Five years ago Sunday: Memorial Bridge demolition

Five years ago on October 6th the first span of the old Liberty Memorial Bridge came down.  Taking down this landmark was particularly tricky on the Mandan side, because the old and new bridges were so close together. Drop the old one incorrectly, and we’d be picking pieces of TWO bridges out of the Big Muddy! Nobody wanted that.

The west span came down in a blaze of glory, being cut into pieces by shaped charges and dropped into the drink in 26 large chunks (plus assorted debris).

I staked out a place on the fake riverboat at Steamboat Park early that morning. At 7:30 people were already parked and waiting. I got a great spot, met lots of really neat people, and got some great photos and video. Click below to watch the big bang, both in real-time and slow motion. You’ll hear my camera shutter going mad in the background.


Notice how the camera shook from the shock wave. I don’t think anybody, myself included, expected such an enormous BOOM from those charges!


This was the debris pile that was removed piece by piece.  The concrete piers were detonated and removed separately later on while workers prepared to detonate the remaining spans later in October.


Getting photos of the remaining spans’ detonation was more difficult.  I hiked a long ways from the Mandan side, humping some very heavy gear all down the Lewis & Clark walking trail and parking on a sandbar beneath the NP railroad brdige.


Initially here was a lot of confusion among spectators as to why the middle span came down in one giant piece. I’ll tell you what the explosives expert of the demolition crew told me. Before they install their shape charges, they cut the bolts anchoring the bridge spans to the pilings. They can’t be cutting them with a grinder and sending sparks all over their explosives once they’ve been placed, after all. They had the east span rigged as well as the bottom of the middle span, but then the winds came up. They didn’t want to risk their guys being on the top of the middle span if the wind blew it over, so they opted to drop it and finish cutting it on the ground with torches. Notice that in the days before the demolition, they pushed rocks and dirt out below the bridge. That allows the crews to have land on which to salvage the steel, much easier than hunting around the water.


Notice the piece on the right hand side, the top of the pier that underwent repairs in an attempt to help the old bridge limp along. The repaired areas served their purposes, keeping the old bridge in operation until the crews were ready to take ‘er down.


How about those jaws? This machine reminds me of that James Bond villain. This guy’s got a pretty fun job, I bet. Chewin’ up steel. I can see how a feller could derive a great deal of satisfaction from it.


Nobody was more devastated than the local pigeon population; they were violently deprived of their perching, nesting, and pooping grounds!  They hung around the concrete for a while until that, too was demolished.

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that the last vehicle to cross the Liberty Memorial Bridge before its official closing was a motorcycle: yours truly.


Coolest souvenirs of the day: these are pieces of shrapnel from the shaped charges that brought down the mighty Memorial Bridge. I got them from the demolition crew that was doing the aforementioned cleanup. They appear to be copper, and I guess they flew away from the detonation at an extremely high rate of speed. Thankfully these two managed to land in my hands. I’ll keep them forever as a souvenir of the old humming bridge.

Capitol observations

I had the opportunity to go to the state capitol building today, and after accomplishing my errands I took a quick zip to the top observation floor and also down to the Memorial Hall.  Here are a couple of things I noted:

capitol_elevator_31000.jpgAmong the depictions in the brass on the elevator doors is a depiction of a more hostile time.  It’s interesting to look at the brass in the elevator areas as well as the revolving doors in the Memorial Hall and note some of the figures depicted thereon.


capitol_mall_iphone_1174Uh-oh.  Notice that patch of yellow?  The leaves are changing, and they’re going to do so quickly.  Get those cameras ready!

memorial_hall_pano_iphone_1180I used the iPhone’s panoramic feature to do a quick pan of the Memorial Hall.  Click on this image for a larger version.  This is a great feature that came out with the iPhone 5 and iOS 6.  I’m not about to upgrade to iOS 7 unless I absolutely have to.

I used to run around the capitol with my little guys a lot, but it’s been quite some time since we’ve been able to do so.  I enjoy it as much as they do, and I suspect that there are many who share the same fondness and memories about this historic building.  When’s the last time you paid it a visit?

B-17, take two: new angles

I posted earlier about the visit by Sentimental Journey, one of the few airworthy B-17 bombers that remain.  I didn’t do the $5 walkthrough again this year, although it was definitely worth the money.  I did, however, do a couple of cool things.

One of the things was to shoot some video of them firing up the engines. Because engines like this are prone to leaking certain fluids, someone stands by with a fire extinguisher and gives a thumbs-up to the pilot once each engine has safely spun up. They start with engine #3 because it’s near the battery and gets the best crank, and work their way around the aircraft from there. My little boy thought it was pretty cool.

The other cool thing was to park out on the northwest end of the runway and let the rumbling beast roar right over our heads. My little guys thought this was a really sweet deal.

