Reflecting on Mackinac Bridge History this Labor Day

We asked editor Jeff Smith for a favorite Traverse Magazine story about the Mackinac Bridge to commemorate September 5’s Labor Day Bridge Walk. He reached into the archive for this wonderful piece about Mackinac Bridge history by Jon Olson, which ran in the November 1997 edition.

All photos courtesy of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.


It was a risky proposition from the beginning, it struggled to pay its debts in its youth and adolescence, and, on its 40th birthday, the Mackinac Bridge—still one of the world’s most inspiring structures—has brought many benefits but achieved only some of the goals set for it by the state that gave it life.

From the northern tower of the Mackinac Bridge, the world looks like a photograph taken through a fisheye lens. The water all about is blue and alive; it twinkles and plays and flashes little half-moons of white at you like quick bright smiles. The upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan swell out from either end of the bridge into vast uneven bodies of green. The tower seems to sway, or that may be your unsteady legs. From the cream-colored shoulders of the iron pillar, green cables sweep down and the roadway dangles from them on wires that look like harp strings. It is 55 stories to the water.

The Mackinac Bridge is a member of America’s royal family of big bridges. It crosses a five-mile stretch of water. In the center of the span stands a 1.4-mile suspension bridge that is the longest in the world [update: today the bridge is fifth longest in the world and longest in the Western Hemisphere]. To students of the art, the Mackinac vies with a small handful of others for the title of the world’s loveliest bridge, and it is the only big suspension bridge in North America set in a rural environment, linking Mackinaw City, population 1,000, with St. Ignace, population 2,800.

As big bridges go, the Mackinac carries light traffic: roughly 4.6 million vehicles last year—a volume that the Golden Gate achieves in about two months, and New York’s George Washington Bridge reaches every three weeks. But the Mackinac has a different, more important function than simply conveying people: holding Michigan together.

Almost five decades ago, the people who planned and built the Mackinac Bridge had tangible goals in mind: They wanted to ease the flow of people and goods between the two regions; to relieve the isolation of the Upper Peninsula; and to improve commerce and economic opportunity in all of Northern Michigan. But they also were driven by the more abstract ideal of unifying socially and culturally a state so strangely divided by geography.

Workers are placing a winch on the catwalk. The winch was a motor-driven hoisting machine used to pull the sections of the temporary catwalk into position. June 16, 1956.

On its 40th anniversary—this month—the bridge has succeeded in some ways more than in others. Some 92 million vehicles have crossed the structure, drawing money to and creating jobs for people who live north of the Straits. Especially in the last decade or so, the bridge has been arguably the most important element in making the U.P. Michigan’s fastest-growing tourist region.

But in other ways the impact of the bridge is curiously muted. The population of the Upper Peninsula has hardly changed since the bridge was built, the rugged landscape is barely altered, and the U.P. still has only one 50-mile stretch of divided highway—good things, no doubt, but unexpected ones. More importantly, many residents of the U.P. still perceive themselves as living in a place detached from Michigan, in a not-quite-affiliated appendage of Wisconsin, or, more often, in a world unto itself—in, as they themselves say, the land of the “Yoopers.”

Land’s End

Waterways were the highways of Native Americans and the European pioneers, and the region around the Straits of Mackinac was important long before the world had ever heard of Detroit. In the colonial era, control of the Straits imparted a military advantage, and the passageway was guarded by forts built at present-day Mackinaw City, Mackinac Island and St. Ignace.

Before the bridge, the peninsulas were linked in the winter by ice that was sometimes crossable, and by an irregular ferry service that was established in 1881. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 inspired a desire for a permanent link, but it was seven decades before the first cement was poured.

By the 1940s, the automobile was well established. By 1952, five state-owned ferries with a total capacity of 500 vehicles plied the volatile Straits, and the region had the maritime feel of Puget Sound, except the nearest big city was 280 miles away. At hunting season and in summer the ferries backed up with traffic, but the boats were otherwise modestly busy, and the Upper Peninsula remained a land largely ignored by the masses of Michiganders who lived downstate; an economic island, a place where the pavement ended.

An Unlikely Undertaking

It could easily be that way today. The bridge was a dubious enterprise from the beginning, and it was only a propitious combination of people and events that gave us the structure we so take for granted.

