The breathtaking Mackinac Bridge
By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News
The Mackinac Bridge which straddles the Straits of Mackinac connecting Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas stands as a monument to man's ingenuity and determination.
Building it took three years, 2,500 men, 85,000 blueprints, 71,300 tons of structural steel, 466,3000 cubic yards of concrete, 41,000 miles of cable wire and millions of steel rivets and bolts!
Summer 1989 Leslie Pluhar made the history books as being the first person whose vehicle fell off the bridge since it opened in 1957. The 1987 Yugo was blown off the bridge during high winds, and plunged over 150 feet to Lake Michigan below. It was in early September that I remember watching them pull up the car from the beach at Mackinac city, using one of those quarter binoculars. I was 12 and on vacation with my sister and grandparents (I'm from north of Detroit). We took a trip to Mackinac every year in early September, and it was a bizarre ocurrence that our visit coincided with this tragic event. Not that my life's history is relevent here.
Construction began in May 1954 and ended when the superstructure opened to traffic on November 1, 1957.
But the story of the Straits and the desire to connect Michigan's two peninsulas began much earlier.
The peninsulas and the Great Lakes were created by glaciers thousands of years ago as retreating ice masses ground mountains into hills, gouged out river courses and dug deep basins into which melting water poured. Glacier ice crushed the land linking the Upper and Lower Peninsulas , carving out a channel in the bedrock. Waters rushed in creating a barrier between Upper and Lower Michigan.
Anthropologists speculate that copper in the Upper Peninsula was mined by aborigines, the ancestors of the Indians. Artifacts of aboriginal copper have been found throughout the United States.
Descendants of these people, the Algonquins and the Iroquois, knew the territory well and battled for control. The Algonquins dominated northern Michigan. Chippewas, or Ojibways, lived north of the Straits, Ottawas south. The Indians called the area Michilimackinac, which in Algonquin means great road of departure or the jumping-off place.
Native American families roamed the Straits of Mackinac, gathering in large villages to fish for trout, pike, sturgeon, and whitefish. So plentiful were the fish that the native people called these waters home of the fish.
Archaeologists have unearthed prehistoric fishing camps at St. Ignace, Bois Blanc, Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. Bone fishhooks, pottery shards and spearheads document their presence at least 700 years before Europeans arrived in the Straits.
Native people considered Mackinac Island with its towering bluffs a sacred place. Legend holds that Mackinac Island became the first land to appear after the waters of the Great Flood receded. The Great Hare, Michibou, retrieved a grain of sand from the lake bed beneath the waters and blew on it until it expanded into an island. According to the legend , fishermen saw in the glimmering waters near Mackinac Island the image of a turtle's back rising from the water and named this place Land of the Great Turtle.
Even today, native people throughout the Great Lakes region revere the area as a place of great spiritual importance.
The Straits of Mackinac before the bridge. Mackinac Island is at center foreground.
When the first Europeans came to the Straits, the Indians welcomed and shared with them the ancient traditions and riches of Michilimackinac
Jesuit priests and French fur traders, drawn by Mackinac's central location and rich supply of fish and natural resources, established villages during the late seventeenth century. French trappers sought furs, the Jesuits souls.
The first white man to see Michilimackinac, the French explorer Jean Nicolet, was exploring the Great Lakes seeking a hoped-for Northwest Passage, a route to China. Nicolet went through the Straits of Mackinac and became the first known white man to view Lake Michigan.
In 1670, Father Claude Dablon journeyed from his Ojibway mission at Sault Ste. Marie to study the possibility of establishing a mission on Mackinac Island. Dablon encouraged Father Jacques Marquette to bring his refugee band of Huron Indians to Mackinac. The agricultural Hurons found the thin soils of the Island unsuitable for their crops and moved to the more fertile land on the north shore of the Straits. Here Marquette established the mission of St. Ignatius Loyola (today St. Ignace, Mich.) named in honor of the founder of the Jesuit order.
The Jesuits also established the Mission of St. Francis Borgia to serve the Odawa, another agricultural tribe living on the St. Ignace peninsula.
While the Jesuits endeavored to convert the Indians to Christianity, the traders sought out the resources of the pristine lands.
Bridge piers under construction in 1955.
