The Northern Pacific Railroad corridor was at the center of my exploration of Thompson Falls in 1984-1985 but I did not ignore either the man for whom the town was named nor the falls that has brought the town power for more than a century.
On the outskirts of town, the 1920s monument to David Thompson was the centerpiece of the town’s heritage tourism attractions in 1984-1985, now it is more of an afterthought. David Thompson was a Welsh-Canadian who established the first trading post in this river valley, called Saleesh House, for the tribe with whom this veteran of both the Hudson Bay Company and North West Company had targeted for the fur trade. His last visit to Saleesh House came in the winter of 1812. Thompson, I thought in 1984, was a very important figure in Montana history but increasingly a neglected trader–in fact most of the early traders, like those of the American Fur Company on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, are neglected, even though significant places associated with them remain intact on the state’s landscape.
About one hundred years after David Thompson’s last winter at Saleesh House, an entirely different landscape emerged along the Clark’s Fork River, one that introduced the recent technology of electricity to the region. To support and encourage the development of hydroelectric facilities, the city of Thompson Falls combined with investors to build what became known as the “High Bridge,” a way for automobile traffic to cross this gorge in the Clark’s Fork and unite settlement on both sides of the river.
The High Bridge was an early 20th century Montana engineering marvel. It was 588 feet in length, designed for automobile traffic, with a 18-feet wide deck standing on a combination of Pratt and Parker trusses. It is the longest bridge of its kind in Montana.
The long bridge was closed c. 1980 to traffic, and it was just setting there, a huge structure neglected when I visited Thompson Falls in 1984. The adjacent Gallatin Street bridge, which provided access to the area, remained extant as well.
But within two years, residents and officials combined together to place the bridges and hydroelectric facilities in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. They were preserved, but still not used, for a generation.
In 2009-2010, residents worked with local, state, and federal government officials to restore the bridge, add a pedestrian deck, and to open the bridge and either side of the bridge as a public park. Funding in part came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, one of the ways that short-lived federal building effort benefited historic preservation in Montana small towns.
The High Bridge experience not only reconnected Thompson Falls to its river roots, it also creates an unique experience for heritage travelers. The site is not that far different from 100 years ago, giving you the chance to cross a river and peer below but also to realize just how “wild” automobile traffic was in the 1910s and 1920s.