Larry Rubin, the first and longest-serving executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, tells the story behind the bridge in his 1985 book, “Bridging the Straits,” and in an interview.

By 1950, public and political opinion largely supported a bridge, with just the crabbiest politicians and a sprinkling of others opposed. But an economic justification proved difficult. The State of Michigan thought enough of the project to appoint the six-member Mackinac Bridge Authority—led by former U.S. Sen. Prentiss Brown, a St. Ignace native—to work on it, but not enough to risk more than one token dollar of state money on its construction. The state legislature believed that the toll revenues from the bridge would be sufficient to pay back the loans it would take to build it, but when a bonding plan was developed, the nation’s biggest investment houses took a look, sniffed, and turned up their noses.

To them, the water looked impossibly wide, the project’s owner had nothing invested in it, and the idea of linking two communities with a total population of less than 4,000 by means of a world-class structure costing $100 million—enough in today’s dollars to build two domed, major-league baseball stadiums—had the stink of a bad bet.

Riveter's cages attached to the sides of the north tower and an elevator delivering materials.

Riveter’s cages attached to the sides of the north tower and an elevator delivering materials. October 14, 1955.

It wasn’t until several bond deals had proved non-starters and at least one attempt had failed that Michigan lawmakers were convinced to take a financial stake in the bridge. Even then, they were timid, agreeing to an annual payment of $417,000 to operate and maintain the bridge—less than the state’s ferry service was losing annually anyway. This was in May 1953, and the Bridge Authority had until Dec. 31 to finance the bridge or the deal was off.

In October, a man named Jim Abrams, vice president at Allen & Company—an investment firm that in Rubin’s words “was not considered big league”—attended a World Series game in Yankee Stadium and learned from a friend there that the Mackinac Bridge Authority was desperate for a backer. By November 11 he was sitting down at a table at the Drake Hotel in New York with Bridge Authority representatives, half a million dollars in earnest money in his pocket, an idea in his head, and a heart full of confidence.

He proposed a complicated, two-tiered financing structure that would pay some investors more than others, but give them higher risk. It was novel and unlikely, but it worked. On December 17, the Mackinac Bridge Authority accepted a bid for bonds worth $99.8 million. Any later and the holidays would have intervened, interest rates would have changed, the legislature’s time limit would have expired and the project would have died.

The Human Cost         

So the bridge was built. It took almost four years, employing 350 engineers, 3,500 laborers at the site, and 7,500 at other locations. It consumed 1 million tons of steel and concrete, 42,000 miles of cable, 6 million rivets and bolts, and cost five men their lives: A diver died of the bends; a man fell 40 feet into a steel chamber and died of head injuries; and a third man fell from a beam four feet above the water and drowned.

The last two to die, Jack Baker, 28, and Robert Koppen, 27, were working their first day on the job. They were on top of the northern tower when a safety line holding some chain-link fencing broke and they were pitched 552 feet into the Straits. Baker’s body was retrieved from the surface of the water; Koppen’s body was never found.

Great Expectations      

The bridge opened for business on November 1, 1957. The ferry service across the Straits ended the same day, putting 400 people out of work. The ferry service was one of St. Ignace’s largest employers, and this was the bridge’s first permanent impact on the lives of people in the U.P. Some ferry workers got jobs with the Bridge Authority, which employs about 100, and the rest were offered jobs with the state highway department, but some declined.

In their last year of operation, the ferries carried more than 900,000 vehicles; in the bridge’s first year, almost 1.4 million crossed—a sizable increase, but far below the 1.7 million projected by a private consultant. Both Rubin and Walter North, controller and later executive secretary of the Bridge Authority, believe the projections were bloated to help market the bonds. And, in reality, 1.4 million turned out to be a lot.

“The first year there was curiosity traffic … and then there was another eight or nine years before it got back up to that level,” says North, today a state senator. Traffic statistics confirm this. “It didn’t look like there would be tons of traffic. There were actually jokes about ‘A toll booth to where?’ and pictures of a bear collecting fares.”

Preparing to lift suspended roadway truss section into position.

Preparing to lift suspended roadway truss section into position. June 20, 1957.