Scroll down a little bit if you want to see my interior shots of this piece of military aviation history. Check out the video above if you haven’t already. If you missed this aircraft, hope it comes by again in a few more years. More information is available online by clicking here.

This is one act that has bombed before

According to the Tribune, “Sentimental Journey” will visit Bismarck this Thursday through Sunday. It’s a B-17 bomber available for five dollar tours and $425 rides, and it’s worth visiting. I’ve had the opportunity to check out this plane from head to toe, and here’s a preview.

I took some time a few years ago to visit the B-17 bomber that was parked near Executive Air for the better part of the work week. It’s cool to see such a piece of history, especially since it’s a piece of technology and military hardware at the same time.

It wouldn’t be a truly nostalgic WW2 era plane without some 1930’s – shaped woman painted on the side (Betty Grable in this case). I couldn’t help but think of the old 1980s video game “B-17 Bomber” on the Mattel Intellivision game console. A friend of mine had that game and the expensive Speech Synthesis module, which allowed many of its games to “talk. B-17 Bomber was one such game. Thanks to the Internet, you can listen to the introductory sound from that game by clicking here (mp3 format).

What a big machine, don’t you think? When the news of possible hail or a tornado came in last night, this plane was moved into the BP hangar on site. It barely fit; it had to be rolled in by hand, with four guys on each wheel to move its weight, and its gun almost touched the hangar doors once closed. There were “little planes” tucked under each wing as well, but the mighty Flying Fortress fit. Say that three times fast.

Payload. One of the types of bombs dropped by these planes was called a Thunderbug. That’s just one of the fun nicknames that military folks came up with for various hardware and ordinance, and it shows they have a sense of humor. These obviously aren’t real, otherwise I’d be trying to strap one onto my motorcycle for use on a tailgater! Now let’s take a walk through this majestic aircraft…

This is the forward gun turret. Note the picture of someone’s lady on the left side wall. This would be a pretty crazy place to be when the fighting got hectic! I can’t even imagine. I think the fella who did the calculations for the bomb trajectories was located up here as well as the forward gunners.

This is the cockpit, one of the few places with windows that don’t have a gun sticking out of them. It must be a challenge to taxi a “tail-dragger” aircraft like this one…in fact, a friend of mine was near an accident at Oshkosh a few years ago where a little plane cut in front of a big plane on the tarmac. The propeller of the big plane sliced right through the little one. Messy. The pilots of planes like this have to zig-zag when they taxi so they can look out the side windows; the front windows point at the sky until they take off.

The bomb bay with doors open. That rail down the middle is the “walkway” for the plane’s crew. It’s about six inches wide. I had fun sneaking through there with my camera bag! It would be best to be skinny to be on a B-17 crew. I had that part covered, but then I decided to lug my gear with me.

This is where the radio operator sat, and there are a couple of jump seats as well. It’s pretty amazing to see how many crew positions are actually on this aircraft. I may have to hunt down a book about these guys…

I would have thought there’d be more bomb space and less crew space, but I really don’t know much about aircraft. Here you can see side guns as well as bunks for crew members, who I suppose rotated resting periods. This photo is somewhat out of sequence as it was taken from the rear of the aircraft, facing forward.

Firepower. The guys manning these guns were responsible for keeping this aircraft safe from enemy fighters. To do so requires some big guns, and there are big guns all over the B-17.

For $425 or so, you can take a ride on this plane, and even sit up in the nose turret. For $425, I think they should make these guns operational. Now that would be worth running to an ATM!

The aforementioned bunks. At the end of the fuselage is where the rear landing gear is stowed, and of course another gun position.

Thus endeth the tour. This was truly an amazing way to spend my lunch hour. It’s one thing to leisurely poke around this aircraft, looking at the old technology and trying to grasp a bit of history. It would have been another world entirely to dodge German or Japanese AA fire, fend off enemy fighters from a gun turret, and hopefully make it to the intended target and back safely. Oh yeah, and deliver the bomb payload on target. The people who fight for our country are incredible, but I think of World War Two stories and am in total awe.

“Sentimental Journey” will be in town from Thursday through Sunday. For more information or to reserve a flight, visit

Flag Day, and one other important bit of American History

Today is Flag Day, a holiday that goes back informally to the early days of our nation’s founding. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), however, “Both President Wilson, in 1916, and President Coolidge, in 1927, issued proclamations asking for June 14 to be observed as the National Flag Day. But it wasn’t until August 3, 1949, that Congress approved the national observance, and President Harry Truman signed it into law.”

This is a photo of the flag flying proudly over the parking lot of Arrowhead Plaza in Bismarck on the morning of December 12th, 2009. I was early for a meeting nearby, so I meandered over to the lot to catch the colors for a few minutes. Shortly afterward I found myself sitting between the Attorney General and Secretary of State, drinking orange juice and taking in a very fascinating briefing.

