50 Years of Controversy
Local historian looks at the real history of the bypass, the bridge and the barratry behind it all
Forget religion and politics. In Sandpoint, talk of the Sand Creek bypass is enough to raise blood pressure. Those in favor of the “byway” believe that waiting 50 years is long enough. Folks against the “bypass” think that the idea is still bad, even after more than half a century of planning. So just how did this idea develop?
If you want to look at the really big picture, you can take this idea back to the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the Idaho Panhandle in 1881-1882. For untold centuries before, the primary overland route had been through the Hoodoo Valley, with a river crossing at what is now Laclede. The railroad changed all this by shifting the flow of traffic east to the Cocolalla Valley. Once the tracks reached the lake, they crossed on a wooden railroad trestle that was nearly one and half miles long. This was the first bridge ever to span the Pend Oreille River as it flows out of the lake.
This route was strengthened with construction of a wagon bridge in the early 1900s. Before then, the only way for Sagle area residents to get to Sandpoint was to either row a boat across the river or walk across the railroad trestle—a hike that required nimble feet and a good knowledge of train schedules. Sandpoint merchants wanted the farmers’ business, so the groups joined forces in 1908 and asked the county commissioners to build a bridge. Two years later, wagons and cars could cross the lake and enter town at the south end of First Avenue.
At this point, both the Long Bridge and the unimproved road running south through Sagle and Algoma served only the local area. Nonetheless, they established both a roadway and a crossing that have been hard to change. State highway officials tried to move this route several times before the mid-1950s, but they always came back, almost as a default setting, to the established line of travel.
US 95, originally known as the North and South Highway, was long a dream of Idaho officials and citizens. The road finally got a start in 1914 when the legislature authorized the sale of $200,000 in bonds. Progress was slow, especially in the Panhandle where the route north of Moscow was not even decided until 1917.
Selection of the route between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint was particularly difficult. Local chambers of commerce, who were anxious to secure highway access for their communities, began promoting a variety of routes. Residents in Rathdrum and Spirit Lake thought the road should swing their way before running north to cross the Pend Oreille River at Laclede. Variations on this idea continued for several years.
The Pend Oreille River crossing was the determining factor in selecting the final route. The wagon bridge, of course, already provided a crossing at Sandpoint. By 1922, however, state and federal highway officials did not want to maintain the old bridge. Since they did not want to build a new one at the same crossing either, they began looking farther downstream. The three proposed sites were 1) Springy Point to Rocky Point, 2) just downstream from the Spokane International Railroad bridge, and 3) near Laclede. Despite this search for a new bridge location, the North and South Highway continued to cross the river at Sandpoint, following the route of Highway 95 today.
By the late 1920s, Highways 95, 2, and 200 in the Sandpoint vicinity were all surfaced with crushed rock or gravel. The one exception was that troublesome stretch between Algoma and Sandpoint which depended on building a new bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. Maps from that period show that state highway officials planned to reroute that segment to run north from Algoma, crossing the river downstream from Sandpoint. At the end of the summer in 1930, this six-mile stretch of road remained the only unimproved section of Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.
The bridge location was a hot topic in Sandpoint for several years. The general public seemed to favor the existing location for the bridge, coming into town at the south end of First Avenue. The highway department, on the other hand, preferred a downstream location. By 1930, the old bridge was in such poor condition that the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce was willing to support just about any location if the First Avenue one proved impractical.
The local newspaper was tired of dissention and wanted the bridge location decided once and for all. It suggested that “the state highway department is only too anxious to have the people of Sandpoint in a squabble among themselves as to the location of the bridge.” With a limited amount of money available for highway construction in Idaho, the editor predicted that “if we fight among ourselves over the location of the bridge we are very apt to have the state spend the money some other place and leave us to settle our differences of opinion for another six or eight years.” We hear variations on this complaint to this day.
The highway and bridge were almost relocated downstream during the early 1930s, but the dire economic situation caused plans to change. The onset of the Great Depression created an unemployment crisis nationally that echoed in Bonner County. Local officials were desperate for relief funds to help the hundreds of families in need of assistance, and they began to see the bridge project as a way to provide work. By late December 1930, the Chamber of Commerce joined Bonner County commissioners in the quest for emergency funding and asked for an appropriation to build the bridge “at what is known as the Dover site across the Pend d’Oreille or Clarksfork river on the North and South highway.”
