A bit of April foolery By Richard I. Gibson
The spring of 1873 was the hottest and wettest on record in southwest Montana, and Silver Bow Creek was out of its banks for months beginning in February, isolating Butte’s Hill from transportation hubs and roads to the east, south, and southwest. Rations were in short supply. With no end in sight to the high waters, desperate businessmen contrived to erect the longest bridge west of the Mississippi at that time.
With backing from the Donnell Clark & Larabie Bank, John Steward (of Steward Mine fame) organized the gangs of men who built the bridge. Engineer Henry Parshall designed the structure in the space of 10 days, and work began on May 17, 1873. “A Herculean effort,” as both the Anaconda Standard and the Butte Miner called it, kept men working day and night. When complete, the steel structure spanned the flood about a mile west of where Montana Street crosses the creek today, extending from the hills south of the Orphan Girl Mine to a point just west of Williamsburg. It was nearly 2,000 feet long.
The bank loaned Steward $6,400, the equivalent of $137,000 today. The bridge was passable by June 2, and critical food supplies reached the Hill that day; by June 7, daily trains pulled by steam locomotives were crossing the bridge. Unseasonably hot weather the first week of June caused all the snow in the mountains to melt, and the flood’s peak was reached on June 10. By June 18, with no more meltwater and no rain, Silver Bow Creek had been reduced to a trickle, and by June 25 the stream was bone dry. The bridge was no longer used, since streets like Utah, Montana, and Arizona, and even parts of the Interstate, were easily passable.
In order to pay the debt to the bank, Steward had to dismantle the bridge even more quickly than it had been constructed. The steel girders were appropriated by Clark (Donnell and Larabie were uninterested) who refurbished them to brace the upper shaft at his Original Mine, enabling it to reach unprecedented depths of more than 7,800 feet.
The press referred to the bridge as “Steward’s Folly” for a few weeks, but by autumn the entire episode was forgotten.
Source: Quarry Brewing’s Shale Pale Ale.