Traffic was so disappointing that fares had to be raised twice within the first few years of operation—to $3.75 a car—to meet the revenue requirements of the bonds. Then, in 1969, with the help of state subsidies, the toll was dropped to $1.50, where it has stayed ever since. Traffic jumped 22 percent that year, then resumed a slow upward climb with occasional setbacks.

Today, the bonds are long since paid off and the bridge more than pays its way. But the Bridge Authority still owes the state more than $70 million in subsidies. As Rubin points out, this is the kind of debt other states have forgiven on unusual projects, but Michigan still collects the payments.

St. Ignace Sidestepped

But “A toll booth to where?” is still a reasonable question.

The answer is St. Ignace, among other places, except the bridge bypasses downtown St. Ignace, sending many travelers north on I-75 or west on U.S. 2 instead of bringing people into the city’s center, as the ferries had.

George Yshinsky, 59, has felt the difference. As a kid, he sold ice cream bars on hot summer days to people waiting for a boat—”buy them for a nickel and sell them for a dime”—and his father owned a grocery store, gas station, and docking service downtown—valuable businesses in the days when cars came through by the thousands.

“Had the bridge not been built, I’d probably be a very rich man right now,” Yshinsky says.

As the owner of State-Wide Real Estate of St. Ignace, he does OK. And he believes that Prentiss Brown, who led the push for a bridge, “had a vision, and he was right that we had to have the bridge for the sake of the whole U.P.” But the cost of a bridge was that “our little town of St. Ignace kind of got left by the wayside—for many years, we were just a parking lot for Mackinac Island.”

Over a century, ferries have run millions of people to Mackinac Island from St. Ignace, and even more from Mackinaw City. For Arnold Transit, the percentage of island traffic departing St. Ignace rose from about 40 percent to roughly half the total after the bridge went up. The Arnold line, together with its competitors, Shepler’s and the Star Line, today take about 900,000 people annually to the island, making it among the state’s top tourist attractions.

But St. Ignace is no longer just a parking lot. Once possessing a blue-collar economy built on ferries and seafaring jobs on Great Lakes freighters, it is now almost totally dependent on tourism, says Pam Matelski, of the St. Ignace Tourism Association. Its downtown, which follows the contour of a scalloped-shaped waterfront and is lined with restaurants and motels—more than 1,400 beds in 39 places to stay in the area, says Matelski—is attractive and accommodating, and genuine in a way that many tourist havens are not. But this was a slow transformation—and it took place without any significant change in population.

Everybody “just thought that the U.P. would boom a lot more than what it did,” says Dick Becker, who has lived in St. Ignace all of his 57 years.

Becker is the manager of Griffin Beverage Co., a St. Ignace beer distributorship, where he began working just a couple of years after the bridge was christened. He perceives that the bridge was a big help to the beer business, and sales of course have increased with the passing years, but Griffin Beverage has no more retail outlets on its client list today—about 75—than it did almost four decades ago, Becker says. 

Erecting the east catwalk between the north and south towers.

Erecting the east catwalk between the north and south towers. June 15, 1956.

Becker and his peers remember the excitement of the coming of the bridge. During construction, hundreds of ironworkers and their families swarmed the shore on both sides of the water, imparting a boomtown atmosphere to the region. But when the workmen left, the volume of bridge traffic itself may have seemed anticlimactic, especially in St. Ignace.

But former Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl, who grew up in St. Ignace and still visits eight to 10 times a year, is not the only one who wouldn’t have wanted the bridge to anchor itself right downtown—a geographic difficulty in any case.

“I think it would have really damaged St. Ignace if all the bridge traffic had gone through town,” he says. “If it hadn’t worked out the way it did—now this is a very chauvinistic thing for me to say—it would look like Mackinaw City.”

Mackinaw City’s Rebirth   

And what’s so bad about Mackinaw City?

Nothing, if tourism’s your thing. On a summer day, a dollar bill that greets the morning in the wallet of a tourist might see daylight a dozen times as it churns up and down Central Avenue as payment and change in purchase after purchase of pecan logs, pizza, bike rental, burgers, fudge and gimcracks.

Forty-five years ago, Mackinaw City thought its days were numbered.

“Back when they were building the bridge, a lot of business people thought it would devastate the northern part of the Lower Peninsula,” says Brad Jones, of the Mackinaw Area Tourist Bureau. “They thought people would bypass us on the way to the Upper Peninsula. But actually the opposite is true—we were a dead end, and now there’s a lot more to see and do.”

