I. Maclay Bridge

The Maclay Bridge is located on the outskirts of the City of Missoula, in Missoula County, Montana. This single-lane structure crosses the Bitterroot River, connecting the west end of North Avenue West, with the east end of River Pines Road; the surrounding area is dominated by mixed agricultural and residential uses with steep timberlands west of the river.

The Sapphire Range lies to the east and the Bitterroot Mountains to the west. The bridge is oriented northwest to southeast and has an overall length of 341 feet and is 16 feet wide. It consists of a 180-foot riveted Parker through truss main span, a 39-foot riveted sub-divided Warren pony truss span, and two 61-foot pre-stressed concrete T-beam approach spans on the southeast end of the structure.

The Parker through truss was originally erected at another location in about 1935 and moved to the Maclay crossing in 1953. The two pre-stressed concrete spans were constructed in 1964. The date of construction of the Warren pony truss span has not been determined, but predates 1964.

II. Deep History of Maclay Bridge

(Thank you to Walt, Lydia Maclay and Peggy Maclay Gadbow for sharing their precious family stories for an accurate account of events.)

1891  –  April 2nd; The correct spelling for this founding family has been taken from a property Deed with the signatures in their own hand of husband and wife; W.P. Maclay and Fleta L Maclay.

1893  –  William Plunket built the original Maclay Bridge.  Built to span the Bitterroot River at his property in S.W. Missoula at the end of what we now call North Avenue on the East side of the bridge and River Pines Road at the West side.  Without a bridge, it was an arduous task moving ranch animals and traveling to town by horse and wagon to market, to social events and Sunday church services at the Target Range School House.

1923  –  “Bill (W.P.’s grandson) has an early memory in the spring of 1923 — when the river was very high.  He and his mother (Clara) were looking out the window of their house at the rising river, which must have been approaching the house, and a large snag (tree) came floating rapidly down the river.  It passed the house and hit the Maclay Bridge, knocking it into the river. Clyde Maclay (W.P.’s son) and a man named Harrington were hired to rebuild the bridge.”

1950  –  Bridge washed out in another flood.  People went around Blue Mountain Road to use Buckhouse Bridge for about 3 years.

1953  –  A trestle steel bridge with top supports was brought in from another location (location unknown). This is the same bridge that stands at the west end today.

2004  – The county replaced the R.R. tie decking with pavement and stacked large rocks on the North side edges of the base for protection during high water.

Before this repair, I remember hearing the “thunk, thunk” as my car drove over the railroad ties. Those of us in Montana lucky enough to have this experience will cherish the memory as one of our favorite sounds in life.

Photo donated by Chuck Honeycutt (Maclay Bridge  c. 1930)
Research by Kris Platz Crawford, 3-1-2011

III. More Recent History (2010-2013)

Missoulian, Letter-to-Editor by Fred Stewart

Commissioner Jean Curtiss
Commissioner Bill Carey
Commissioner Michele Landquist

Dear Commissioners:

A loosely knit group of citizens concerned about the future of the Maclay Bridge and a proposed replacement bridge located on the west end of South Ave. has formed to be engaged with you as you consider this project.  The Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBA) is strictly an ad hoc group, non-partisan, not affiliated with any other group or organization, open to any citizen.

Through information about the proposed replacement bridge gleaned from the records in the Missoula Public Works office (including inspection reports from 2002 to 2010), from listening in on conference calls and attending meetings and briefings with your office, we have concluded that the most basic and fundamental questions are being overlooked. Is there a need for a replacement bridge?  Can Missoula County and the Missoula community, financially afford such a bridge, given other more pressing transportation infrastructure needs such as the Russell and 3rd Street reconstruction project?  Since MDT bridge inspection reports indicate no significant increase in traffic using this bridge since 1997, what is the justification for replacement?

We understand that the Maclay Bridge Environmental Assessment (EA) that was done in 1994 analyzed various locations for a replacement to the Maclay Bridge.  The selected location at the west end of South Ave. is indeed the most obvious place to locate a replacement, but the question of need was never addressed, nor was it included as part of the study.  There was no record of decision from that study, so there is really no basis for putting the replacement bridge on the out-year budget for construction in 2016.  Any attempt to base the bridge construction on an incomplete EA from 1994 would certainly be challenged.

