The click-clack of tires across the High Bridge is a little quieter these days, thanks to a $1 million restoration project that earned the span a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its shiny red railing, thick planks and new columns, the

107-year-old bridge remains high above the Dearborn River, holding its title as the only bridge of its kind in the county.

"The oldest photo I've seen of the bridge, it had a wagon on it," said Jon Axline, historian with the Montana Department of Transportation. "It cost the county $9,997 to build."

The bridge was erected in 1897 by the King Bridge Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. More than a century later, Axline said, it remains the only standing "pin-connected, Pratt, half-deck, truss-bridge" in the country.

There's more to the bridge than meets the eye. In the 1980s, a farmer exceeded the structure's tonnage when he attempted a precarious crossing in a grain truck. The vehicle broke through the decking, nearly plunging to the river roaring 100 feet below.

Long before the arrival of vehicles, American Indians used the area - once known as Ponderay Crossing - to ford the unpredictable Dearborn River. Area ranchers followed in order to reach the railroad at Wolf Creek about 30 miles south.

Bridge engineer Zenas King saw the significance of the crossing and, at the behest of the county, he began construction of the four-span bridge in 1896.

Completed the next year, the structure stood 100 feet above the river and spanned 160 feet across the gorge.

"There used to be a fair number of these bridges around the country that were built by the same company," Axline said. "This is the only one left. It's one of kind."

That one-of-a-kind status helped convince Lewis and Clark County officials to nominate the structure for funding through the state's bridge system.

"The renovation was beyond our capacity to deal with," said Eric Griffin, director of the county's public works department. "We never would have had the cash or manpower to do it."

The bridge at Fort Benton is the oldest bridge in Montana, according to Axline. It's followed closely by the Morelli Bridge near Reeder's Alley in downtown Helena, which was built in 1893.

The Williams Street Bridge, also in Helena, is the state's third-oldest bridge. It was built in 1896.

Axline said the High Bridge may likely round out the top five oldest bridges in the state with its construction date of 1897.

"Lewis and Clark County has some of the oldest bridge in Montana," he said.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 447-4086, or at mkidston@helenair.com.

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