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Etched with history: The Cottonwood Bridge

 

October 25, 2013

Lindsay Brown

The Cottonwood Bridge lies approximately 29 miles northwest of Havre, between the city and the Canadian border. Complex geographical features can be seen all around the bridge, which spans the currently braided Milk River.

The footprints of various animals - coyotes, raccoons, birds and others - pockmark the soft silt which the seasonally low river has left in the bed.

In the middle of this regal Montana landscape stands the historic bridge; a lasting symbol of man's coexistence with the land.

A remarkable feature of the bridge is the hundreds of signatures it has accumulated since its construction; many from as back as 1941 and all the way to 2013.

These signatures have caught the eye of two north-central Montana natives who are attempting to record some of the almost-forgotten memory of these signatures and other aging structures and places of interest.

Vince Woodwick is a Havre artist who has a penchant for north-central Montana history.

Woodwick said the Cottonwood Bridge is the only bridge over the Milk River in the north Havre area. The bridge also goes by the name of Goldstone to some.

"It was built prior to the Fresno Dam," Woodwick said, adding that the date was 1938.

Woodwick said it is the only bridge out of three in the area that is left standing. The Kremlin Bridge was taken out by an ice flow before the Cottonwood was built.

There are rumors that pieces of the Kremlin Bridge were used to build the Cottonwood, but Woodwick said he does not believe these rumors because he has seen photos of what the Kremlin Bridge looked like, and the materials used for the two bridges do not look the same.

The other bridge was the original Cottonwood Bridge, which was five miles upriver from the current one. This bridge was burned down by a bootlegger who, while running away from the authorities, set it aflame to stop his pursuers in 1913.

Woodwick is unsure of who made the bridge, but suspects that it may have been a Works Progress Administration project. The WPA was an ambitious New Deal agency that hired unemployed people to work on public projects

"It's a shortcut to get to the other Hi-Line towns, like Gildford," said Mark Peterson, Hill County commissioner. "And kids growing up remember the bridge. We ran cattle on the north and south side of the bridge."

Peterson lives about six miles northeast of the bridge and says it definitely serves its purpose. He said it allows quick access between parts of the Hi-Line community, which helps with firefighters trying to reach the area beyond the Milk River.

"Some of our fires can get pretty big pretty quick, and firefighters will use the bridge to go either direction to help out," Peterson said.

It takes 30 miles to drive to Gildford using the bridge and 60 miles without from Peterson's home, he said.

"My family is from that area," Woodwick said. "It was like seeing a family history up there."

Woodwick jokingly said around 50 percent of the over 600 names etched onto the bridge are relatives of his in some way or another.

In order to find out who the names on the bridge belonged to, Woodwick said he is going to go around talking to the "old folks" of the region to see what they know.

"Most of the old-timers are gone," Woodwick said. "So the information is hard to find."

"I don't know who built it or if it was a special project," Woodwick said.  "It's a little bit of North-Central Montana nostalgia. It's special to me because it's family."

Woodwick said he is working with Peterson to preserve historical sites such as the Cottonwood Bridge and they have already recorded four historic cemeteries.

"We're looking for the smaller cemeteries," Woodwick said. "We're documenting them and putting them in books to give to the library."

Many of the graves they look at are unmarked, and they are trying to preserve the history of these cemeteries before they are lost in time forever.

His and Peterson's project take them to many lesser-known historic sites in the Hi-Line, such as as the cemeteries, buildings and structures like the Cottonwood Bridge.

"If anybody has relatives from this area, it would be good nostalgia," Woodwick said.

Peterson said that he and Woodwick are just trying to document the history before it is too late.

Lindsay Brown

"Virtually all the homesteaders are gone, so we're trying to get all the history with the resources we have," Peterson said. "Once it's lost, you can never regain it."

Peterson urges anyone who may know some of the history about the Cottonwood Bridge or any other site or lore not well known in the area to contact him or Woodwick.

"There are so many others in the community who are trying to do the same thing," Peterson said. "Some of (the history) is personal to us, but it's still part of a whole - the big picture. If we don't do it, it's going to be lost."

Woodwick's telephone number is 265-4877 and Peterson can be reached at the Hill County Courthouse at 265-5481.

 

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