The area around Fort Mandan, which would become Washburn, was visited by trappers and traders, and the first settlement was established in the mid-1800s. The city gained an economic advantage when steamship travel came to town with Washburn being the northernmost point on the river that as navigable. Steamships gave way to the railroad. A ferry boat across the river was established in May of 1952, and ran until 1962, when shifting currents in the river made navigation impossible. This was the last ferry boat to operation in the state of North Dakota.
In the early 1970s, everything changed for the sleepy little town of Washburn. Coal had been discovered. Energy companies began major strip mining operations. Other energy companies discovered that they could make electricity more economically by building the power plants next to the coal fields, and sending the power to market over transmission lines. The Coal Creek Station was later built in this area, the largest power plant in the state.
With the economic boom came the need for better transportation, and that included building a bridge across the Missouri River. The result is a 1,500 foot long steel girder bridge with a concrete deck. The bridge, which opened in 1971, looks very much like the US-85 Lewis & Clark Bridge near Williston, which opened 2 years later. The only real difference between the two bridges is that the Washburn Bridge is higher above the water due to the height of the bluffs along the river at that location.