Renovation Will Allow Scenic Bridge to Continue Serving Park Visitors
Wind Cave National Park shares a northern border with Custer State Park in the Black Hills. Visitors can see bison and pronghorn, while traversing scenery ranging from flat prairies to forested mountains and canyons.
The Beaver Creek Bridge provides an essential link between the parks across a steep canyon.
“What’s cool about this bridge, it’s such a secluded spot,” Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation, said from a lookout along Highway 87 in Wind Cave.
Across the valley, the bridge’s white arches and columns rise from the rocky, forested edges of a canyon. It spans more than 200 feet across the canyon and more than 100 feet above Beaver Creek.
“You can come out and watch it, you can hear Beaver Creek in the distance below it and just this white, expanse of concrete that’s aged out over the years, that just stands there as a silent sentinel between these two canyons making sure people can cross the canyon,” Farrell said.
Visitors might miss out on the bridge if they don’t stop at the vista or explore around the structure itself.
“It’s easy to overlook because you just drive over it,” Farrell said. “But if you stop and pause and take a look, you realize this is a special place. And you spend a little bit of time here just listening to the river underneath and watching the bridge, you kind of get the impression what an interesting, special, unique place this is.”
Highway 87 is closed from the lookout to the intersection north of Rankin Ridge until crews finish renovating the bridge in mid-October.
Inspectors with the National Bridge Inventory have been recommending rehabilitation since 2010 when they noticed general deterioration. The bridge is rated fair, rather than poor or good.
“We’re doing some routine maintenance on the bridge. Just the fact that it’s 92-years-old and you want to just keep up on it,” Farrell said.
The National Park Service is paying $496,499 for renovations to Beaver Creek Bridge and a nearby pigtail bridge. The work is being done by JV Bailey Co., a Rapid City-based company.
The Beaver Creek Bridge isn’t as well known as the granite tunnels on Needles Highway or the wooden pigtail bridges along Iron Mountain Road. But all were built in the same era under the vision and aesthetic philosophy of a former Governor and U.S. Senator.
“Senator Peter Norbeck was instrumental in getting this bridge built. He was the person behind Custer State Park and he helped design the roadways, the scenic drives through the Black Hills,” Farrell said. The bridge “just blends into the scenery, it’s just part of the scenery. And that’s what Senator Norbeck wanted. He wanted something like this that wasn’t intrusive, that just blended in.”
Farrell drove down Highway 87 and parked in front of the bridge before hiking down a steep, slippery slope to stand below the structure.
He said planners could have built the bridge at a narrower, more convenient part of the canyon. But they chose to cross at this spot, which was more complicated but scenic.
Crews built the bridge in 1929 with an average of 20 workers a day. It was completed after 154 days.
“They had to do the concrete in one, continual pour. Because you couldn’t get from one side to the other side, they had to have two mixing plants on either side,” Farrell said. “They had to do it into the night and so they brought in these gas lanterns that you’d used in a circus back in the day. And just the commotion, and the shadows and working at night on the bridge, that would have been a fun night to just have sat in the corner and kind of watch this happen.”
Beaver Creek Bridge is the longest and most complex concrete bridge in South Dakota. It’s also the state’s only concrete bridge with an open-spandrel arch, an arch that connects to the roadway with columns rather than solid concrete.
The bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural uniqueness and historical connection to Senator Norbeck and recreation in the Black Hills.
The renovations, which are scheduled to end on October 12, will allow visitors to have an easy and scenic journey between Wind Cave and Custer State Park for years to come.
For now, visitors travelling between the two sites can take a detour through the town of Custer, using Highways 385 and 16A.