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New life planned for Ol’ River Bridge Inn in Columbia Falls

by JP EDGE/Hungry Horse News
| March 5, 2023 12:00 AM

The Ol’ River Bridge Inn on U.S. 2 heading into Bad Rock Canyon has been long forgotten. For over 20 years, the motel and restaurant that were once a center for visitors and locals to come together have become disheveled and dilapidated.

Now, the building is going through massive renovations under new ownership. The Tipton family, who also owns and renovated the Wonderstone at Glacier hotel just across U.S. 2, hopes to turn the Ol’ River Bridge into a new and modern short-term residence for people visiting the valley and Glacier Park.

“We want to create a boutique motel experience that’s more than just a Motel 6,” Brian Tipton, lead manager of the project said. “We hope it can bring people together. It is such a beautiful place with great outdoor experiences and we want to bring all the modern conveniences with the right atmosphere.”

After years of neglect, the Ol’ River Bridge became a den for the homeless and drug use. Located on the south side of the highway, drifters left behind piles of trash and drug paraphernalia. This problem needed to be cleared out before any renovations could begin.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable sending my guys into that, and I didn’t think anyone would take the project. So I came in on my own and cleared out all that trash before we started looking for bids,” Tipton said in a recent interview.

Tipton broke ground on Jan. 23 with hopes to have the project finished by early July. He expects the project to cost around $4 million. With a background in construction as well as a stint in the medical field, after purchasing what is now the Wonderstone property, his family asked him to move from San Diego to Columbia Falls with his wife and kids to lead the project at the start of the Covid pandemic. Two years later and they are looking at another major refit.

“It’s a bit of an underdog story,” Tipton said. “People said that Wonderstone was not going to happen, and look at where we are now. Now, this is three times the work and I have half the time to get it done.”

The Wonderstone project has been paying dividends. Along with the private room accommodations, Tipton also constructed a hostel behind Wonderstone (the former Super 8 hotel) for single travelers or those looking for a different experience, now available for booking on AirBnB.

For the new project, much of the original building’s structure meets modern standards, it just needs a facelift from the inside out. Entering the front door will be a fireplace and sitting room with the feel of a modern-day log cabin.

The motel will house 37 rooms as well as an apartment directly above the lobby for a full-time live-in manager. Each room will have a shower, desk and multiple bed size options. Televisions on the other hand, will not be found.

“We want to bring people together. Rather than zoning out behind a television, we want people to share their experiences with each other. That includes being able to upload trip pictures that will be displayed in the lobby on a screen,” Tipton said.

They will also be trying a new keyless entry system for entering the building as well as room access. This means guests can book a room as well as get into their rooms via their smartphones. This eliminates the need for a front desk service, but employees are still needed for cleaning and other room services. Wonderstone currently employs 16 full-time employees and Tipton expects to have the same number running the new motel.

The old restaurant located next to the building will need to be torn down, as the previous owner apparently did not have the proper permits for the building when it was built over 30 years ago. Tipton hopes to create an area for food trucks and other events similar to the farmers market at The Coop near downtown.

“I can see this whole strip of highway filled with restaurants. It’s got a beautiful view of the mountains and people want to stay here, now we just need to get them something to eat,” Tipton said.