You have noted in previous correspondence with members of our group that the National Bridge Database indicates the Maclay Bridge is “Structurally Deficient.”  Shane Stack with Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) has told us by email that the National Bridge Database “from my understanding is not an official government website” and he suggested we use a MDT website that has the most current information.  He pointed out that “problems with the deck led to the structurally deficient classification back in 2002, however in 2003 the County did make improvements to the deck, and the bridge is now classified as ‘functionally obsolete’.”  This rating merely reflects the fact that the bridge is single lane, not that there is any safety issue related to the current use of the bridge.  Residents who use the bridge on a regular basis (both city and county residents) experience minimal delays of less than two minutes at even the busiest times of the day.  You need to compare this situation with traffic needs such as previously referenced that affect thousands of residents.

We are all aware of the tight budget times for the city and county.  As Commissioner Curtiss stated in the Missoulian article on January 7, 2011, “The budget will be a hot topic in 2011, when the economic downturn catches up with Missoula County.  This is going to be the year we have to make budget cuts – or raise taxes,” Curtiss said flatly.  Even though there may be state and federal money to pay for construction of a replacement bridge, the discussions we have listened to indicate that the county would be responsible for construction costs of the approaches which will be in the millions of dollars.

We request, again, that discussion of the proposed Maclay Bridge project be an agenda item at your regular Wednesday BCC meeting.  We strongly urge that you request that MDT perform a feasibility study of the need and cost of the proposed replacement bridge PRIOR TO spending any more time or money on the study that is currently under way and BEFORE signing the MOA currently being drafted.  As currently written the MOA is “an agreement for the replacement …of the Maclay Bridge” which indicates that the decision to build a replacement bridge has already been made.

There have been no public discussions regarding either the replacement bridge, or issues that will lead to the need for an expensive EIS.  Issues that imply the need for an EIS include impacts on wetlands and riparian areas; effects of increased traffic, including traffic funneled past the Target Range School, Big Sky High School, Community Hospital, the proposed Regional Recreational Park and the increased congestion at the intersection of South Avenue and Reserve Street; construction and maintenance costs for both the bridge and approaches; impacts on designated critical Bull Trout habitat; significant opposition by residents; and finally, the costs and impacts of future improvements on South Ave., Big Flat road and Blue Mountain road that would be required once a bridge on South Ave. is constructed.  Would the revenue for these upgrades come from SIDs, county-wide tax increases, state or federal funds?

In conclusion we request time on the BCC agenda to discuss the need for a feasibility study before any more funds are spent on the MOA or the study that is currently in process.  We have discovered feasibility studies have been used successfully by MDT, and the Director, Jim Lynch, has extensive experience with the process.  As we understand it, a citizen group composed of stakeholders and transportation officials would analyze the facts and potential impacts to decide whether the project has merit. Our group requests the Commission pursue this process with MDT.  It has been effective with projects dealing with environmentally sensitive issues and public discontent.  We await a response to our requests.  Please contact me and I will pass the information on to other members in our group.


Fred Stewart (MBA, Co-Director)

Maclay Bridge: In tough times, leave it as is

(Missoulian, Opinion by Helen Orendain, Missoula)

Smurfit-Stone is shuttered. Macy’s is empty. Jobs lost. Houses foreclosed. Missoula is hurting.

How are our Missoula County commissioners faring? The three commissioners — Jean Curtiss, Bill Carey and Michele Landquist — along with Public Works Director Greg Robertson, are surreptitiously plotting a multi-million-dollar Maclay Bridge replacement. When Commissioner Curtiss is asked for information, she claims, “Please be aware the process is currently in Montana Department of Transportation hands.” Yet, MDT claims the county has nominated the replacement a county priority project. In other words, the decision to proceed is the county’s call.

No public hearing. No input from area residents. However, the county was finally outed when permission from residents was needed to set aerial photo markers.

The one-lane historic bridge was significantly rehabbed in 2003. Tonnage load was elevated from 6 to 14 tons. To replace the bridge is not an isolated project. In addition to being the gateway to our treasured Blue Mountain Recreation Area enjoyed by the entire community, the narrow, winding roads, River Pines, Big Flat and Blue Mountain would require significant work to accommodate increased, heavy traffic. The feds may pay 80 percent, state 20 percent of the bridge construction but who pays for the approaches, the infrastructure improvements and condemnation costs? You do, with special improvement district taxes.

We have all seen this movie before. Out-of-state experts are hired, most of whom don’t know Big Flat from Big Foot. Lots of pricey studies.

We cannot afford this reckless spending. A new bridge is not wanted, not needed. It is time the commissioners leveled with us. Step up to the plate and inform the public, your employers.