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Mighty Mac: Bridging the Mackinac Straits

Jeffrey Syken

Many said it would be impossible; the geography and climatic conditions of the Straits of Mackinac separating the upper and lower peninsulas of the State of Michigan were too difficult to overcome. Certainly the need for a bridge existed and calls for one started in the 1880s, especially after the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) linked the separate cities of Brooklyn and New York across the wide East River. As well, with Mackinac Island becoming a seasonal vacation spot in the late 19th Century, the need for a bridge attracted powerful advocates. However, it would be the post-WWI boom in automobile ownership that would make a bridge a priority. During the fall deer hunting season, traffic would backup for many miles at the Mackinaw City ferry dock; waiting impatiently for their turn to be transported by car ferry to St. Ignace - on the opposing north shore of the Straits - and the wilderness of the upper peninsula beyond.

Additional ferry service helped, but still the problem persisted becoming chronic as car ownership swelled, particularly in the post-WWII era. It would be the experience of a St. Ignace native one frigid winter’s day that would make all the difference. A 30yo attorney at the time, Prentiss M. Brown needed to be in Lansing, Michigan to argue a case before the State Supreme Court. To get there, he needed to catch a train in Mackinaw City, but the ferries were ice-bound in the frozen Straits – a common occurrence in winter. Desperate to get across, he tried walking over the ice but by the time he reached the other side many hours later, his train had left. That experience would stay with him and convince him unconditionally of the need for a bridge across the Straits. As a U.S. Senator from the great State of Michigan in later years, he would work tirelessly and selflessly to see the bridge built, earning for himself the well-deserved title: “Father of the Mackinac Bridge.”

A causeway had been constructed (1939-1941) from the St. Ignace shore extending 4,200-feet into the Straits in anticipation of a bridge. December 7th 1941 put those plans on hold for the duration of WWII, but the dream of a bridge remained alive – especially in the mind of one the 20th Century’s greatest bridge engineers: Dr. David B. Steinman. By the early 1950s, Steinman had provided a plan for a five-mile long bridge including a 3,800-foot (main-span) suspension bridge with multiple truss spans that would link the two peninsulas permanently. The bridge would be designed to resist all ice pressures and wind forces – and then some. Financing the bridge was the next hurdle, but with the successful sale of revenue bonds secured, the construction of the bridge was assured. It took four construction seasons and the lives of five workmen, but the great bridge opened for business the first day of November 1957. Ever since, it has served the people of Michigan well, uniting a formerly geographically divided state and serving as the crowning achievement of D.B. Steinman’s long and distinguished career.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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