When the Mighty Mackinac turned 25 [Detroit Free Press]
(Detroit Free Press (MI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 28--This story originally appeared in Detroit Magazine, the Sunday supplement of the Detroit Free Press. It was written to mark the Mackinac Bridge's 25th anniversary year, appearing on May 23, 1982.
Generations dreamed the crossing
Doubters shook their heads in scorn
Brave men vowed that they would build it
From their faith a bridge was born.
-- David B. Steinman, designer of the Mackinac Bridge
First glimpse of those ivory towers comes just beyond mile 334 on Interstate 75. You are about five miles from the Straits of Mackinac, traveling north through Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
The interstate winds some now, cutting through forests of young pine and birch. No doubt you're a bit fidgety: You are about to cross the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Steel and concrete will lift you nearly 200 feet above the rushing waters of the four-mile-wide straits, the channel that for centuries has separated Michigan from Michigan. Road signs alert you of the tolls as the bridge looms ever larger until the final instruction: Last exit before bridge. Then there it is before you, its pavement seemingly rising into the horizon. Mighty Mac.
You are moving now at 45 miles an hour, the speed limit for the span, and in the distance to the east you can see Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands. To the west, the shore of the Upper Peninsula and the waters of Lake Michigan.
You hear the frequent clack-clack, clack-clack, as the car hits expansion joints in the roadbed. Soon the southern shore is a mile behind you, and you haven't yet reached the first of the 552-foot ivory suspension towers.
When you finally cross Pier 17, the southern anchorage for the suspension bridge, you are about 110 feet above the straits. You may feel and hear the wind glove your car after it smacks the side of the concrete pier and rushes up and over the roadway.
In a second or so, you are across the row of two-foot, interlocking, steel-fingered expansions. If it's January, the fingers are probably fully extended. If it's July, they are joined. In the heat of summer, the suspension cables that hold up the roadway expand and the road sags, pushing the fingers together. But the movement of this gentle giant is so, so, so slight, you could never detect it.
Overhead as you pass under the south tower are 3,250 tons of steel that soar 47 stories above the water. Nearly 12 years ago, a Greek freighter, piloted by an American and lost in fog, hit the 180,000-ton concrete pier that supports this tower. There were no serious injuries, though the collision poked a hole in the freighter that was big enough for a semi to drive through.
The pier of the $99.8 million bridge received $45,000 worth of bumps and bruises.
The center lanes of the 8,614-foot suspension bridge are made of steel gratings that allow wind to pass through. That makes the bridge aerodynamic. Its design was wind-tunnel-tested to sustain winds of more than 620 m.p.h., when 78 m.p.h. winds are the strongest ever recorded in the area.
When bridge authorities are forewarned of high winds, they'll pair vehicles towing light trailers or boats with semitrailers, which act as windbreakers. Still, a light boat or camper sometimes is blown over the side.
Occasionally (and illegally) aircraft fly under the bridge. Once a B47 pilot leveled his bomber to 100 feet above the straits and roared under. It was his last flight. Military authorities stripped his wings.
You pay your $1.50 toll as you arrive in the Upper Peninsula. The five-mile trip takes 10 minutes. Before the bridge opened on Nov. 1, 1957, it would have taken you 45 minutes to ferry from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace.
The Mackinac Bridge, which was designed by the late David B. Steinman, turns 25 this year.
Steinman, who died at 73 in 1960, was also something of a poet, a romantic, a man who so thought out this 1,024,500-ton superstructure that he selected its color scheme -- ivory and deep green. Steinman's metered lines are the history of this bridge ...
Generations dreamed the crossing . . .
Oh, how many generations! The experts on such things will tell you that glaciers from thousands of years ago formed the Great Lakes. The record may be less precise on exactly who or what carved the 40-mile-long straits, manicured the shorelines and buried the seeds of evergreens that would be 150 feet tall when men from France first saw them.