The central location of the Straits of Mackinac made it an ideal home base for the French upper Great Lakes fur trade. French soldiers built the area's first fort at St. Ignace in the 1680s.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Michilimackinac grew and prospered as a strategic military post and trading center. Both British and French soldiers arrived at the straits and established a pattern of military activity that continued for more than two hundred years.
When the British extended their trade and influence into the upper Great Lakes region, the French built forts to hold them back. Michilimackinac controlled the lines of communication between the fur producing areas of the west and the markets in the east
In 1715, French soldiers built Fort Michilimackinac. Over the years control of the area passed between the French and the British. In 1761 Fort Mackinac, in the hands of the British under Lieutenant William Leslye, was attacked by Chippewas led by Chief Pontiac who massacred most of the garrison.
From the beginning of the French settlements to mid-19th century, fur ruled commerce and millions of dollars worth passed through the Straits.
In 1805 Michigan became a territory, with only the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula included.
State Sen. Prentiss M. Brown, the father of the Mackinac Bridge.
In 1830s Lower Michigan had grown in population to qualify for statehood. But an issue with Ohio needed to be resolved. There remained a dispute with Ohio over possession of a seven mile strip of land claimed by both states. War threatened between Michigan and Ohio. The federal government suggested a compromise. The disputed Toledo land parcel went to Ohio, and Michigan got all of the peninsula lying north of the Straits.
Michigan citizens felt the deal unfair, but on January 26, 1837, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill which made Michigan a state composed of two peninsulas. Grumbled one politician who felt sucker-punched by the trade: I wonder why they didn't give us a slice of the moon? It would have been more valuable.
The lack of access between the two peninsulas was a serious problem for development of commerce and attraction of tourist dollars.
In 1887, a group of investors headed by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, opened the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Vanderbilt remarked; "We now have the largest well-equipped hotel of its kind in the world for short season business. Now what we need is a bridge across the Straits."
There was no shortage of plans for linking the two land masses. A floating tunnel was suggested in 1920 by Horatio Earle, Michigan's first state highway commissioner.
Another proposal suggested building a series of causeways and bridges from Cheboygan to Bois Blanc Island to Round Island across the western tip of Mackinac Island and then to St. Ignace.
The proposals failed because financial and physical problems seemed insurmountable.
Boats ferried people and cars back and forth across the Mackinac Straits during the first half of this century. In the late '30s, 400 employees of nine ferries could unload and reload autos, customers and cargo in just 24 minutes. They covered the water highway in 40 minutes before turning around and doing it all again. During peak seasons, the ferries ran around-the-clock. Despite these heroic efforts only 9,000 cars could be handled each day. Sometimes cars awaiting transport backed up as far as Cheboygan, 16 miles away.
Nearing completion in January of 1957.
When Murray D. Van Wagoner became the state highway commissioner in 1937, interest in a bridge across the Straits intensified. The Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority was established, surveys made, and proposals filed. Among the recommendations was a causeway that would extend from St. Ignace 4,200 feet south into shallow water. The state highway department let a contract for the construction of the causeway, which was completed in 1941, but World War II stopped work on the bridge.
In 1947, the legislature abolished the Bridge Authority.
Three years later, bridge backers led by Sen. Prentiss M. Brown won over Gov. G. Mennen Williams and the legislature created another Mackinac Bridge Authority, which took office on June 6, 1950.
Every conceivable study was made: the depths of the water, the rock under the Straits, the currents, the ice, and winds.
The legislature authorized financing and construction on April 30, 1952, with David B. Steinman as designer and chief engineer. As a youngster Steinman sold newspapers in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and told fellow newsboys that "Someday I was going to build bridges like the famous structure that towered above us. They laughed at me."
The former newsboy later designed 400 bridges around the world. But at age 63, Steinman was building his masterpiece -- the Mackinac.
To explain every inch of the project Steinman and his 350 engineers drew up more than 85,000 blueprints.
The 1941 causeway became the starting point. Construction of the foundations began in May, 1954. Workers poured the foundation under water to support the two towers.
Workers build a bridge caisson at Alpena. It would later be floated to the bridge site.
On May 6, 1955, both main tower piers had reached bedrock and construction of the steel towers began July 2. By November 1955, with the towers completed, spinning of the cables began, with completion the following October.
Bridge workers toiled without safety harnesses or nets. Perched high above the waters, they relied on guts and skill. The dangers claimed the lives of a diver, one laborer and three steel workers during the 42-month construction.
