As early as the 1880s, Michiganians talked about building a bridge across the Straits of Mackinac. When the Grand Hotel opened on Mackinac Island in 1888, railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, a member of the hotel’s board of directors, declared, â€œWhat we need is a bridge across the Straits.â€No bridge was forthcoming, but in the early years of the twentieth century, the state’s first highway director proposed a â€œfloating tunnelâ€ across the Straits. As he later reflected, â€œpeople laughed at me.â€
Although the Great Depression of the early 1930s hit Michigan hard, it did not prevent the introduction of a new and more imaginative plan to link the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. In 1934, civil engineer Charles E. Fowler suggested an â€œisland-hopping schemeâ€ between Cheboygan and St. Ignace, via Bois Blanc, Round and Mackinac islands. The plan included seven miles of mainly arched cantilever spans, intermixed with eighteen miles of causeways and roads. This system also included railroad tracks, eliminating the state ferry system that carried railroad cars (and automobiles) across the Straits. The twenty-five mile toll â€œbridgeâ€ would be the longest bridge system in the world. Possible funding for Fowler’s $35 million plan included a federal grant, a private loan or revenue bonds.
As the plan was being submitted to the federal government’s Public Works Administration (PWA) support began to erode. Railroad people preferred the car ferries (which were cheaper), while the maritime interests feared the 300-foot channels were too narrow for their boats. Other critics opposed cars and trucks being driven on Mackinac Island.
Criticism also came from Michigan’s political leaders. Congressman Carl Edgar Mapes of Grand Rapids dismissed the plan as â€œwild fantasy of imagination,â€ while Congressman George Dondreo of Royal Oak described the plan as â€œa scheme to mar and disfigure [Michigan's] priceless heritage.â€
Although the PWA rejected Fowler’s plan, it did not prevent the New York engineer from including his design for bridging the Straits on his lengthy resume.
Twenty years later, Fowler’s dream came true when construction began on the Mackinac Bridge, which finally linked the two peninsulas together.
The mighty Mackinac Bridge is a beloved symbol of the dreams, hard work and courage of the men and women who built this great state. This year, the Mackinac Bridge will turn 50 years old. To pay tribute to this spectacular symbol, Michigan History magazine’s July/August issue will be dedicated to the history of the Mighty Mac. Subscribe by July 1 to receive this issue as part of a paid subscription. Visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or call toll free, 1-800-366-3703.
Photo Credit: Michigan Department of Transportation. View the Mackinac Bridge Historical Construction Album from MDOT (and also the Modern-day construction Album).