Mackinaw City’s blossoming in the wake of the bridge has a lot to do with geography: Interstate 75, which races up the center of the Lower Peninsula and crosses the bridge into the U.P. , bisects the little city and gives it big play, with three exits. In 1996, Jones estimates, about half of the 4.6 million vehicles that went over the bridge in either direction stopped there.

North Mackinac Bridge tower. Placing steel section, 2nd tier, west leg.

North Mackinac Bridge tower. Placing steel section, 2nd tier, west leg. July 5, 1955.

Mackinaw City treats the bridge as an attraction, Jones says. Walkways and benches show it off to good effect. Throw in nearby Mackinac Island and a cultivation of the region’s history—embodied in Fort Michilimackinac, a 1950s re-creation of an 18th-century wooden stockade—and you have a tourist destination.

The full arc of Mackinaw City’s economic transformation is expressed in miniature in the life and career of Mackinaw native J.C. Stilwell, 68. When he was young he sold hotdogs and worked as a fireman on the ferries. When the bridge’s ironworkers came to town he was pumping gas for $1.50 an hour. He got a job with the bridge builders, and a raise in pay to $3.50—almost $20 an hour in today’s money—and he worked plenty of overtime when that rate was doubled.

When the bridge was done, Stilwell stayed with ironwork, spending more than 30 years in the trade, working on jobs all over the state. But all the while he was pouring money into businesses back in his hometown. He received a piece of property out in the country from his mother—and the 26-unit Flamingo Motel now stands there. He bought and fixed up “a shack” on Central Avenue, and for the last 35 years Mama Mia’s Pizza has occupied the spot. And, consistent with the “bridge as attraction” philosophy, he has installed the Mackinac Bridge Museum on the second floor, to which customers are lured by a tape that broadcasts the story of the bridge on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.

For anybody going north, “you have to go through this way; without you wanna go down by Chicago and Wisconsin and come up,” says Stilwell, a fit man who dresses like a cowboy and still has the mien of an ironworker.

Like St. Ignace, Mackinaw City has not seen a big influx of year-round residents, but for each of its 1,000 inhabitants there are now three hotel beds in the immediate area, for a total of 3,000. That’s twice the number that St. Ignace claims, and a huge change from the 400 or 500 that Jones estimates the area had four decades ago.

The Country Beyond

If the bridge has played out differently in Mackinaw City than it has in St. Ignace, its impact on the rest of the Upper Peninsula is yet another story.

Drive west and north from the northern end of the span, and the U.P. sprawls before you. It is vast, and it is still wild. It constitutes 28 percent of Michigan’s land area, but harbors only 3 percent of the people. It has just one extended stretch of divided highway—50 miles from the bridge to the Soo—and to get from St. Ignace to the western end of the U.P. will cost you almost a day’s drive on winding, two-lane roads through some of the most rugged and beautiful landscape in the Midwest—300 miles to Ironwood, farther than to Detroit.

Environmentalists of the 1950s, such as Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, feared that a bridge to the U.P. would be an addict’s needle, infecting the pristine region with carloads of people and the garbage they would bring. Voelker—an outdoorsman and a writer (his novel, Anatomy of a Murder, was made into a 1959 film starring Jimmy Stewart, shot on location in the U.P.)—”said they oughtta blow the damn bridge up, only half in jest,” says Sen. North. “He didn’t want people to discover his favorite fishing holes and whatnot.”

But 40 years after the bridge, Voelker’s fishing holes may still be hidden. The U.P. claims Hiawatha National Forest, Tahquamenon Falls, the Pictured Rocks lakeshore, the Porcupine Mountains, Isle Royale, and so many other parks, preserves, refuges and forests that 40 percent of the land area is protected by the state or federal government, with another 20 percent held by forestry corporations.

It is these natural sites, together with a handful of Indian casinos, the Soo Locks and the Mackinac area that make Dan Spotts, assistant professor in the Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center at Michigan State University, assert “there’s a larger concentration of significant attractions in the Upper Peninsula than any other region of the state.”

Put those attractions together with marketing by the Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association (UPTRA), and Spotts has identified the U.P. in recent years as Michigan’s fastest-growing travel and recreation area.