State highway engineers surveyed bridge sites at both Sandpoint and the Springy Point-Rocky Point site near Dover in 1931. As the debate continued into the next year, the Chamber’s bridge committee began to favor replacing the existing wooden bridge with a similar structure in the same location. They saw this as a way to stimulate the failing timber industry and put a large number of people to work. Federal highway officials, however, refused to provide funding for a wooden bridge. Instead, they preferred a steel and concrete bridge at the Dover site. This stalemate continued as the unemployment crisis deepened.
Cost estimates favored the downstream site as well. Arthur Tiggelbeck, the county engineer, estimated that a wooden bridge at the Sandpoint site, along with rebuilding the road south to Algoma, would cost $267,120. In contrast, a new road from Algoma, along with a new wooden bridge at the Rocky Point site, would cost $167,745. The cost differences were similar for a steel bridge. Engineering studies done in the spring of 1932 favored the Sandpoint site, however.
The patience of Bonner County officials had worn thin by July 1932. They decided not to ask for federal matching funds, freeing them to build a timber bridge at Sandpoint. The state highway department agreed to cooperate on the project, sharing the cost with the county. The bridge provided work for large numbers of unemployed men who felled timber in the woods, cut lumber at local mills, hauled materials, and built the bridge. The project benefited many of the nearly 750 families in Bonner County who needed work or relief in late 1932. After two years of work, Governor C. Ben Ross came to Sandpoint to help dedicate the new bridge in March 1934.
Construction of the new Long Bridge coincided with improvement of the highway from Algoma to Sandpoint, following the route it takes today. Despite this, state highway officials continued with their plans to reroute this segment of Highway 95. A map of the 1936 construction project shows the future route running north from Algoma to the Pend Oreille River, connecting with a new bridge near Dover.
Just ten years after it opened, Sandpoint’s second Long Bridge needed $120,000 in repairs. Some of the pilings had rotted and bracing had broken, and the entire wooden deck needed to be replaced. These repairs, done in 1946, were supposed to last five years, providing enough time to resolve the bridge location issue.
State highway officials, once again, hoped to relocate the bridge and the road running south. These plans changed, however, after highway engineers studied various locations between Sandpoint and Dover in 1945. By the end of that year, they concluded that the next bridge should run close to the railroad bridge at Sandpoint. They proposed replacing the existing 10,000 foot wooden bridge with a spit of fill running 8,500 feet, connecting with a 1,500 foot bridge.
Plans for a Sand Creek Bypass came into being at this point. In addition to the long fill and bridge, engineers suggested running the highway up the east bank of Sand Creek to connect with the existing highway north of town. Due to the low ground along the creek, this route would be feasible “providing that a portion of the stream bed could be economically filled.”
During the following few years, two major events influenced the next round of plans for the bypass. First, a near-record flood in 1948 inundated the south part of Sandpoint, and residents naturally wanted to prevent any recurrence. Second, construction began on Albeni Falls Dam, bringing the promise of a higher but stable water level during the summer months. Nobody was sure how waves from the higher lake would affect either lakeshore properties or the rickety wooden Long Bridge.
In late 1950, engineers proposed building a flood control levee, with the top at 2072.5 feet, all along the southern side of Sandpoint. A key part of this idea was having Highway 2 run along the top of this levee to join with Highway 95 at Sand Creek. At that point, both would run up the east bank of the creek to the intersection north of town near the golf course.
In addition to providing flood control with this levee system, this proposal would ensure “that the highway will always be adjacent to the city and the flow of traffic will continue to benefit our business establishments throughout the year,” reported the Sandpoint News-Bulletin. If this were not done, the paper claimed that probably one or maybe both highways would “skirt Sandpoint at some distance and leave us sitting high and dry so far as tourist travel and business is concerned.”
While the levee plan made sense to many, residents in the south part of Sandpoint opposed the idea strongly. They claimed that a “road along the lakefront will spoil for all time the future development of the city park.” At a public hearing in May 1951, 15 property owners voted against the levee, with just two in favor. The plan was soon dropped.
