyor throughout Prairie County around 1915, Walter believed he had the ability to build a strong, sturdy bridge that would last. And Walter’s belief was right. While building the bridge he took the span and hung it from steel cables using steel beams to reinforce the once collapsed span (Tribune). Later a new pier and approach would have to be redone. 

   The Terry Tribune praised Mackin, “…he has accomplished, in replacing the bridge, what other more experienced bridge men would not tackle” (Tribune). 

      A few years before the bridge was built, Walter moved his family to Billings, Montana and began Mackin Construction in the 1920s. His son Blake later took over the company and currently, Walter’s grandson Bob runs it. The Mackin family is well known throughout Montana for their bridges. In a phone call with Bob Mackin of Mackin Construction, he said, “If you look down on the … south side of where the bridge was, you can still see the scratch marks of where the ice came up against the columns and took the (first) bridge off.”

     With the changes in safety measures and bridge standards throughout the years, the Montana Department of Transportation built a new bridge in 1959. It was opened September 19 of that year to the public only a few hundred feet from the old bridge (Tribune). At the time, the old Terry bridge was still standing and open for travel. Soon however, the county closed the old bridge. 

     And in 1971, an ice jam took it away for the last time. It headed downriver and came exceedingly close to hitting the old Fallon bridge. 

   The ice had originally started jamming on the new bridge in Terry and then it moved down and started to jam on the old bridge. The ice got to be so much it took off a piece of the old bridge in between the columns. The bridge piece rode the ice downriver at around eight to nine miles per hour. Everyone was worried the ice jammed bridge would take out the bridges near Fallon. Two of the three were interstate bridges and the ice would have caused the interstate traffic to come to a stop.   

         In an interview, Dale Galland of Terry recalls watching the bridge come down the river to Fallon saying, “Officials were so worried that it would take out all the bridges … people wanted to watch the broken bridge go under the bridges. They had to force people off the middle of the bridge just in case anything happened.”  Fortunately, as the bridge piece came around the corner and into Fallon, the bridge got turned around. It fit perfectly between two columns and just barely grazed the bottom of the bridges. Galland remembers that day saying, “The ice jams are always bad … that time when the ice went out it was violent.”

      Fortunately, it was only the final time in the Terry bridge was taken away that it became violent. However, lack of violence when the bridge broke earlier didn’t mean the bridge going out had no effect on anyone. 

   Being the grocers to the entire town of Terry, Dave and Lucille Covert knew everyone in town and most, if not all, of Terry’s happenings. In an interview, Dave told me about the bridge going out, saying, “The bridge was a big deal for the community.” The bridge gave the town of Terry a big financial boost and it going out severely affected the north side residents and the town. People couldn’t get their mail. Kids couldn’t make it into school and would have to stay in town in order to go. Parents and families who would make weekly trips into town to trade eggs and butter at the store would have to drive far out of the way and didn’t come in much. Their livelihoods suffered. 

     But north side residents’ livelihoods wasn’t the only thing that suffered, commerce did as well. To go from the north side of the Yellowstone River to Terry, you drive 46 miles to Brockway, then 13 to Circle, 45 to Glendive, and finally 37 to Terry. People on the north side of the river would get their supplies in Brockway, only making the 108-mile trip if necessary. 

     Dave, Lucille and I joked in our interview about how, “To keep a farm going, you need some cows, a dog, a pickup, some hay and a wife with a job in town.” It seems like a silly old saying, but the truth of it is astounding. 

    Lucille remarked how, “so many years were bad enough that the major income came from the wife with her job in town.” And because of the bridge going out, some families weren’t able to have that extra income which, even if it were a good year, is a nice safety net for bad years. 

   Dave and Lucille both remembered how the ice on the river was such a big deal. Dave said, “It was always quite a town talk when the river was gonna go out.” And Lucille smiled as she said, “They’d make bets!” Dave recalled how they’d freeze something in the ice hooked up to a clock timer on shore and when it’d get so far down the ice, the string would break and the clock would stop, giving people the exact time to see who would be close enough with their bet.

     The ice on the Yellowstone River was always a big deal. It was strong enough to take out bridges. Because of this ice taking out the bridge, families were split apart. Already slow commerce slowed down more. Personal incomes suffered. This bridge was and is an integral part of the community. 

     Without the bridge in place, residents of the north side of the Yellowstone had to drive either 108-miles out of the way or take Bad Route Road. Living up to its name, Bad Route Road is a really, really bad route to take. To start on Bad Route on the north side of Terry and then take it to the interstate 10 miles out of Fallon, you have to get off Bad Route and then take three completely separate roads only to get back onto Bad Route Road again. Neither one of those options is efficient.

     This bridge, it’s not just a way to cross the Yellowstone. It’s a way for families to be part of the Terry community. It’s a way for parents to send their kids to one of the best schools in Eastern Montana. This bridge, allows for an extra income for the years when the farm doesn’t make any. This bridge allows for commerce and trade within the community. When the ice jams took out the bridge, especially the first time, northern residents would take their business to Brockway, simply because it was easiest to get to. North side Terry residents were actually so common in Brockway because of the ice dams taking out the bridge that when the historical societies made the family history books of the communities in Terry and Brockway, most north side residents made it into the Terry family history book as well as the Brockway family history book. 

     Terry is famous for Evelyn Cameron, its badlands and its agate hunting. All three of these require people to go across the bridge. If visitors want to see where Cameron lived or see where most of her photos were taken, they have to go over the bridge and north of town. If they want to go take in the badlands near Terry they have to go across the river where the badlands start. If visitors want to go agate hunting, something only found between Billings and Glendive, they have to go near the river or in the badlands. Because of this bridge, people can be part of the Terry community and not having the bridge is huge. Like Dave said in our interview, “…it’s a big deal.”

     When the span of the bridge collapsed in 1930, north side residents had to park their cars on the north side and then walk across the bridge, once it was supported, and into town. While Mackin was building the second bridge, an ice dam came again and people were flocking to the river in crowds just to see if it would do any more harm (Tribune). Because Bragg quit the ferry business, the country had to erect a cable ferry for people to cross. During this time, The Tribune even remarked on how much this affected everyone. “…north side people will rejoice…”,  “The people of Prairie County are quite elated…”, “…would have had double calamity…”, “…taxpayers and those that have been inconvenienced by the mishap to the bridge” are all phrases used to describe the influence had on my community.

     If people hadn’t realized how important this bridge is to my community, Terry wouldn’t have the population it does. The school wouldn’t have the number of kids it does. Brockway wouldn’t be the run-down, barley-there little town it currently is. This bridge allows my community to thrive as much as a small town with a small population can. 

     We may be a few skyscrapers and trolley cars short of J.B. Shaw’s predictions on what the Terry bridge will bring to the town, but we are still here. And we are still attracting people moving into the area and visitors because of the access this bridge gives to Prairie County citizens. And if we didn’t have this bridge, and had just let the ice jams have their way and not built the bridge again, or even if we had built the bridge five miles away where the Stockgrowers Journal said we ought to in 1909, my town and my community would not be the way it is.

Published August 13, 2014

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