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Passengers carrying their luggage were forced to walk from ferry boats trapped in the ice at the Straits of Mackinac in the 1930s.

Here's Why We Needed a Bridge Over the Straits of Mackinac

Take a Look at Folks Walking on the Ice From a Stranded Ferry

January 17, 2009       2 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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We've had the Mackinac Bridge only 50 years, since 1958.

But did you know it took 70 years from the time the idea was conceived to get it built?

In other words, 120 years ago the first plan to build a bridge across the Straits of Mackinac was broached.

Yep, tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, a board member of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, posed the idea at the group's first meeting July 1, 1888.

"We now have the largest, well-equipped hotel of its kind in the world for a short season business. Now what we need is a bridge across the Straits."

Autos were lined up more than two miles trying to reach the Straits of Mackinac in this state aerial photo taken near Mackinaw City in 1939.

Actually, a St. Ignace store owner in 1884 had displayed an artist's conception drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, dedicated the year before, and captioned it: "Proposed bridge across the Straits of Mackinac."

In 1920, the state highway commissioner envisioned a floating tunnel from the mainland to the island. Another idea was for a series of bridges and causeways from Cheboygan to Mackinac Island.

In 1923, Michigan's Legislature passed an act setting up the state ferry service, a state publication stated. The steady growth in traffic was slowed only in the Depression year of 1937. From 10,000 vehicles in 1923, traffic across the straits grew to 274,000 in 1937.

In 1928 Gov. Fred Green ordered feasibility study of the bridge proposal. With cost estimated a $30 million, the plan soon was dropped.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority was established by the Legislature in 1934 with the thought that revenue bonds would be issued to finance construction of the proposed bridge.

The State of Michigan published a booklet in 1939 showing these dramatic pictures of the ice-bound straits, with ferry boats stuck and passengers forced to walk to shore.

The publication was a report of the Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority of Michigan, somewhat of a misnomer since there was not to be a bridge for nearly another 20 years.

"Melodramatic yet grimly real is the regularly recurring spectacle of ice-locked ferry boats in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac," the booklet stated. "As recently as last month this scene was re-enacted when jam-packed floes defied the dogged pounding of ferry boats.

"Faced with the prospect of indefinite delay amid anything but comfortable circumstances ferry passengers abandoned their cars and truck and, like Eliza crossing the ice, made their precarious way over treacherous paths to shore."

The publication no doubt was intended to stir the hidebound Michigan Legislature to action, but it didn't work.

"Sick men in an ambulance were forced to wait more than 24 hours for an opportunity to cross this narrow stretch of water.

"A son hurrying to the bedside of his dying mother was trapped for hours in the ice jam.

"There could be no better evidence of need for a bridge or tunnel than the picture of a score or men and women climbing from the decks of a ferry boat to stumble across the jagged ice-field as the only means of completing their crossing."

"Thousands of vacationists have been left stranded for hours at a time, not only on the docks but even on the highways approaching the straits. The situation is especially acute each fall when thousands of deer hunters go to the Upper Peninsula. Motorists have been delayed more than 12 hours due to summer congestion and 3 days due to winter weather conditions.

Winter conditions made travel via boat very difficult between Michigan's Upper & Lower Peninsulas.
Legislators finally were reassured by the successes of New York's George Washington and Iowa's Mississippi River bridges, as well as California's Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

Although Franklin Roosevelt and the Army Corps of Engineers reportedly favored the bridge, his Depression era Public Works Administration declined to take on the project and the idea of a 7,000 feet long causeway from St. Ignace also died aborning.

Red tape wrapped the project when it was found negotiations with the War Department on matters pertaining to national defense and navigation clearances were necessary for any project linking the two peninsulas.

World War II delayed planning that was gaining steam for a double suspension span. In 1947 the bridge authority was abolished by the Legislature, no doubt frustrated by the lack of progress.

A citizens committee got the authority reinstated in 1950. The new law required consultation with the world's foremost long span bridge engineers and traffic experts on feasibility of the project.

In 1953 the Legislature agreed to have the estimated $417,000 annual operating and maintenance cost paid out of gasoline and license plate taxes. That paved the way for private investors to offer and sell $99.8 million worth of bonds.

Ground was broken to build the Mackinac Bridge on May 7, 1954 in ceremonies at St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Designer of the bridge was Dr. David B. Steinman. Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corp. mobilized the largest bridge construction fleet ever assembled to build the foundations. U.S. Steel Corp. furnished the steel and its bridge division built the five mile long bridge that was opened Nov. 1, 1957.

Richard DeMara of Bay City was among hundreds of ironworkers on the job. Five men, including three ironworkers died during the construction phase. Ironworker J.C. Stillwell established a museum at Mama Mia's Pizzeria in Mackinaw City 1980 and has an original 30-minute movie of construction. (See

The Mackinac Bridge is considered the one of the world's most beautiful bridges and is the longest suspension bridge in the Americas, with a total suspended length of 8,614 feet. It is the world's third longest suspension bridge.

The Mackinac Bridge (affectionately called Big Mac) links Michigan's Lower and Upper peninsulas across the Straits of Mackinac linking Lakes Michigan and Huron.

The bridge was completed on November 1, 1957. The bridge was opened to the public and dedicated in June, 1958 with Bay City's F.E. Brown, Consumers Power representative, and others participating. (See July 7, 2008.)

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"The BUZZ" - Read Feedback From Readers!

suzie.617 Says:       On February 16, 2013 at 07:35 PM
I was a baby when we began driving across the bridge and remember stories of the ferry service as my parents had their parents in the UP but my parents lived in Livonia, to this day I love the sight of the bridge and even hearing the name Mackinaw brings back fond memories of my childhood
GaryLThmp Says:       On December 07, 2015 at 10:26 PM
"There could be no better evidence of need for a bridge or TUNNEL than the picture of a score or men and women climbing from the decks of a ferry boat to stumble across the jagged ice-field as the only means of completing their crossing."

I'm curious as to why a tunnel was apparently never seriously proposed. Navigation clearances, the need to stand up to the rigor of Michigan's weather and ice fields during the winter months, collision with aircraft and people falling off the bridge would have been eliminated as considerations in one fell swoop.

It surely wouldn't have seemed any less feasible than the English Channel project undertaken in the 1800s (and stopped and held in limbo for a century out of political obstacles rather than engineering ones). Maybe there were safety concerns over what would happen in case of an accident (which obviously would be a huge concern compared to the short Windsor tunnel)?
Agree? or Disagree?

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.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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