Community members have been working to protect one of the most important historic parts of the Upper Missouri River — the beautiful bridge that was built 140 years ago by the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Mandan resident Rayne Alch says it’s a sight you can’t forget.

“When I think of Bismarck, I think of the bridge — it’s a staple,” Alch said.

President of Friends of the Rail Bridge (FORB) Mark Zimmerman says this structure is a significant part of North Dakota history.

“Early years of it, before the bridge got here, the trains would cross on ice. The territorial capital moved from Yankton, South Dakota, to Bismarck because of the railroad and the rail bridge,” he said.

FORB has been working since 2017 to protect the rail bridge between Bismarck and Mandan. They’ve been working with the Coast Guard under the Historic Preservation Act to fight against BNSF Railway’s plan to demolish the bridge and build a new rail crossing in the same area.

“We support the building of a new bridge, but the issue has been there are federal regulations that protect historic structures,” Zimmerman said.

Citizens of Bismarck have felt ignored, until a recent discovery about who actually owns the bridge.

When North Dakota entered the Union in 1880, the U.S. transferred ownership of the Missouri River and anything attached to it. FORB believes the Bismarck bridge is legally owned by the State of North Dakota.

“In the past, it’s been that BNSF– we assumed they owned the bridge but we’re thinking research shows that the bridge belongs to the people of North Dakota,” Zimmerman said.

FORB recently submitted a 335 document to Attorney General Drew Wrigley sharing their research about the bridge’s ownership. But until the Coast Guard makes a decision and a permit for the bridge is issued, the fate of this endangered piece of history is unknown.

“The bridge needs to be a part of our community, the bridge needs to stay there and remind people — it’s important to not forget what has happened in the past,” said Zimmerman and Alch.

The Rail Bridge was featured on the 2019 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

We reached out to BNSF Railway about this issue and haven’t received a response.