Friday, October 5, 2012

Spanning the Great Lakes

by Bryan Whitledge

Up until the 20th Century, the primary way to traverse the major water crossings in Michigan –the Detroit River, the St. Clair River, the Mackinac Straits, and the St. Marys River – was via water-faring vessels, particularly ferries. The technological advances of the 19th Century associated with the Industrial Revolution brought about the possibility to cross these waterways via bridges and tunnels. The opening of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario in 1910, followed by the Ambassador Bridge in 1929, made getting across the water a simpler and cheaper endeavor than before.

But creating spans across great water in Michigan has not come without controversy. As far back as the 1870s there was talk of either digging a tunnel or erecting a double draw bridge from Detroit to Windsor. In an April 1874 document, Bridge or No Bridge: Address to Citizens at the Meeting called by the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade, proponents of the bridge cited the need for an expedited crossing mechanism to aid the railroad industry and establish Detroit as a hub of rail travel rather than a spur. These proponents noted that plans for a tunnel had been drafted and a small pilot tunnel had been started, but it failed and the high cost made it impractical until better technology would come along.

According to this document, those against the crossing were afraid that such a structure would disrupt vessel traffic on the Detroit River. The anti-bridge group also felt that the effectiveness of the ferry system was good enough to preclude the construction of a bridge at Detroit. No bridge was built in 1874, but the rise of automobile traffic and the desire for an expedited crossing led to the construction of a span that opened in 1929.

Another controversial span was the Mackinac Bridge. Today, the Mighty Mac is a distinctive symbol of Michigan, however, there were some Michiganders vehemently opposed to it in the early days. As told by Lawrence Rubin in Bridging the Straits, erecting a bridge at the Straits had been a dream since the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 19th Century. In the 1950s, when technology and perceived needs caught up to the dream, the idea of the Mackinac Bridge came to fruition. The major controversy surrounding the Bridge was funding. The State Treasurer, D. Hale Brake, was not as enthusiastic about the Bridge as others and he certainly did not want to see it be a “financial burden to the people of Michigan.” He and some of his colleagues from the legislature worked to introduce legislation making the sale of bonds to finance the span difficult. In fact, State Senator Haskell Nichols petitioned the state Supreme Court regarding the legality of the bond and even demanded a referendum be given to the people of Michigan regarding the Bridge. The efforts to block the Mackinac Bridge in the Winter of 1953-54 ultimately failed and the link between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas was open for traffic in 1957.

Today, we take for granted the ease of travel to and from our peninsulas. But these spans have not come easy. The materials documenting the history of these controversial projects as well as materials that document a variety of public works projects across the State of  Michigan can be found at the Clarke Historical Library.