Today, June 14th, also marks a significant even in our nation’s history. In 1954, Congress passed a joint resolution adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. On June 14th of that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law. This has at times been controversial, although only to people who tend to affiliate themselves with a particular political party (ahem).

Display the flag proudly if you have the means to do so! Governor Jack Dalrymple has put out a proclamation “encouraging North Dakotans to observe the days from Flag Day through Independence Day as a time to honor America, to celebrate our rich heritage, and to express our gratitude to those who have secured our freedoms and to those who defend them still today.” Amen to that.

I wouldn’t call it the Holy Grail, but…

As a would-be photographer, I’ve got a list of certain things on a photographic “bucket list” I keep in my head. Last night I was able to get one: a perfectly straight-on shot of the Provident Life Weather Beacon.

One of the reasons I got into photography in the first place is that my video work takes me to places and shows me things that are so amazing that I wanted to be able to share them with others. One of the others is a love of North Dakota, particularly my home town area of Bismarck-Mandan. As a result, our local landmarks hold special significance for me.

While wrapping up a helipad photo shoot last night I noticed something that had almost escaped me: a perfect vantage point for photographing the Beacon! Naturally I took a few seconds to spring into action and grab a couple of quick shots. Since what I’d been seeking is a simple, direct, squared-up shot, I didn’t need to squander any time trying to brainstorm something funky. A few clicks later I had some different shots of one of my favorite local landmarks, just as I’d always hoped.

Here’s a refresher on my long relationship with the Weather Beacon:

It was fun to joke about the Beacon, as if it actually made the weather, during my KFYR days. The TV station control operator (me, five nights a week) was in charge of changing the weather beacon to reflect the updated forecast throughout the broadcast day. On our program log in the control room, in between entries for commercials and programs, were occasional reminders to update the weather beacon.

There was a panel in the weather room with six buttons on it: red, white, green, flashing red, flashing white, and flashing green. These switches are still in a rack at the TV station, even though they are have not been connected to the Beacon for quite some time. Last I remember, the KFYR Radio control guys switched it by dialing a phone number (no, I’m not posting that here).

The poor Beacon almost faded into history in 1997. It was showing its wear, and the cost of modernizing it was prohibitive. That was, however, until KFYR Radio rode to the rescue. Phil Parker and Mark Armstrong headed an effort to Save the Beacon!

At this time, Meyer Broadcasting was still intact. While I was hard at work on the TV side of the building, I also freelanced the website for KFYR-AM Radio. As part of the campaign to save the Weather Beacon, we had a couple of pages on the website urging people to help donate.

You can click here to see the original Save the Beacon page from my archives. Yeah, the Web has come a long way.

The campaign was a success in that it raised money toward the Beacon’s restoration, increased public awareness of its plight, and served as a rallying cry to its rescue. While the entire cost of the Beacon’s renovation was not raised, its importance to the community was indisputably proven. Through a matching grant from local government and plenty of donations, the project was underway.

As part of the KFYR website, we were happy to post that the Beacon would be saved. Cliff Naylor did a report on the Beacon that aired as part of a live telecast from the roof of the Provident Building, atop which the Beacon still sits.

You can click here to see the post-campaign page from my archives and watch the video.

As I recall, and the details in my head are quite murky, the Beacon was restored but still had some gremlins. I believe it was then refitted one more time and has functioned ever since. None of it would have been possible without Phil and Mark. To this day, the controls reside with KFYR Radio instead of the television station. In fact, why don’t you call the PH Phactor on KFYR 550 AM and ask Phil about it?

Oh yeah…the t-shirt. We had t-shirts made, and I still have mine. It has caricatures of Phil Parker and Mark Armstrong on the front, and a key to understanding the Beacon on the back:

Weather Beacon white as snow, down the temperature will go.
Weather Beacon red as fire, temperature is going higher.
Weather Beacon an emerald green, no change forseen.
When colors blink in agitation, there’s going to be precipitation.

Provident Life used to sponsor TV spots featuring the Beacon and its rhymes. Since they’re no longer doing business there, the ads don’t run. That means that the weather beacon itself is somewhat obscure now, with newer Bismarck-Mandan residents unaware of its history. For those of us who have lived here a long time, it’s good to see the weather beacon standing tall. No matter what the forecast, there’s something great about seeing it red in the spring, green when things are just right, and white when Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. Thanks to everyone who helped keep it up and running!

The day the music died

I’ve long been a fan of local entrepreneur Mort Bank’s ability to put together themed restaurants. His themed McDonald’s restaurants were innovative, but are now history. While the reconstruction (or destruction, depending on how you look at it) of the McRock ‘n’ Roll store on Main Avenue in Bismarck has been in progress for months, it all became rather official when those trademark Golden Arches were swapped out for a new set.

