Opening of Mackinac Bridge
On November 1, 1957, the Mackinac Bridge opened. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world at the time.
In the 17th century, the Algonquin people lived near the Straits of Mackinac in an area they called Michilimackinac. Scholars believe this translates to “the Great Turtle,” likely a reference to the shape of Mackinac Island. The Algonquin traded with other tribes on the Straits of Mackinac and the area soon became an important intertribal meeting spot.
As Europeans began to enter they area, they took advantage of the mining and timber resources, eventually making the straits into a major transportation hub. By 1881, three railroads traveled through the area. They joined together to form the Mackinac Transportation Company, a railroad car ferry traveling across the straits, connecting the two peninsulas. In the coming decades highways were built along the eastern shores of the Lower Peninsula, bringing an influx of automobile traffic.
With the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, some locals wondered if such a bridge could be built in Michigan to speed up travel across the straits. Soon the Michigan legislature began to discuss the possibility of a bridge, spurred in part by the fact that the straits had become a popular tourist destination.
Eventually the state of Michigan established its own automobile ferry between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Running nine ferry boats at a time, this service carried up to 9,000 cars every day. Even still, traffic could be backed up for up to 16 miles. The other option was to drive all the way around, which could take much longer.
Though there were repeated calls for a bridge, little formal action was taken for decades. By the late 1920s, the ferry service was so popular and expensive, Michigan’s governor requested a study on the possibility of a bridge. The idea was deemed possible and estimated to cost about $30 million.
In the 1930 the state formed the Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority to figure out how to build and fund the bridge. On several occasions, they applied for federal funding through President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. While the president supported the project, Congress never rewarded the funds. In spite of this, planning continued, even when World War II further delayed funding.
Eventually the Authority was abolished a new one, the Mackinac Bridge Authority, created in 1950. In 1951, a report from project engineers convinced the state legislature to sell $85 million in bonds to fund the bridge’s construction. This sale was delayed due to a poor market, but eventually went through.
Construction on the bridge began on May 7, 1954. It took three and a half years because work could only be done during the summer. The total cost was $100 million, part of which would be paid over the next 20 years through collected tolls.
The bridge was completed on time and opened as scheduled on November 1, 1957. Ferry service ended that same day. Because of the cold fall weather, the bridge’s dedication ceremony was delayed until June 25 the following year.
The completed bridge is considered an engineering marvel, running five miles across the Straits connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. “Mighty Mac” towers 200 feet above the windswept waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan. Trips that could take hours waiting in line for the ferry or going the long way around, took just 10 minutes.
Bridge designers took special precautions for Michigan’s severe winter weather. Grated openings between the center lanes improve airflow and prevent the road deck from being pushed up by strong winds. During high winds, the road deck can also move up to 35 feet from side to side to keep the bridge from buckling.
Some drivers are uncomfortable crossing the Mighty Mac. Bridge personnel call these commuters “timmies,” because they are too timid to drive across. The bridge authority provides them with a chauffeur at no extra fee. On September 6, 2009, the 150 millionth vehicle crossed the Mackinac Bridge.
Click here to see photos from the construction of the Mackinac Bridge.
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