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BNSF - Lake Pend Oreille Bridge


Crossing the main span

Eastbound BNSF train crossing the Pend oreille bridge. Date: July 17, 2011

Photo taken by Pedro Rezende in July 2011


BH Photo #266791

Street View 


16 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts Construction of the Sandpoint Railroad Bridge Sylvie and I walked the whole black night across the railroad bridge at Fingerbone—a very long bridge, as you know if you have seen it. —from Housekeeping , p. 216 Author Marilynne Robinson grew up in Idaho watching trains traverse the Sandpoint railroad bridge, a long, dramatic span of track suspended over the deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille. Forty trains each day now pass through Sandpoint, but imagine how vast and impenetrable the Idaho wilderness must have seemed when surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in the 1850s. Before the railroad arrived, travelers to the area relied on Indian trails, and the town of Sandpoint didn’t exist. The first railroad bridge was built in 1882, as part of a three-hundred-mile segment of track constructed west from Heron, Montana, to Wallula, Washington. The original bridge, updated in 1905, was constructed with wooden pilings and ties cut from virgin timber harvested from the surrounding forests. In Eugene Virgil Smalley’s extraordinary History of the Northern Pacific Railroad , published in 1883, the building of the bridge itself is reported as somewhat less arduous than the construction of track leading up to the shores of Lake Pend Oreille: As the railroad approaches Lake Pend Oreille from the west, the country becomes broken with ridges and deep ravines, and much trestle and piling is required. Within three miles of the lake there are three trestles—one 2,000 feet long, one 1,400 feet, and one 1,300 feet. The work was performed by several thousand men, Smalley noted, “in spite of heavy snow-falls.” There were no settlements along the construction path east of Spokane. All supplies were hauled in on horse-drawn wagons. The coming of spring put an end to the miseries of snow, but it brought high water and terrible mud as work began on the bridge. Still, the workers endured. The finished bridge had a length of 8,400 feet (1.6 miles). Smalley wrote that “six hundred feet of this structure runs across such deep water that piles from 90 to 100 feet in length are required.” Within a few years, Sandpoint became a rowdy, booming railroad town. In 1908, another long bridge was built over the lake to carry wagons and, eventually, cars. But the railroad bridge is Robinson’s chosen image in the novel, perhaps because it recalls a time when a train pulling into town held any number of interesting possibilities in a lonely place—including escape.


Through Truss swing bridge over Pend Oreille Lake on BNSF Railway
Sandpoint, Bonner County, Idaho
Open to traffic
Built 1903, upgraded 2008
- Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. of Minneapolis, Minnesota
- BNSF Railway (BNSF)
- Burlington Northern Railroad (BN)
- Northern Pacific Railway (NP)
The main span is a Warren Through Truss, followed by steel girder bridges in the north and south ends. The north and south ends of the girders sections is supported by steel piles built in 2008. The middle section is supported by concrete piers, inclufing the main span.
Length of largest span: 200.0 ft.
Total length: 8,400.0 ft. (1.6 mi.)
Posted to the National Register of Historic Places
Also called
NP Lake Pend Oreille Bridge
BN Lake Pend Oreille Bridge
Approximate latitude, longitude
+48.25971, -116.53053   (decimal degrees)
48°15'35" N, 116°31'50" W   (degrees°minutes'seconds")
Approximate UTM coordinates
11/534843/5345273 (zone/easting/northing)
Quadrangle map:
Inventory number
BH 58051 (Bridgehunter.com ID)

Update Log 

  • January 31, 2020: Updated by John Marvig: Added information from NP bridge records
  • March 8, 2017: New photo from Kyle Jarvis
  • September 19, 2013: New photo from Douglas Butler
  • September 17, 2013: Updated by Luke Harden: Added categories "Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway", "Burlington Northern Railroad", "Pin-connected"
  • September 17, 2013: Added by Pedro Rezende