This was my favorite local McDonald’s because of the themed tables most of all. The tidbits of music history contained beneath the transparent tabletops was an amusing addition to lunch, and the “Worst Albums of All Time” table was by far my favorite. As I recall, it listed Lou Reed’s notorious “Metal Machine Music” album but didn’t say anything other than the title. There really isn’t any more to be said.

There have been a couple of previous remodels of the McRock ‘n’ Roll store, each one stripping a little more character from the original in the name of traffic flow or whatever. Even the ordering counter, which originally sported the grille and bumper of a classic automobile, has long been redone. In that regard I suppose the place died a slow death. Regardless of the atmosphere the newly remodeled McDonald’s may have, it will never match the character of the original.

Quite possibly the coolest old photo I’ve ever discovered

Check this out! I received a copy of this photo yesterday, from the collection of Jim Eastgate, featuring the state capitol building. A friend mentioned that this was taken during Easter. There are MANY noteworthy things about this shot:

– First, it’s a long exposure taken at night. This is obvious because the lit windows are visible and there’s a streak of light on the right side of the photo from a car driving past.

– It’s hard to see in this shrunk-down version, but a string of utility poles runs from the lower left diagonally to the center right of the shot, and I’m not sure if they’re power lines or telephone wires.

– The original capitol building had burned down and the bottom two floors were all that survived. It was suggested to me that you can see it in the center-right portion of the shot, right below the “.com” of the watermark. I’m not sure if that’s true, or if it’s a portion of the Liberty Memorial Building.

– The landscape was far different then, as you can see the road in the foreground and the slope of the hill.

How cool would it be if they still did this every Easter? Hm…

The Cold War in North Dakota

The most usable space in the Heritage Center was the setting for a very interesting presentation this weekend: the effect of the Cold War and military infrastructure on the landscape and culture of North Dakota. It was an extremely well-attended session, to say the least…one of three sessions planned to highlight North Dakota historic sites and their importance.

Site director Mark Sundlov, a former member of a Minot Air Force base missile crew himself, was the presenter. He has a unique perspective on this subject and is determined to help preserve this important part of North Dakota’s (and our nation’s) history. Right now it’s ripe for the picking, as there are many anecdotes to record. The audience had plenty of their own. The interest in this subject as well as the gold mine of information and firsthand accounts was a strong affirmation of just how spot-on Mr. Sundlov is about the impact of the military and this period of history on the culture of North Dakota and the everyday lifestyle of its citizens.

I strongly recommend clicking on this link to listen to a podcast interview with Mr. Sundlov from a while back, before the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Historic Site was even a reality. In it he talks about life on a missile crew, something that wasn’t really part of the focus of Sunday’s presentation.

If you want to read more about the Cold War remnants around our state from this photographer’s perspective, try some of these links, which will each open in a new window:

Cold War Mancation, Part One: Minuteman Missile Site

Cold War Mancation, Part Two: Nekoma Missile Base (Mickelsen Safeguard Complex)

Cold War Mancation, Part Three: Former OMEGA Station LaMoure

Cold War Mancation, Part Four: Cavalier Air Force Station

Cold War Mancation, Part Five: Minot

They missed a piece when they tore down Meriwether’s

Despite the efforts of my friend and Burleigh County commissioner Mark Armstrong, the city tore down the former Wilton train depot, known for the past twenty-plus years as the Meriwether’s building. It also doubled as the ticket office and souvenir for the various incarnations of riverboat which docked thereby. One interesting feature in the area was the sign you see above, which the Big Muddy decided to relocate far south during its flooding rampage last year.

It was Mark, in fact, who tipped me off to this sign last year already. Obviously it’s taken me quite a while to find the time to get down there and see it up close for myself. I finally did, however, while taking my little boys on a sandy walk to throw rocks into the water and enjoy a warm sunset. Someone apparently found this sign, which had been washed from the vicinity of the Grant Marsh bridge to a sandy stretch well south of the Memorial Bridge, and decided it to stick it into the ground. It’s stayed there ever since, a testament to its resilience.

As far as the plight of the Meriwether’s building goes, I can’t say I have any feelings one way or the other about it. The last restaurant I remember in the building was driven out of business by the closure of River Road when a section slid, and I can’t remember anything ever taking its place. The building is a pretty remote location for a business in all but the warmest few months, so I’m not sure it would have been a good candidate for business even if it had been restored.

I was on board one hundred percent when Phil and Mark were the super-duo on KFYR AM 550 radio and they set about preserving the Provident Life Weather Beacon. That’s a piece of history well known to thousands of people, one which many of us still consult when we want a snapshot of what the weather forecast holds in store. The old depot down by the river? I’m not sorry to say that I doubt many people held the same attachment to it. Sure, there were parts of it that were pretty cool…but one of the best of those has found itself a home about a mile down the river.