The Indians told of heroes who wanted to cross the straits. Hiawatha, the Iroquois brave who lived 500 years ago, dreamed, the story goes, of lacing together canoes to bridge the swift current.
In 1620, while the Pilgrims were landing at Plymouth Rock, Etienne Brule, a Frenchman, arrived at the St. Mary's River near today's city of Sault Ste. Marie. He was the first white man to walk on Michigan soil, but it isn't known whether he ventured inland and south the 60 miles to the straits.
Brule and other Frenchmen were in the New World searching for the Old -- the Orient that had enticed the European adventurers. Many had become certain that there was a shorter route to the land of spices and silk than Marco Polo's eastern land route.
One of these New World explorers was Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec in 1608. In the early 1630s, Huron Indians told him of a nation that lived by a sea that had an unusual smell. Champlain decided they meant saltwater, and he commissioned colleague Jean Nicolet to find the nation.
Nicolet started west from Montreal in 1634, carrying a robe of lustrous fabric festooned with birds and flowers. He meant to put on the robe as a symbol of cheer and brotherhood when he found the mysterious people.
Nicolet passed through the Straits of Mackinac that year, the first white man known to have done so. But when he reached the shores of Green Bay in Wisconsin -- his destination -- he found not Orientals, not saltwater, but Winnebago Indians.
Later that century, Fr. Pere Marquette founded St. Ignace, on the northern shore of the straits. White explorers weren't interested then in bridges. The Lower Peninsula held no promise of a short route to the Orient. It was a vast pine forest, a hunting ground for the Indian.
Military outposts later were built at the Straits because of its strategic location, and these would change hands during decades of wars. Commerce in furs through the Straits flourished well into the 1800s. John Jacob Astor had a fur company on Mackinac Island.
Then in 1883 a suspension bridge was opened across the East River in New York, linking Manhattan with Brooklyn. The next year, a shop owner in St. Ignace superimposed a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge over the Straits in newspaper ads. Why not here? he suggested. Also that year, an editorial in a Traverse City newspaper proposed a bridge or tunnel across the Straits.
A few years later, shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt attended the first meeting of the board of the directors of the new Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. "We now have the largest, well-equipped hotel of its kind in the world," he told his colleagues. "Now what we need is a bridge across the Straits."
But the dreamers in state government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thought more in terms of tunnels and causeways, not bridges.
By World War I, travelers were paying up to $16 to transport their cars between peninsulas on railroad ferries. The state opened what it hoped would be a more efficient ferry service in 1923, employing a Detroit riverboat to haul cars. In five months, the Ariel carried across 10,000 cars.
It was also in 1923 that a 14-year-old boy from Detroit's southwest side left home for a career on the Great Lakes. By 1949, George Lloyd was superintendent of the state's five-ferry Straits fleet. On the day the Mackinac Bridge opened to traffic in 1957, amid all the hoopla, speeches and celebration, Lloyd was in his office, supervising the last run of his ferries.
Now 74 and living in Cheboygan, Lloyd says the bridge is a "beautiful structure," but he can't hold back his sea captain's pride. Only once, he recalls, did the ferries stay in port because of weather. "The bridge can't say that."
Because of poor visibility brought on by even poorer weather, the bridge has closed five times in 25 years. Three of those times occurred this winter.
Doubters shook their heads in scorn . . .
The magnitude of bridging the straits with steel is awesome today; how much more awesome it must have been in the 1930s, giving strength to the doubters.
Engineers had spanned the Hudson River in New York with the George Washington Bridge in 1931 and San Francisco Bay with the Golden Gate in 1937. But both bridges together would be two miles shy of linking Michigan's peninsulas.
The doubters talked much of current, of ice, of winds -- of all the wrath with which nature assaults the Straits. They talked, too, of rock formations, citing obscure geological surveys that suggested the bedrock would not support a bridge.
"It was fantasy," recalls former Gov. G. Mennen Williams, Michigan's chief of state when the bridge was approved and built.
