The Mackinac Bridge spans the Straits of Mackinac connecting the peninsulas of Michigan. Nearly five miles in length, the bridge remains one of the greatest engineering projects of the 21st Century.
The history of the Mackinac Bridge goes all the way back to the 1880s, when the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City was built. People in Michigan recognized the need for a similar suspension style bridge connecting Michigan’s two peninsulas.
Later, during the Great Depression, a bridge over the Straits became a sticking point between Michigan Democrats and Republicans. Democrats urged the project on, but most Republicans thought the bridge was waste of money. Republican Representative Mapes noted in the Sault Ste. Marie Evening News, in 1934, that a bridge between the Straits was a “wild fantasy of the imagination.” Despite opposition, Representative Prentiss Brown and Senator Arthur Vandenberg approached Congress, urging them to make the bridge across the Straits of Mackinac a public works project to help unemployed workers in the area. Congress and President Roosevelt dismissed the project, as the total projected cost was $35 million—much more than the government intended to spend on the project.
As the economy improved in the ‘40s and ‘50s more people traveled to the UP because the Civilian Conservation Corp restored and improved thousands of acres of forests specifically to draw tourism dollars. Mackinaw City and St. Ignace became overwhelmed with visitors waiting to get on ferries to cross the Straits. Waits to get across the Straits at times spanned over a day on weekends and holidays! During the winter, crossing the Straits by ferry were treturous. In Michigan History Magazine’s Mackinac Bridge 50th Anniversary issue, Van D. Baser recalled when the ferry he rode got stuck in ice: “I believe we ere on that ferry for twenty-four houes while we waited for a Coast Guard cutter…to come and cut us free.” Clearly the outdated ferry system needed replacement.
By the 1950s, serious plans and surveys of the Straits took place in order to design a suspension bridge. Dr. David B. Steinmen took on the task and designed the structure to withstand gale force winds, snow, ice, waves, water currents, and even the possibility of a freighter hitting one of the pillions. By 1954, plans and funds were secured and construction of the bridge began.
In just over three years, the Mackinac Bridge was completed. Sadly five men gave their lives during the construction of it and a memorial was built in their honor. Ceremonies took place on November 1, 1957, opening the Mackinac Bridge to traffic. The once two to three hour ferry ride now took minutes and conseqently commerce and toursim increased in throughout the area.
Once a year part of the Mackinac Bridge is closed off for the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk. Walking across the superstructure is a humbling experience and is a wonderful event to participate in. One can’t help but marvel at the strength of the structure and its massive steel upwrites and cables, yet the Mackinac Bridge effortlessly spans the Straits.