The workmen were motivated by pride in the huge project and their respect for Steinman. Recounted one worker, "They finished a job in four seasons that should have taken 10 years. It is the high point of almost all of the workers' lives."
The Mackinac Bridge is the longest uninterrupted crossing over water in the world, with no island to divide it. It measures 26,444 feet -- a little more than five miles. It crosses more than three times as much water as that spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge. The record cost of $99,800,000, tells the size and difficulty of the building project.
The formal dedication of the bridge was delayed, although the structure opened to traffic in November of 1957. Authorities feared the onset of winter, that the grand dedication ceremonies might be hampered by foul weather, so the ceremony was postponed until the following summer.
Of course no one can predict Michigan weather. On Nov. 1, 1957, the weather was warm and balmy, -- a perfect Indian Summer day. On June 26, 1958, the first day of the four-day dedication ceremony, blustery winds howled and well wishers huddled in groups to keep warm.
In 1959, the yacht Britannia with Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II aboard sailed under the magnificent bridge.
Workers lay the roadway in August of 1957.
The bridge inspires fear as well as awe. Each year hundreds of drivers suffering from agoraphobia (fear of high places) seek help from bridge personnel to drive their vehicles over the bridge for them.
On Sept. 10, 1978 three National Guard officers flying a private plane near the bridge got disoriented in a thick fog and crashed into the thick suspension cables of the north tower. Small pieces of the plane found on the bridge deck and an oil spill in choppy waters below gave evidence that the plane fell into the Straits.
In 1989, a tragic accident captured the front pages of state newspapers. Leslie Pluhar's 1987 Yugo, a small car, plunged from the bridge more than 150 feet to the straits below. It was the first vehicle to fall off the five-mile span since it opened. Gale force winds blowing from the northwest helped lift her car off the roadway and over the side. In 1990, a Senate committee recommended replacing the bridge's 36-inch high outer railing with a 48-inch railing that curves inward toward the bridge deck.
The bridge does not attract suicides like the Golden Gate bridge. Lawrence Rubin, executive secretary of the Bridge Authority reflected on the lack of leapers in a News interview in 1977: "I have a theory about that. People who commit suicide like attention. It's peaceful here, and we don't have wire services or television stations and you could jump off this bridge and it might take years before anybody found out."
However, in March, 1997, a sport utility vehicle careened from the bridge and plummeted to the icy straits below. It was later determined that the incident may have been a suicide.
In August, 1997, Daniel Doyle, fell off a scaffold while painting the structure. He survived the 70-foot fall but fell victim to the rough 50-degree waters. Despite these accidents, The bridge has been closed only 38 times in its history.
Workers wrap a main cable high above the straits.
Among the closings, the bridge was shut three times for two minutes when presidents John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S Truman were buried.
It also closed Nov. 10, 1975, when 90 mph winds whipped across the bridge. That same day the 587-foot lake freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing 29 crewmen.
But not all of the bridge tales are tragic.
In 1995 Julie Engel got worried when her boyfriend's truck started to konk out in the middle of the structure. When he pulled into an emergency parking area, a couple of state troopers also pulled over, because it's illegal to stop on the Bridge. Her boyfriend, Andrew Nelson, in the glare of the troopers' flashlights, got on his knees and proposed marriage (to her, not the troopers).
And in 1997, Yvette Johnson hit the jackpot on the Bridge. Returning from the Kewadin Shores Casino in St.Ignace, where she won at slots, she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, midway across the bridge.
A popular Michigan tradition, the annual Labor Day Mackinac Bridge walk, attracts of thousands of energetic residents and visitors to make the five mile hike across the bridge.
More than 116 employees and $3.1 million a year are required to care for the bridge.
Gov. Williams once wrote: The bridge across the Straits of Mackinac ranks with the pyramids, the great hydro-electric dams, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Panama and Suez canals, as one of the wondrous works of the hand and brain of man.
The Mackinac Bridge is more than a gigantic physical structure, more than a mighty engineering feat, more than a link in the nation's new system of modern highways. The Mackinac Bridge is the manifestation, in steel and concrete, of the spirit of Michigan -- a spirit adventurous, unafraid, respectful of the past but eager to meet the future, the spirit of a people for whom no task is too difficult, no job too big.