Dakota Datebook

Testing the Bismarck Railroad Bridge

Monday, October 22, 2012


Citizens of Bismarck celebrated the completion of the Northern Pacific bridge over the Missouri River in October of 1882. Construction of the bridge had posed a major obstacle to the Northern Pacific Railway, and the railroad hired George S. Morison, a civil engineer, to do the work. Morison (1842-1903), a Harvard University graduate, had learned about building bridges when he assisted in constructing one across the Missouri River at Kansas City in 1867.

The Bismarck location gave Morison several challenges. Foremost, he had to counteract ice jams during spring floods. Also, the wide valley between Bismarck and Mandan required considerable earth moving.

Morison designed a solid foundation of four bridge piers to support the iron and steel superstructure. Two of the piers were to be right in the river channel where driftwood logs and ice jams threatened. Consequently, he ordered that the piers be built of solid granite blocks from a St. Cloud, Minnesota, quarry. Granite was ”difficult to dress and quarry,” but would “last forever,” being “impregnable to the disintegrating effects of frost, alternate dryness and moisture, and atmospheric actions.” In order to allow driftwood and ice to smoothly pass around the two piers, Morison’s design called for both ends to be rounded. He also designed icebreakers for the two granite piers to cut through the ice floes that threatened the bridge during spring floods. Bridge construction began in 1881 and proceeded apace until the bridge was completed in 1882.

On this date in 1882, newspaper reports told about a unique test of the bridge’s strength in late October. George Morison lined up four massive steam locomotives on the Bismarck side of the bridge and another four on the Mandan side. The eight locomotives then met in the middle of the high trestle, where workmen coupled them all together. The bridge held up to the combined weight of over 500 tons of locomotives. Observers noted that the bridge sagged just three inches, at the worst, in each bridge segment between the piers.

Visiting dignitaries then celebrated the successful test at a twelve-course banquet at Bismarck’s Sheridan House hotel. Designer Morison was hailed as the “genius of the Bismarck Bridge.”

Morison’s bridge over the Mighty Missouri has held up for 130 years since that October test, enduring ice, floods, tempests, and time.



Dakota Datebook written by Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.


Sources:“The Bismarck Bridge,” St. Paul Daily Globe, October 22, 1882, p. 4.

“Finest In The World,” Minneapolis Tribune, October 22, 1882, p. 5.

“The Bismarck Bridge,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, October 27, 1882, p. 2.

“The Big Day,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, October 27, 1882, p. 2.

“First Loaded Train Over the Bridge,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, October 27, 1882, p. 2.

“George S. Morison Dead,” New York Times, July 3, 1903, p. 9.

W. A. Truesdell, “Building Stones of Minnesota,” Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, vol. 4, nu. 8, June 1885, p. 304.

William Ezra Worthen, ed., Appletons’ Cyclopedia of Technical Drawing (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), p. 515-516.

Ed Murphy, “Ice Jams, Landslides, and the Northern Pacific Railway Bridge at Bismarck,” N.D. Geological Survey, DMR [Department of Mineral Resources] Newsletter, July 2009, https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndgs/newsletter/NLSummer09/pdf/Ice%20Jams,%20Landslides.pdf, accessed on September 18, 2012.

“Bismarck Bridge Over the Missouri River And Northern Pacific Railway,” Scientific American Supplement, vol. XVII, no. 418, January 5, 1884, p. 6664-6665.

“Bridging the Missouri Between Bismarck and Mandan,” Railway World, vol. 8, November 4, 1882, p. 1038.

“Bismarck’s Boom,” St. Paul Daily Globe, October 23, 1882, p. 6.

“Missouri’s Grand Bust,” Bismarck Tribune, April 1, 1881, p. 1.


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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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