Louis Stepman was lucky. His desperate hold on thin strands of metal was the only thing keeping him from a 400-foot plunge to a watery grave. Two other men who were with him were not so lucky.On the afternoon of June 6, 1956, Louis “Big Louie” Stepman and three other workers were stringing a catwalk from the north tower of the Mackinac Bridge. The catwalk – a bundle of chain link fencing to be strung on steel cables from the north tower to the south tower – would provide a temporary walking surface for workers installing the cables that held up the bridge’s roadway. The bundles of chain link were folded like an accordion in 100-foot sections. As the four men readied a bundle at 552 feet above the Straits of Mackinac, it snapped free and began a rapid descent down the cables.
One man’s ankle caught in one of the folds, pinning him in place on top of the fencing. His ankle had been crushed, but he was alive. The other three workers were jolted and fell from their narrow platform. Two men fell to their death, but Stepman fell 70 feet before he grabbed hold of the wire mesh and held on as it raced down the cable. It slowed when it reached the bottom arc. Dangling 400 feet above the water, Stepman thought about dropping to the water and taking his chances. Instead, he climbed 70 vertical feet up the wire mesh to safety.
For the two workers who perished, it had been their first day on the job.
Three other men lost their lives building the Mackinac Bridge. The names of all five men are remembered in a bronze plaque at the foot of the bridge in Mackinaw City.
For more on the history of the Mackinac Bridge, including the full story on five who died while building the bridge, look for Michigan History magazine’s “50 Years of the Mighty Mac” issue, available in July. Visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or call toll free, 1-800-366-3703.
Photo credit: Mackinac Bridge cables during construction, Image courtesy of MDOT’s Photography Unit (www.michigan.gov/mdot)