During this time, state highway engineers were planning to replace the Long Bridge across the Pend Oreille River. And once again, the location became contentious. To make the proposed levee system work, the bridge would have to be at Sandpoint so the highways could run together up Sand Creek. Once the levee was voted down, however, bridge options multiplied.
People in Sandpoint and Sagle, of course, preferred the established line of travel. As engineers checked sites at both Sandpoint and the location near Dover in 1951, local residents remained convinced that the Sandpoint site would be chosen.
Much to their horror and surprise, in November 1951 Earle Miller, the newly appointed director of the State Highway Commission, proposed moving the bridge to a location just west of Dover. This would have saved the state close to $1 million, not a small amount when there was only $10 million to spend on highways statewide each year. Despite this reasoning, folks on both sides of the river were irate and the local newspaper fumed about the “imperious attitude of the new highway director.” The editor noted that there were good economic reasons to leave the river crossing where it was, and he proclaimed, “We will fight any removal of the bridge from Sandpoint until the bitter end.”
Members of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce traveled with city and county officials to Boise in December 1951 to meet personally with Miller and the highway department. Miller reassured them that wherever the bridge was built, Highway 95 would not bypass Sandpoint.
After Sandpoint residents waited nervously all winter, the state highway department announced in May 1952 that the new Long Bridge (the third one) would be built from the south shore to the sand spit near the north end of the railroad bridge. This changed the entrance into town but kept the highway running through Sandpoint. Even though we are now using the fourth Long Bridge, this is the route followed by Highway 95 today.
Plans for the bypass continued in conjunction with bridge plans. Once the levee idea failed, engineers wanted to bring Highway 2 into Sandpoint along Superior Street to join Highway 95 at Sand Creek. Motorists would have easy access from the bypass to downtown Sandpoint via both Superior Street and the Cedar Street bridge. Anticipating this bypass construction, the city urged property owners along the west side of the creek to clean up the banks where trash had been thrown for years. “With the new highway due to be built parallel to the Northern Pacific tracks,” the mayor said, “it behooves us to clean up our backyards so that people will have a good impression of us.”
The Highway 2 connection along Superior was squelched by angry property owners who said they should have been consulted on the plans. Some pointed out that the road was too narrow, while others predicted that if the highway were to run the length of Superior, it would soon be lined “with hot dog stands, filling stations, and similar enterprises.” Engineers eventually decided to have Highway 2 run through town on Fifth and Cedar, crossing the Cedar Street bridge to join Highway 95 on the Sand Creek Bypass.
After numerous irritating delays, work began on the third Long Bridge in April 1954. Construction of the bridge and fill areas continued for more than two years. By the time the bridge opened to traffic in late June 1956, travelers were only too happy to abandon the dilapidated wooden bridge in favor of the modern concrete structure.
The bridge was only part of the planned highway project, of course. Before it was even finished, members of the state highway commission met with city and county officials to reassure them that the highway up Sand Creek would eventually be built. “We wouldn’t have put the new bridge there if we had not intended to follow through on our original plan,” noted one highway commissioner in October 1955.
Business people still had concerns. For instance, the owner of one gas station quizzed the highway commissioners about access from the Sand Creek Bypass to the business district. “Those of us who are interested in tourist trade feel we’ll be hurt if this city is bypassed and access roads are poor and don’t look good,” he said. The commission reassured him that it was their policy always to provide good entrances to towns.
Plans for the bypass seemed to be firming up by early 1957 when a state highway engineer spoke to the Chamber of Commerce. The route had been surveyed along the creek, he said, and it would probably be built the next year.
There was a public hearing in Sandpoint in mid-July 1957. According to state highway officials, there should be no loss of business to the town since there would be good connections between the business district and the planned four-lane highway up the east side of the creek. There were no objections raised to the bypass at the public hearing.
Engineering studies on the proposed bypass continued during 1959. At that time, a state highway official said that the project would be built in the near future, after other more pressing construction was completed.
It’s been 47 years since that first public hearing on the bypass. Since that time, public opinion has shifted from favorable to sharply divided. Bonner County’s population has mushroomed from 15,587 in 1960 to more than 35,000 in 1998. Traffic has increased proportionately. Through it all, state highway officials have stuck with their plan from the mid-1940s – except their proposal for a bypass has been reduced from four lanes to three.