Meet Arlyne Reichert. In Great Falls, Montana and around the country, she's known as the "Bridge Lady."
In 1945, many years before she held that title, Reichert traveled by train to Great Falls from her hometown of Buffalo, New York, where she had met and fell in love with Rick, a member of the Air Force who would become her husband. Rick had been transferred out West, and like so many military wives of her time, Reichert was following his career and her heart by relocating to Montana.
Now in her 80's, Reichert vividly remembers looking out her window as her train chugged closer to Great Falls and seeing the city's striking Historic Tenth Street Bridge for the first time. Little did she know, this bridge would become the source of her now-famous nickname and one of the missions of her lifetime.
Built in 1920 to connect Great Falls with its growing neighbors to the north, the Historic Tenth Street Bridge leaps rhythmically across the Missouri River like a game of hopscotch, gently reflected in the water below. Still the longest and oldest concrete arch bridge in the Upper Great Plains, the iconic structure was commissioned by Paris Gibson, the founder of Great Falls. It was designed collaboratively by Ralph Adams, a structural engineer from Spokane, and George Shanley, a prominent Great Falls architect. Gibson originally envisioned the bridge as a representation of his community's pride and optimism, and upon its completion, the local paper lauded the project as "an imposing structure of sweeping arches…a carved monument above the water."
"The Historic Tenth Street Bridge is an elegant symbol of Montana's past," Reichert said. "This beautiful landmark exemplifies the labor-intensive dedication of hundreds of skilled workers in the 1920's. The bridge also represents the last major project championed by Great Falls founder and local hero Paris Gibson."
Sadly, those poetic words began falling on deaf ears in 1971 when after a mere 50 years of operation, county and state officials identified the bridge as a priority for replacement. Despite the fact that a full rehabilitation of the already structurally-sound bridge was estimated to cost only $167,000 more than a tear-down, demolition pressures gained significant steam and created waves of local controversy through the 1980s. In 1995, the water boiled over when an adjacent replacement bridge was completed and the Montana Department of Transportation hired a demolition contractor to begin work on the Historic Tenth Street Bridge.
It was now or never for the Bridge Lady to take action.
Along with many local residents, Reichert co-founded Preservation Cascade, Inc., a nonprofit organization she calls the Bridge Army that was dedicated to reversing this unfortunate fate. Her new group, along with advocates from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, went to court to save the Historic Tenth Street Bridge. Their argument? Demolition was a direct violation of Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, which prohibits the funding or approval of transportation projects that require the "use" of any historic site unless there is "no feasible and prudent alternative to the project." In the case of the Historic Tenth Street Bridge, they argued, preservation was the "feasible and prudent alternative."
In July 1996, with only six days until demolition was scheduled to take place, Reichert's wish began to come true. An injunction was issued prohibiting demolition until the litigation could be resolved, and eventually, the federal appeals court took the extraordinary step of assigning a senior judge to mediate the case. A year and a half later, a unique plan was announced.
Not only would the Montana Department of Transportation cancel demotion, but it would divert the $400,000 it had earmarked for the wrecking balls to the cause of saving the historic structure, which would now be owned by the City of Great Falls. Additionally, local preservationists raised more than $300,000 to rehabilitate the bridge, which was augmented by a $100,000 line of credit offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a $250,000 grant from Save America's Treasures.
The Bridge Lady and her army had won.
Today, the Historic Tenth Street Bridge is safe from demolition but only partially open to the public. Though all of its main and spandrel arches have been rehabilitated, extensive work is still needed to complete the bridge's concrete deck. The goal is to open the entire bridge as a pedestrian walkway connecting popular hike and bike trails lining the Missouri River, but millions of dollars in funding are needed to get there.
"The completed bridge will encourage pedestrian commuters, lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and contribute to our wellness," Reichert said. "Our bridge offers a chance to have a finished product at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time of a brand new project since it is shovel ready, but we still need help."
Given today's tough economic landscape, this perpetual need for funding has resulted in some very creative problem solving. Throughout the year, the dramatic arches of the bridge are illuminated in a breathtaking shade of blue for a variety of community events and holidays, including Reichert's birthday, which is recognized annually on January 14. Made possible by a competitive grant through Montana's Community Transportation Enhancement Program, residents can make a tax-deductible donation of $100 to have the bridge lit for a night for their own cause, which is how the successful kidney transplant of two-year old Tyler Jarl was celebrated last September.
"You look at the bridge at night and you can't see its flaws, but you look in the day and you see that the deck is not finished," Reichert said. "Our goal is to make it as beautiful during the day as it is at night." If Reichert's incredible story and the subsequent success of the Historic Tenth Street Bridge as the visual and emotional centerpiece of Great Falls teach us anything, it is that transportation policy and funding and our mission to preserve and protect are inextricably linked..