"There were outrageous claims that the bottom was not strong, and the ice was too strong and the current, too. I suppose a lot of reaction (against the bridge was) that it was too big to contemplate.
Despite a 1928 state feasibility study that said a bridge could be built for $30 million, sentiment against it won. Backers tried again in 1934. The Mackinac Bridge Authority was created to study the idea and issue revenue bonds for construction.
The federal government, which was doling out public works dollars to a Depression-weary country, was given Michigan's bridge studies. Again, nay-sayers gathered steam. "We had supposed and hoped," began a 1935 editorial in the Adrian Daily Telegram, "that the preposterous Mackinac bridge idea had been permanently relegated to the dodo cage of political fauna. But we guessed wrong."
Washington turned down the request for a federal loan to pay 70 percent of the $35 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would take to build a bridge.
The state went ahead anyway and in 1942 built a causeway south from St. Ignace about 4,200 feet into the Straits -- a step previous studies said had to come before a bridge. Then war interrupted. In 1947, 13 years after the Mackinac Bridge Authority had been formed, the Legislature abolished it.
That was hardly the last of it, though. "Soapy" Williams, who was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1948, remembers campaigning one day in St. Ignace. He was getting a haircut in a barber shop that had a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge on the wall.
"And I thought about it," he recalls. "People in the Upper Peninsula felt alienated from the Lower Peninsula. They thought we just didn't care." So, with the bridge in mind, Williams prepared a speech, but before he gave it, he asked a newspaper reporter what he thought he should talk about.
" 'Tell them you'll build a bridge,' " Williams says the reporter responded. "I pledged if I were elected I would start to build the Mackinac Bridge to link the peninsulas."
On Nov. 2, 1948, Williams defeated Republican Gov. Kim Sigler by 160,000 votes.
By June 1950, the Mackinac Bridge Authority was back in business. A bridge campaign popped up across the state. Proponents urged sympathizers to send notes to Lansing. Silver dollars with paper pasted to them carried this message: "Write today to Gov. Williams. Holy Mackinaw. Bridge it now."
Another campaign, one Williams today asserts was loaded with "political potshots," was waged by the other side. The concern shifted chiefly to money, although there were still doubts the bridge technically could be built.
Opponents said traffic would be insufficient to pay off the bonds on schedule and the state would be saddled with "Soapy's folly."
In late 1951, the state Highway Department christened a new Straits ferry, the Vacationland, which was a $4.5 million, 360- foot vessel. It could haul a maximum of 150 cars across the Straits in 35 minutes. That didn't help bridge supporters.
But Williams, an astute politician, a charmer in capitol corridors, a clever and tactful deal-cutter, got legislative approval for the bridge authority in spring 1952 to sell bonds and build and operate a bridge.
He will tell you today that he had loads of help from the members of the authority, who were luminaries in Michigan's civic society.
The authority appointed Lawrence Rubin, a 39-year-old transportation expert who grew up on Boston Blvd. in Detroit, as its executive secretary, a position Rubin holds today.
He will tell you of those days when friends had to be won, when what seemed like much public apathy had to be turned around, "particularly down below where they didn't give a feeling one way or the other whether the bridge was built."
Recalls Williams: "There were all the appeals to bias that you could imagine."
Perhaps the strongest was the appeal to the taxpayers' pocketbooks.
Once the authority had bridge plans and a pricetag and bonds lined up, it had trouble marketing the bonds. The economy in the early 1950s wasn't favorable. Bond buyers wanted some assurance their investment would be protected.
Supporters approached the Legislature again, this time to ask for a guaranteed annual budget of $417,000 to maintain the bridge. That set off a flurry of editorials and no-bridge talk.
A "dangerous promotion" scheme, heralded the Adrian Daily Telegram. "Let the public beware!" warned the Montague Observer. "There are a lot of things we'd like to have but cannot because it costs too much," observed the Onaway News. And headlines in Capitol Digest, a Lansing insiders' tabloid that observed the motto "Hew to the line -- let the chips fall where they may," cried that the bond issue was a "bamboozle."
