If you float down the Clark Fork River for three hours from Missoula, Montana you’ll come to the charred remains of Harper’s Bridge. An emblem of folly, like all ruins, this one stands for the ludicrous attempt by private landowners to keep the rest of us away from the water.
I started hanging out here in the 1960s, when I moved to Missoula to dodge the draft by enrolling in college, a strategy that worked till it didn’t.
I squandered many hours flailing around with my frat brothers in the deep holes, jumping off the bridge, and trying to convince our Kappa Kappa Gamma dates that these bright beaches were topless.
Long before we showed up, the place had been a low-rent resort for not just the younger crowd, but also local families. No one knew who owned the land, and no one cared. Nor did we bother ourselves with any history. We didn’t know, for example, that this thousand-foot wood span was built in 1950 to replace an earlier bridge, over which ranchers drove their herds, which itself replaced a hand-drawn ferry at a spot that had been a traditional crossing for Indians.
I moved away from Montana repeatedly, and it would be two decades till I visited the bridge again, after my wife and I bought ten acres on the river a mile upstream. The first time I rode one of our horses down the shoreline to see what I could see, I rounded a wide bend and there it was.
Decayed and neglected, the bridge was no longer safe for vehicles. In 1987 the county sold it for $25 to a guy who rented horses to people who crossed the river to ride in the mountains. In 1993 high water washed away its midsection. The owner began stabling these rent plugs on the far side of the beleaguered structure, which compelled the health department to charge him with water pollution. By then the roadbed of Harper’s Bridge was growing weeds. An ice jam shredded much of what remained of the span. In 1997 an arsonist torched one of the bridgeheads. And soon after, the other one went up in flames.
Of course, none of this mayhem stopped people from enjoying the water. The place continued to swarm with swimmers, inner tube flotillas, anglers in drift boats, and duck hunters, whose vessels were shrewdly concealed by reeds and cattails, like little islands. In the winter old men still came to drop hooks through the ice for whitefish. Because Harper’s Bridge Road terminates at the bridgehead this remained one of the few places outside the city limits where you could get to the water without pleading for permission from some cranky land owner (like me).
But a few years ago the guy who owned the land around these blackened pilings tired of all the traffic and tried to block the public’s access to the right bank. First, he strung barbed wire across the paths leading from the road to the water. When that didn’t deter anyone, he drove so many steel fence posts into the ground the area looked like the Nazi’s fortifications on Omaha Beach. But people found ways through this maze, as well, so he felled a big cottonwood across the top of this mess. Then he spray-painted everything orange.
Montana’s 1985 stream access law declares that streambeds up to the highwater mark belong to us all. In 2002 the attorney general ruled that streams can be accessed at bridges. Maybe this guy had never heard of the law, or believed it didn’t apply to him, or decided it sucked. Whatever, it’s a bedrock right of Montanans to use any of their waterways, even when they pass through private property. This tenet of the 1972 state constitution and the populist legislation it inspired has survived multiple legal challenges by imperious land owners.
The most notorious of these was Mike Curran, who strung wire across six miles of the Dearborn River to harass floaters. An anglers’ group sued, and the case went to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled against this relentless tyrant in 1984.
I assumed the fate of the beaches at Harper’s Bridge would also end up in court. But, to my relief, no pricey lawyers were brought in to settle the matter. After fielding a slew of complaints, the county, which owns the right-of-way to the bridge, engaged the landowner in a full and frank exchange of views. The fortifications vanished.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks posted signs showing the kinds of fish that live in the river, and has announced a tentative deal with the owner to buy the land around the bridgeheads on behalf of the public.
One summer afternoon not long ago I walked freely down a path beside the ruins.
Stretching out in the warm sand, I closed my eyes, and listened to the flow.
Bill Vaughn is the author of First, A Little Chee-Chee