The Long Bridge

Sandpoint’s iconic approach

By Abigail Thorpe

No matter how many times you’ve driven across the bridge connecting Sagle to Sandpoint, where the Pend Oreille River flows out of Lake Pend Oreille, chances are the view never ceases to amaze you. For those of us who live in Sandpoint, there’s a moment when you arrive at the bridge from the south when you seem to take a deep breath, relax and quietly realize you’re home. For visitors, this first view of Sandpoint from south on the bridge is one that’s not soon forgotten.


It’s a drive that consistently takes your breath away, whether it’s shrouded in the mist of early morning, or the viewpoint from which to take in one of North Idaho’s spectacular sunsets over the mountains, reflecting into the lake and river below.


Come the summer months, the bridge serves as a point to take in the many boaters and occasionally even boat parades that pass beneath its storied pilings. The Long Bridge as we know it has become intrinsically connected with Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille; but as we pass along its lengths—many of us two or more times per day—it's easy to forget that this convenient behemoth hasn't always been there.


Local legend has it that sometime around 1900, the 2-1/2-year-old son of local Tom Craig accidentally chopped his toe off. Since the family lived on the south side of the lake, the only way to the doctor in Sandpoint was by ferry, rowboat or the train trestle. Tom Craig gathered his son in his arms, and ran across the trestle, only to be overtaken by a train which conveniently slowed down for him to jump aboard.


The boy made it through, but the incident was a vivid example of why a bridge was so desperately needed to connect the farms and communities south of the river and lake with the necessities of town.


Several years and encouragement from many local farmers later, the Kootenai County Commissioners began planning a new bridge, and on May 26, 1908, the first pilings were driven for what would become Sandpoint’s first Long Bridge, known in the early days as the Wagon Bridge.


Completed and ready for use in March of 1910, the wooden bridge connecting Sagle with Sandpoint spanned almost 2 miles, incorporated 1540 pilings and cost around $20,000. In the middle was a steel lift to allow steamboat traffic to pass through underneath. It was a massive undertaking that would gain renown as the “longest wooden bridge in the world” at the time. Wooden planks were placed lengthwise down the span of the bridge, which connected directly with 1st Avenue at its arrival in Sandpoint.


By the 1930s, the bridge had started to fall into disrepair, its wooden structure and surface breaking down. It was torn down to make room for a second bridge built during the Great Depression with help from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which employed millions of job seekers during the Great Depression to work on public buildings and roads.


At the time of its construction, the second long bridge provided employment for members of around 750 families in the area, writes May Garrison for Spokane Historical. Timber for the bridge was logged from the area, amounting to close to 3 million feet of lumber. Three thousand larch pilings alone were driven into the river button to support the bridge.


The bridge was dedicated on March 3 of 1934, and while it was still built of wood, it proved a much safer and quieter brother to its predecessor, and still retained its fame as the longest wooden bridge in the world.


For 22 years the bridge served the area, accommodating the heavy traffic of the World War II years when the naval training station at Farragut brought thousands of people and tons of traffic and heavy supplies through the area. Heavy use and North Idaho winters took their toll on the bridge, and in 1956 the third Long Bridge was built, this time of steel and concrete, with the span consisting partly of fill and partly bridge.


The new bridge was built east of its predecessor, and connected just north of town instead of with 1st Avenue. The historic bridge may have lost its title as the longest wooden bridge in the world, but its scale and span was nonetheless impressive, as was the cost. Less than 50 years after construction of the first bridge, this new one cost a whopping $12 million. It would be retired for vehicular use in 1981, when the existing fourth bridge was dedicated, built right alongside the previous one.


Today walkers, runners and bikers daily use the historic third Long Bridge, enjoying the views and space, while cars and trucks pass to the west, easily navigating the distance between Sagle and Sandpoint. Long forgotten are the days when a river and lake cut off easy connection from the south of the river, although fishermen are occasionally reminded of the area’s previous life when their lines snag on old wood pilings sunk below the surface of the water.


Today, we jet between Coeur d’Alene, Rathdrum, Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry without hesitation, pausing in the midst of our drive to take in the view you can’t help but notice as you cross the Long Bridge, decades of history passing below.


As you make the journey across the bridge, to the east you’ll notice another bridge of almost equal length, bearing hundreds of feet of train car on its north or southward journey. The Sandpoint railroad bridge runs parallel to the Long Bridge—oftentimes you’ll look over your shoulder to the sight and sound of a train chugging the distance over the large mass of water.


This bridge carries an even longer history than our beloved Long Bridge. First built in 1905, it spent over a century helping trains make the long trek through North Idaho’s scenic landscape, crossing Idaho’s largest body of water.


While large parts of the bridge have been replaced over the years, there are still portions of the 4,800-foot span that remain original. Much has changed over the past 100 years as the region grows and people move in from all across the country, but when you cross the Long Bridge and glance east, the familiar sight of a train whistling in across the bridge is a reminder of the early days of Sandpoint, and the role the railroad has played in our small town on the lake.


In modern days, the crucial—and sometimes controversial—story of the Long Bridge and railroad bridge continue to evolve. Now, a bypass extends the bridge over the city, allowing for a more calm downtown without the traffic of Highway 95 adding to the ever-growing bustle of Sandpoint, and construction is underway on a second railroad bridge to help reduce congestion at the crossing. It’s yet another sign that times are changing, yet our small town in the middle of it remains connected to the south by a lasting landmark whose history has become as intrinsically tied to the town of Sandpoint as the trains that hourly cross through the town on all sides.


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