Between Pierre and Fort Pierre, the Missouri River is a half mile to a mile wide. The two towns remained seasonally isolated until the railroad bridge, constructed in 1907, and the first highway bridge, constructed in 1926, joined the two towns.
Prior to the bridges, methods of crossing the river depended on the season and the depth of the water that varied by season. In November or December, the river would freeze over to sufficient depth to create an ice bridge. When the ice broke up in March or April, various boats ranging from rowboats to the steam ferryboats were used to move people, livestock, and products across the river from 1876 until 1926. Pontoon bridges were also operated from 1890 to 1899 and impacted the ferry business. The Missouri River’s high currents periodically damaged the pontoon bridges and their landings, and in the long run, expenses exceeded revenue.
In 1919, the South Dakota State Highway Commission established a Bridge Department and hired a bridge engineer with responsibility for designing all state and county bridges and supervising the bidding process. The first bridge engineer was John E. Kirkham, a professor of engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He was also a consulting engineer to the Iowa State Highway Commission, which was one of the most innovative state highway departments in the country at the time.
The South Dakota Bridge Department’s biggest challenge was to design bridges across the Missouri River. Governor Peter Norbeck advocated for a special tax to fund five Missouri River Bridges in South Dakota at Mobridge, Forest City, Pierre, Chamberlain, and Wheeler. The levy, approved by the Legislature in 1921, was one-tenth of a mill on all taxable property. They calculated it would take 12 years to raise enough money for the bridges. Kirkham created quite a sensation when he claimed all five bridges could be built for a total of $2 million despite skeptics claiming each bridge would cost $1 million.
In the end, all five bridges were built for a total of $2.1 million. The apparent discrepancy in cost was due to the five Missouri River bridges being designed for highway traffic and publicly funded, while the comparison bridges in Yankton and Bismarck were designed for combined railroad and highway traffic and bore the additional cost of private financing. A system to prioritize the order of the five bridges was later modified to allow a local funding contribution to move a bridge to construction sooner with the local funds later reimbursed from the bridge levy. Thus, the Pierre bridge moved to fourth position when the Chamberlin and Mobridge bridges advanced out of their original order by taking advantage of the local funding provision.
The Pierre Bridge, comprised of four 300-foot and two 336-foot riveted Pennsylvania through truss spans, was fabricated and erected by the Lakeside Bridge and Steel Company of North Milwaukee, Wis. The bridge was completed June 26, 1926, and ended service in 1962 when the current bridge was constructed a few hundred feet downstream. Replacement of the bridge was necessary because of greatly increased traffic. The 1926 bridge was salvaged in 1986 by using explosives to drop the trusses into the river and using cutting torches to dismantle them. The concrete piers were removed also.
The 1962 bridge is a four-lane structure built from steel girders with a steel deck. The bridge has a Jersey‑style center divider and a sidewalk on the downstream side. The bridge has a vertical curve to achieve the required clearance above the river.
In 2002, the standing bridge was dedicated to Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldon, World War II hero, who was born in Fort Pierre, S.D., in 1900. Waldron served in the U.S. Navy from 1924 until his death in 1942. He began his service at the United States Naval Academy in 1920 and graduated four years later. Following his initial sea duty, Waldron went to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., where he received his wings in the summer of 1927. Over the ensuing months, Waldron flew with torpedo squadrons and received his commission as lieutenant on Feb. 16, 1928.
He is best known for the legacy he left behind during the Battle of Midway, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After realizing the flight course assigned to his squadron was going in the wrong direction, Waldon made a historic call and led his pilots to break formation and go in the direction of the Japanese carrier group. Although the decision could have resulted in a court-martial, Waldron’s choice was beneficial to the mission. This decision forced the Japanese carriers to maneuver radically, drawing off fighter protection, delaying the launching of the planned strike against the American carriers, and changing the course of the battle resulting in three of the four Japanese carriers being sunk by subsequent waves of U.S. aircraft.
Of the 30 men who set out that morning, only one survived, Ensign George H. Gay. Their sacrifice, however, had not been in vain. The squadron earned the Presidential Unit Citation, and Lieutenant Commander Waldron received the Navy Cross posthumously, as well as a share of the unit citation and the Purple Heart.
Lt. Cmdr. Waldron and the Torpedo Squadron 8 shortly before battle of Midway.
Standing (L-R): Owens, Ensign Fayle, Waldron, R.A. Moore, J.M. Moore, Evans, Teats, Campbell.
Kneeling (L-R): Ellison, Kenyon, Gray, sole survivor Gay, Woodson, Creamer, Miles
Quivik, Frederic L. and Lon Johnson. Historic Bridges of South Dakota, Renewable Technologies, Inc. South Dakota Department of Transportation, June 1990.
Rapid City Journal, December 30, 2002, “WWII hero honored”
Schuler, Harold H. A Bridge Apart: History of Early Pierre and Fort Pierre. State Publishing Company, 1987. ISBN-0-9619578-0-8
Scurr, Kenneth R. “Missouri River Bridges of South Dakota, 1920-1980” interview by Emory Johnson, 1908. Archives and Library, South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, Pierre.
US Department of Interior, National Park Service, Historic Bridges in South Dakota, 1893-1942. National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, December 9, 1993.