That spring the Legislature passed the maintenance subsidy. There would be more challenges, but in the end the authority prevailed. The bonds to pay for the bridge were offered in early 1954. Buyers grabbed them at four percent interest.
Brave men vowed that they would build it . . .
About 1,200 attended the banquet March 6, 1954, at Sault Ste. Marie to celebrate the soon-to-be-built bridge. They ate roast turkey and French peas and whipped potatoes and heard designing engineer David B. Steinman talk about his structure.
"It will be the safest, best, most beautiful bridge that money, brains, workmanship and material can build," he said. It will be a bridge that "will contribute to the prosperity and welfare of people for generations to come."
He was an authority, this Steinman, a man of nuts and bolts and poetry who envisioned a bridge that would be like a harp, aerodynamic, like a wing across the Straits, wind-tunnel tested to withstand the furies.
This visionary led a school of engineering thought that regarded bridges as structures almost molecularly wedded to environment. Others said large bridges needed weight, needed to be so heavy, so solid, that nothing would move them. Steinman said the elements needed to caress the structures -- bridges needed to breathe.
On May 8, 1954, in Mackinaw City they broke ground. It was "the biggest two-day wingding in the history of northern Michigan, " wrote Free Press marine reporter Curt Haseltine. There would be parades, fireworks and choirs singing "God Bless America." Then the work began.
By the time the bridge was finished 3 years later, more than 1,000 people had worked on it. Five of them had died.
Builders first set down massive piers that would support the bridge. They pumped enormous amounts of concrete into huge caissons sunk into the Straits.
The towers were erected piece by piece, and once they were done, work started on the approaches to the suspension bridge. A cyclone-fence catwalk was stretched from pier to tower to tower to pier across the Straits; a cable spinner (a large wheel on pulleys) moved above the catwalk, spinning the wire, in 37 strands of 340 wires each, to make the 24-inch-thick suspension cable. Suspenders were hung from the cables, and the steel roadbed was attached to them. The concrete roadway was poured. The bridge was opened.
Ed Tollman, 49, who lives in St. Ignace and crosses the bridge three times a week, worked on spinning the cables and attaching the steel road sections to the suspenders.
"I come out of the Navy and got a job on the bridge," he recalls. He had been a boilermaker on the USS Rowe, a destroyer, and soon found himself 500 feet above water walking along a six-foot-wide cyclone fence catwalk. Heights never bothered him. "The ironworkers in them days were a bunch of hard-nosed people," he says.
He remembers spending nearly 48 hours on a pier in the center of the Straits as a November storm assaulted the construction crew, preventing them from being ferried to shore. He loved it.
"I wished they'd build another one alongside it so I could work on it, too."
Ironworkers, says Dave Rees, "are good people. They enjoy life." The 57-year-old Rees, who lives near Pittsburgh, is director of construction procedure for American Bridge, the company that built the bridge. He spent the spring, summer and fall of 1956 in a rented home in St. Ignace -- "one of the greatest years" of his life -- while he worked with Steinman on the bridge.
Rees recalls seeing Steinman often at the construction site. "He walked up to the St. Ignace tower on the catwalks (while) the spinning wheels (stretching cable) were going by, and I remember him saying, "What beautiful music.' "
Vern Erskine, 58, lives in Moran, about 15 miles north of the bridge. He inspected the work, "to see that all the rivets (there are about six million of them in the bridge) were in tight."
"I think the bridge is the greatest thing that's ever happened," he says.
The Mackinac Bridge became a bridge in the summer of 1957 when the last drift pin went into place on the last section of Mackinac Bridge steel. "They released that pin, and it just slid right in. It stood right in place," Erskine remembers.
