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Yellowstone History: Corkscrew Bridge

For a brief time, the Corkscrew Bridge helped define Yellowstone’s East Entrance road.

Today, of course, not many people know about it. But you can still see remnants of it (like in the photo below, taken by Jet Lowe in 2000) from the East Entrance road. But otherwise, it’s as if it ever existed.

corkscrew bridge jet lowe 2000

It doesn’t help that its original architect all but glossed over it when discussing Yellowstone’s road system. It also doesn’t help that, compared to other structures in the Park, the Corkscrew Bridge enjoyed a short life before obsolescence.

Original Construction

Chittenden spoke highly of the East Entrance route in his book The Yellowstone National Park, saying “[the Eastern Approach] is throughout its length one of exceptional scenic attraction, and will always be of great interest to travelers.” Nonetheless, in the 1915 edition of The Yellowstone National Park, where Chittenden expounds upon his experiences updating the Park’s road system, he devotes few words toward the construction of the so-called “Corkscrew Bridge,” merely listing it “among the more interesting, difficult, and costly pieces of work so far constructed” in Yellowstone. He does not list it as a “principal structure” on par with the Melan Arch Bridge over the Yellowstone or the Golden Gate Viaduct.

He does, however, devote some time to the structure in one of his annual reports (succinctly titled “Annual reports upon the construction, repair, and maintenance of roads and bridges in the Yellowstone National Park”) to the Secretary of War—but only in broad reference to the east entrance road as a whole. From the 1902 report:

The road is one of the most carefully located in the park. Its grades are all light except on the east slope of Sylvan Pass, where the topography compelled the use of a 10 per cent gradient and the introduction of a loop in the line in order to get down the hill on even as small a gradient as that. The location is fixed all the rest of the way to the eastern boundary of the forest reserve, a total distance of 58 miles. The complete portion of the work has been carefully surveyed, including checked levels connected with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey bench mark at the lake outlet.

You get the idea.

corkscrew bridge infographic

The Bridge Itself

It’s a shame, of course, that Chittenden devotes so little time to the Corkscrew Bridge in his published assessments, because it is really one of the most unique structures ever devised for Yellowstone. And rather ingenious, given what Chittenden was trying to accomplish: access without compromising scenery.

As you can see from the picture above, the original route consisted of a road that turned sharply up a nearby slope before meeting a wooden trestle bridge that then fed into the rest of the East Entrance road. Sure, it lacks the classiness of Chittenden’s original Melan bridge, and the stateliness of the Golden Gate Viaduct, but it is probably the most original and, had it stayed in use, have obtained the same prestige as both the bridge and the viaduct.

Unscrewing the Corkscrew

Alas, it was not meant to be. Although several improvements were made to the corkscrew (a shorter span replaced the trestle in 1916, while in 1919 Superintendent Horace M. Albright called for a reinforced concrete bridge, complete with a small underpass, in the same location), by the late 1920s it was evident the Corkscrew could not last. It was gone by 1929.

One factor in the Corkscrew’s demise was the rise in vehicle traffic. Just take a look at the bridge circa 1924, in the photo below.

spiral bridge 1924 yellowstone

The Corkscrew, by dint of its sharp curves, was too susceptible to bottlenecking. Just imagine trying to navigate the Corkscrew Bridge in today’s traffic conditions.

There was another factor, of course, as highlighted by Mary Shivers Culpin in her history of the Yellowstone road system:

The 1927 survey between Sylvan Pass and the Fishing Bridge suggested that the new road be relocated to take advantage of higher vistas including the Grand Teton in addition to the elimination of many sharp turns and curves. During July of 1928, the contractor, Morrison Knudson Company of Boise, Idaho, completed different stages of clearing, grubbing, grading, and surfacing.

In short, technology had caught up with road engineers; no doubt, had the technology been available to Chittenden then, he may never have built the Corkscrew Bridge at all, preferring those “higher vistas” mentioned by Culpin.

Ironically, as mentioned, the higher vistas that doomed the Corkscrew Bridge are now the only proof that it existed.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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