The new Four Bears Bridge is a culturally important feature with a long history. Three earlier bridges crossing the Missouri River have been demolished or relocated. The first was the Liberty Memorial Bridge between Bismarck and Mandan, a truss bridge that was demolished in 2009. The second river-crossing bridge, built in 1927 and demolished in 1955, was the Verendrye Bridge located in the village of Sanish, about four miles upriver from the New Town area. The third was the old Four Bears Bridge located at the city of Elbowoods about forty miles downriver of the New Town area on a site that has since been flooded by the Garrison Dam (ML4) project that formed Lake Sakakawea as a reservoir on the Missouri River. The old Four Bears Bridge opened in 1934 and differed from most of the through-truss bridges built up to that time. The design was a single huge truss that spanned four bridge piers as a single, continuous truss. After the controversial flooding of the Missouri Basin, the old Four Bears Bridge was relocated farther north and reinstalled at the site of this new Four Bears Bridge, where it served highway traffic across the river from 1955 to 2003. Crossing the old bridge’s narrow, open bridge deck some sixty feet above the lake waters was a thrilling experience.
Construction of the new Four Bears Bridge by the North Dakota Department of Transportation was supported by the leadership of the Three Affiliated Tribes as a necessary feature of economic development and for the safety of tribal members and the traveling public. The multiple-span bridge is an innovative precast, segmented, concrete-box girder held together by post-tensioned cables that run through the bridge structure. The Four Bears Bridge is named after two Indian chiefs, both of whom are named Chief Four Bears. One is from the Mandan tribe, the other from the Hidatsa tribe. In an effort to show greater cultural sensitivity, the bridge is decorated with a series of ten-foot-diameter medallions that represent the heritage of the three tribes that live on the reservation (Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan). The Department of Transportation sponsored an informative public television program and DVD recording that tells the story of the Four Bears Bridge.