Erskine says he remembers something else, too, almost every time he crosses the bridge. On July 6, 1956, two ironworkers fell about 540 feet to their deaths when the catwalk snapped. "You think about those guys, those fellows who fell off the catwalk." Another worker, a diver, died of the bends. One fell into a caisson and was killed. One drowned in a pier cofferdam.
At 2 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1957, the Mackinac Bridge was opened. The toll was $3.25 a passenger car.
Gov. Williams accommodated press photographers that day by climbing onto a "piece of road equipment with wheels 12 feet high," he recalled. He posed for pictures. Photographers urged him to start the machine and drive it a bit. He did.
"I put it in reverse and almost went off the bridge."
Williams then had the opportunity to be the first official driver to cross the 26,000-foot-long bridge, but he says he didn't have a current driver's license. His wife, Nancy, drove across instead.
But the one thing Williams also recalls about opening day was how all those who doubted, all those who wrote against the bridge, all those who teased privately about "Soapy's folly" now clamored to be part of the celebration.
Newspapers around Michigan and in many Midwestern cities heralded the event.
-- "Fabulous" -- The Grand Rapids Press
-- "Great Highway in the Sky" -- The Detroit News
-- "Michigan Is One!" -- The Detroit Times, in two-inch-tall letters
-- "Colossal" -- The Midland Daily News
-- "Our Great State Is United!" -- The Detroit Free Press
The ironworkers, recalled Erskine, had loads of private celebrations in bars around the Straits.
From their faith a bridge was born.
And so this bridge across the Straits, even more clever than a string of birch-bark canoes, has been carrying passengers between Michigan and Michigan for almost 25 years now.
Few today would argue that it was a mistake. The total bond issue will be paid in full in 1986, eight years ahead of schedule.
The fare for a passenger car is down to $1.50. By late April, more than 43 million vehicles had crossed Big Mac.
Some things that made up life along the Straits before the bridge, of course, are gone. The ferries, for one.
During deer season, lines south of the Straits often stretched 15 miles as cars inched north. Gasoline trucks patrolled the shoulder of U.S. 23 and U.S. 27 and U.S. 31 to replenish tanks of cars in line.
At the Mackinaw City dock, kids made change selling popcorn to people who waited. Once State Police busted a crap game that literally floated the Straits aboard a ferry.
George Lloyd, the proud lakes captain, was given other work by the state. He retired in 1964 from a job raising and lowering a drawbridge in Cheboygan.
The ferry Vacationland is somewhere along the Pacific shore of British Columbia. Another ferry was sold for $25,000 and became a potato storage bin.
Soapy Williams, who still marvels at the bridge, sits in a paneled office on the 14th floor of the Lafayette Building -- a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Most of the Mackinac Bridge Authority members who helped build the span are dead.
The authority itself will die in about four years when the bonds sold nearly 30 years ago are paid off, explained Charles T. Fisher III, chairman of the authority and president of National Bank of Detroit. The bridge will go to the state, which Fisher assumes "will maintain some kind of toll." Fisher's father, Charles Fisher Jr., was a member of the original bridge authority.
Larry Rubin, at 69, still sits in his office in the authority's building alongside the toll booths on the St. Ignace side.
"I have a feeling there's a piece of me in the bridge," he says. He's had two houses since settling in St. Ignace (with his wife, Olga, and son, David) "both designed so you can see the bridge -- even flat in bed."
If the bridge were to be built today, the estimated cost would be $296 million.
Next year the Brooklyn Bridge turns 100. Officals in New York have retained the Steinman firm to oversee $150 million in repair costs for that bridge and others across the Hudson and East rivers.
The Mackinac Bridge, says bridge engineer Lum Doyle, is in pretty good shape. How long will it stand? Oh, 300 years, ventures Doyle. But, he adds, if it stands 300 years, it'll probably stand 400 years. If that long, probably 500 years.
As the man and the poet who designed it once said, "a bridge forever."
(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
[ Back To Technology News's Homepage ]