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Dick DeMara, center with microphone, has the crowd entranced with his stories of building Big Mac.

BRIDGEBUILDER: At 86, DeMara Recalls High Life on Mackinac Bridge

July 11, 2015       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Dick DeMara always draws a crowd when he talks about his high life nearly 60 years ago.

DeMara, a longtime Bay Cityan, was one of about two thousand iron workers building the Mackinac Bridge in 1956-57.

He's been giving the same presentation on the building of the bridge for 58 years, without notes or a script.

DeMara reprised his bridge story for a packed house Saturday at the Bay County Historical Museum. He was introduced by Judy Jeffers, past president of the historical society, who worked on Mackinac Island summers while the bridge was being built.

He was a member of Local 25 of the Iron Workers, out of Detroit, actually the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

At age 27, DeMara was glad to trade a job working for Plymouth Industries in Cheboygan that had a contract with Argus Camera in Ann Arbor at $1.60 per hour for one at $3.50 per hour even if it was highly dangerous.

He took pictures of every ship that went under the bridge while he was aloft. Most memorable was the Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw. When the Mackinaw came to Cheboygan in 1944, he and other students were let out of school for the occasion. Now retired, she is a museum in Mackinaw City.

The Vacationland was another of the ships passing, he recalled. It was one of the original state car ferries used before the bridge was built to get folks from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper. The massive ship carried 150 cars at once. After the bridge opened, the Vacationland moved around and finally was sold to a company in Alaska for oil rig support. The ship sank in the Pacific in 1987 while being towed to China for scrap.

Although five workers died while the five and a half mile long bridge was being built, DeMara maintains the job was safe. He does admit, however, that prowling about on 10 foot wide catwalks 500 feet above the Straits in the rain "got a little slick and hairy up there some times."

As an employee of the American Bridge Company, one of the contractors on the $70 million two year project, DeMara has recollections you won't get reading a standard history of the bridge.

He noted that the causeway leading to the bridge was in place long before construction started.

The planned route of the bridge was moved 35 feet north toward St. Ignace, accounting for a little crick in its path.

There are 340 strands of 2 1/4 inch cable, amounting to 41,000 miles of wire, in the bridge's structure.

The cables were squeezed together into a 24 1/2 inch diameter bundle to fit inside the castings of the superstructure. DeMara recalls sliding down the cable bundles on a piece of plywood, which was fine except for the steel tabs on the wrapping that jutted out from the bundle. "First went the plywood, then the Carhartt's," he quipped.

Workers would take the ferry out to the bridge site from Cheboygan each day. "They wanted to charge us, but we weren't making that kind of money," he joked.

They rode up to the bridge in a basket that was lowered to the waterline. "Now they have elevators," he said.

Caissons 116 feet in diameter were filled with ore from ships that came to the site. Anchor piers were seated 100 feet down.

The towers were made in Pennsylvania and were brought by barge to the bridge site. The barges were sunk to put the towers in place, he recalled.

Working high aloft posed difficult problems for normal daily operations. Before carpenters built a high rise potty for the men, people on passing ships often were surprised by unpleasant sprinkles, he laughed. "They really didn't know what it was."

The bridge was opened Nov. 1, 1957 when Gov. G. Mennen Williams drove the first car across. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world at that time.

Dick was quoted in The Iron Worker Magazine when the 50th anniversary of the bridge was celebrated in 2007. "If you worked on the Big Mac you worked on the big job. Ordinary men with extraordinary skills did it. I was up on the wire 50 years ago from beginning to end."

DeMara had another career that brought him into the public eye: as Brig. Gen. of the Michigan National Guard. He enlisted at 18 in 1947 on graduation from Cheboygan High School. In 1954 he was commissioned a second lieutenant; in 1983 he made general.

He was involved in training in Germany during the Korean Conflict and was assigned to help put down the riots in Detroit in 1967.

Born in 1929 in Detroit, Dick DeMara has memories of life activities few can match, especially his high life above the Straits of Mackinac.

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
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