Lifting a suspended span stiffening truss unit from a barge to its center span position.

Lifting a suspended span stiffening truss unit from a barge to its center span position. June 20, 1957.

The bridge figures in there somewhere, but its influence is tough to quantify when you talk about the U.P. as a whole. Tom Nemacheck, who runs UPTRA from Iron Mountain, is emphatic: “I know undoubtedly that the single largest thing that ever happened to tourism in the U.P. is the bridge.”

But if the bridge is such an important factor, why hasn’t it brought more residents to the U.P., whose population, at 314,000, has budged less than 4 percent since 1950, while the state as a whole has increased by 50 percent?

Maybe the question should be: Why has the population of the U.P., in spite of the bridge, not declined?

Economically, the U.P. has had a tough time of it. Its unemployment rate typically rides significantly higher than the state’s generally, and it has changed in recent decades from a place where mining companies, forestry companies, papermakers, and automakers employed thousands in relatively high-paying jobs in the western U.P. to a dependency on lower-paying retail and service jobs, mostly in the east—and many of them related to tourism. A 1995 study by Spotts and his associates identified Mackinac County as having 116 tourism-related jobs per 1,000 residents—the highest such ratio in the state.

A lot of jobs are provided by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which claims to be the U.P.’s largest employer. The tribe’s 3,300 workers fill an array of positions in dozens of businesses with conglomerate sales of $300 million—convenience stores, gas stations, RV parks, sign-makers, nine hotel properties and, especially, five casinos, which alone employ 2,400, according to tribal spokesman John Hatch.

The tribe built its first two casinos in 1985 and 1987, in the Soo and St. Ignace. Today they are among the top five tourist attractions in the state, powerful economic engines that may be the largest entities pulling people and money into the eastern end of the U.P. Four million visitors stopped at the casinos last year, says Hatch. He believes a third of those people came from or through the Lower Peninsula—a volume difficult to imagine without a bridge.

More Than Money

But the bridge was intended to mean more than dollars and cents. It was intended to represent an emotional investment in the people of the U.P., to stand as a symbol of a state united.

“We’d probably be part of Wisconsin if they didn’t put the bridge up,” John Hatch says.

That’s easy to say in the Soo, 230 miles from Wisconsin, but when you’re in Ironwood you’re as far west as St. Louis and closer to the capitals of four other states and one Canadian province than you are to Lansing.

The truth is, old allegiances die hard. As a kid in St. Ignace before the bridge, Tony Earl says he didn’t get down to “the mitten” that often, and that Wisconsin held greater allure. Nemacheck says not much has changed for the central and western parts of the U.P. “Sports allegiances and all of that, it’s all Wisconsin.”

Quite simply, Wisconsin is closer to most of the U.P. than is lower Michigan, and proximity counts for a lot. To this day, for example, Wisconsin utilities serve parts of the U.P., and YMCA swimming programs, even as far east as the Soo, are served out of the Milwaukee regional office. “From the central U.P. to the west, we get a lot more visitors from Wisconsin and Illinois that don’t cross the bridge” than visitors from lower Michigan, Nemacheck says.

But even more than Wisconsin, U.P. residents harken to their own land, bridge or no bridge. The U.P. still has its own state fair, the third week in August in Escanaba, and people are united by a sense that “many of the people look at the U.P., downstate, as one big pine tree,” says Mike Lentz, director of the Marquette County Y. “Lansing has, like, zero clue … about what goes on here.”

“It’s still, everybody in the U.P. is a Yooper,” says Tony Earl. “The people in the mitten don’t understand us at all.”

The Iron Clasp

Driving from west to east through the U.P. on U.S. 2, you might start looking for the bridge at Naubinway. You crane your neck to see through the trees at Epoufette and Brevort, and finally round a turn past Point Aux Chenes and the bridge suddenly stands before you, about seven miles away, the towers rising out of the emerald water like the spires of Oz. Trees and water and sky and the towers holding up a filament are all you see, and it’ll take your breath away.

What does it mean? What has it done? Tough to say.

“It’s a majestic thing. I mean, there’s nothing like it in the United States,” says Tom Nemacheck.

Says Larry Rubin, looking out his picture window at a perfect view of the span:
“I never tire of it.”

Jon Olson is a regional editor at Journal Communications in Milwaukee. [email protected]


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