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KALISPELL - A hunk of history broke loose from its fastenings Friday, soared high into the air and, perhaps, far into the future.

"I guess it's done," said Pete Skibsrud. "I guess I've bought myself a bridge."

Kalispell's Old Steel Bridge was built back in 1894, the first of its kind to span the upper Flathead River. Back then, 114 years ago, it was known as the New Steel Bridge, but time has proved tough on the structure.

Weather-worn and withered with age, the bridge was recognized as a rotted and rusted hazard in 2005; plans were hatched to scrap it and build anew.

In fact, the state offered $50,000 to anyone who would haul it away and put it to good use. There were no takers, perhaps not surprisingly, for the 600-foot, 80-ton behemoth.

But a few sought to preserve the bridge, noting that it spanned not just the river but also the valley's settlement history. On the west bank, it leads into Conrad Drive, named for one of Kalispell's founding fathers. On the east bank, the bridge connects to Holt Stage, named for the old stagecoach route that crossed the bridge in its early years.

The Steel Bridge replaced the ferries that once plied the river here, and was built while the Flathead still was more dream than destination. The Kalispell Townsite Co., which was peddling residential lots at the time, put up half of the original $17,500 cost, considering the bridge a real tool for economic development.

The bridge, in fact, may have secured Kalispell's position as the county seat - residents in Columbia Falls wanted that honor, but their bridge was wooden, not steel. Kalispell had permanence on its side, at a time when permanence could not be assumed.

Since those early days, countless teenagers have leaped from its deck into the river on hot summer days. Fishermen have dropped endless lines in its shadow, and families have picnicked in the park beneath.

"This bridge has some real community history," Skibsrud said. "I'd hate to see it all scrapped."

But how could it be salvaged? In 2005, state highway engineers had deemed it dangerous and limited traffic to just one car at a time. Even then, the decking sagged beneath the weight. Crossing was, most all agreed, as much adventure as it was transportation.

And now a new bridge is being built, a $9 million modern affair that should span the next 115 years.

Skibsrud couldn't save most of the bridge; that will be sold as scrap. But he has a plan for at least part of the span.

Friday, a giant crane plucked a 140-foot section of Old Steel Bridge from its footings to make way for construction.

But rather than cutting it for recycling, they swung that section aside, perching it carefully on nearby state park land.

"Now," Skibsrud said, "I have a month to make things happen."

Skibsrud's plan is to eventually install the bridge farther north, across the Stillwater River, as part of a riverfront trail system. The bridge that spanned past and present, he hopes, will link to the future for pedestrian and bicycle use.

"It's old," Skibsrud said of his bridge, "but we're not going to take tanks across it, just kids and bicycles. Heck, we were still driving cars across it a year ago."

He purchased his 140 feet of Old Steel Bridge for $15,000, "but what I really bought was time."

Skibsrud imagines a vast volunteer effort that connects community neighborhoods and schools and businesses all linked through a wonderfully wild river corridor. And the bridge, he said, is the key.

But to make it happen, he'll still have to convince the Montana National Guard that hoisting a 17-ton span of steel would be a useful helicopter training mission. Then he needs to convince officials at Flathead Valley Community College, which owns the riverfront land, that the bridge would look good stored for a while on the campus' back 40.

The metal shop students, he figures, could get some great experience refurbishing his Old Steel Bridge.

Then, he hopes, the students learning heavy-equipment operation could take on the trail tread as a sort of class project.

The surveying and engineering classes could work out placement of the bridge, and with enough volunteer support "we could really get this done."

Already, an excitement appears to be brewing as Skibsrud makes his rounds. Investors are stepping up, companies are signing on, "and I'm getting high-fives from people I don't even know," he said.

And the fact that he's been given less than a month to move the bridge out of the riverside park doesn't faze Skibsrud a bit.

"Maybe it's good to have a little pressure applied," he said. "I'd rather rush to get on with it than let it drag on for another 10 years. Sometimes, deadlines can be great motivators."

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