BNSF’s new Sandpoint bridge shares a rich heritage

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 30, 2022

EMD and GE hood units lead a westbound Burlington Northern freight across the Sandpoint bridge, July 1978. John M. Robinson Jr. photo
Right now, BNSF Railway construction crews are close to putting the finishing touches on one of the most strategic railroad bridges in the U.S., a new 4,800-foot span over Lake Pend Oreille at Sandpoint, Idaho, a bottleneck with a long history. 


Fortunately for those of us with a fondness for the past, the old bridge isn’t going anywhere. Together, the old and new bridges will constitute a new stretch of double track and should help BNSF significantly speed up traffic across its Northern Corridor between Chicago and Seattle, as well as ease congestion coming off the soon-to-be absorbed Montana Rail Link.


The new bridge, running parallel just a few feet to the west of the old one, is part of a $100 million project to improve the flow of traffic between Sandpoint and Spokane. The railroad’s engineering partner on the project is Hanson Professional Services.


For a little perspective, I checked in with veteran journalist and photographer Bruce Kelly, former Railfan & Railroadstaffer, Trains author, current Railway Age contributing editor, and a resident of nearby Post Falls, Idaho. As Bruce explains it, one need only look at a contemporary railroad atlas to see how three separate BNSF main lines work their way across Washington toward Spokane, only to encounter the combination of multiple BNSF routes from the east at Sandpoint. 


A Pacific leads the nine cars of NP’s North Coast Limited over the lake in June 1930. R.V. Nixon photo
“It’s no wonder this route became known as the Funnel in the years following the 1970 BN merger,” says Bruce, “when lines of GN, NP, and SP&S heritage were consolidated, and their traffic squeezed through the gauntlet of Sandpoint bridge. With the west end of the Funnel being doubletracked from Day 1 and the remainder of it becoming mostly doubletracked during the BNSF years, the Sandpoint bridge still acts as the neck of the Funnel today.”


All this is to say: After more than a century, the railroad that succeeded the old Hill Lines — competitors as well as cousins — will finally and figuratively be able to route trains through a double-track keyhole in the mountains of Montana, Idaho, and Washington.


Built in 1904 by the NP, the old bridge isn’t particularly notable, simply a deck-and-girder affair that stretches across numerous abutments pointed southeasterly from Sandpoint, including a short Warren through-truss swing bridge. Even the bridge’s impressive length wasn’t enough to impress William D. Middleton in his “Landmarks of the Iron Road” (1999) or Richard J. Cook in “The Beauty of Railroad Bridges in North America” (1987). Both authors left the Sandpoint bridge out of their books.


Nearing its retirement, a 4-6-6-4 hauls a manifest freight across Lake Pend Oreille on June 5, 1954. Robert M. Hanft photo
But the bridge deserves your attention, if for no other reason than it has to be one of the most scenic places on the American railroad. The little town of Sandpoint sits at the confluence of three great ranges, the Selkirks, the Cabinets, and the Bitterroots, and as such has afforded photographers some stirring perspectives over the years.


Just look here at what photographer R.V. Nixon — the great chronicler of the Northern Pacific — did in June 1930 when he took advantage of the late summer sun and crouched down near the water to capture an NP 4-6-2 hustling the westbound heavyweight North Coast Limited across the lake. The railroad’s two best trains, the North Coast and the Mainstreeter, usually traversed the Sandpoint area in darkness. Not to mention Amtrak 7 and 8, today’s Empire Builder, always a nocturnal visitor.


Yet there were always freight trains to frame, as California photographer Robert M. Hanft did on June 5, 1954, when he caught one of NP’s 4-6-6-4 Challengers muscling a manifest train across the lake. Of these magnificent engines, Hanft wrote, “Probably eclipsed in publicity by UP’s mighty 4-8-8-4s, Challengers were built in far greater numbers, and they more truly epitomized the concept of a huge locomotive that could run like a deer with either people or tonnage.”


BNSF GE diesels lead a westbound over the old bridge as the final span in the new bridge is put in place, Aug. 14, 2022. Bruce Kelly photo
For a more contemporary photographic interpretation of Sandpoint, you can’t do better than Bruce Kelly himself. He’s made it a point to record the location over the years, especially in recent months as the bridge project moved ahead.


Exhibit A: Bruce’s shot of a westbound manifest rumbling out of Sandpoint just days ago on Aug. 14, after the final span section was lowered into place on the new bridge. On the right you can see how the concrete piers of the old Northern Pacific bridge have given way to new tubular steel piers with concrete caps.


Incidentally, BNSF says the construction project has not affected recreational boating on Lake Pend Oreille, and a new pedestrian tunnel was built near the work site, to allow public access to a popular recreation trail and beach. A good move, given that early on there was utterly predictable opposition to the new bridge, fortunately overruled in 2019 by the Coast Guard.   


I’ve ridden across the Sandpoint bridge twice, but always in the depth of night. Now, after a little research and a chance to catch up with my colleague Bruce, I’m determined to get there at some point in daylight and see what I’ve missed. Maybe even climb up to get the same view that captivated Robert Hanft nearly 70 years ago when he had his lucky encounter with that monstrous 4-6-6-4.  

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