Building the Mackinac Bridge was a Magnificent Feat—What Did it Take?

The story behind the greatest 5-mile road trip on the planet: the Mackinac Bridge.

Once upon a time, our great state was divided, Lower and Upper, by the very deep, very blue water (or in the winter, thick, white ice) of the Straits of Mackinac. Then, on November 1, 1957, miraculous ribbons of asphalt, wire and two majestic towers knit together to become the Mackinac Bridge.

Two hundred miles away, Detroit was ready with visions of family station wagons, sedans and sports cars zipping across what was once an abyss. In a sense, the two—the bridge and the automobile—grew up together, in a story that began in 1886, with the first patents for the gas-powered automobile granted to Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. The very next year, David Steinman was born to a family who lived in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. All his life, he loved books and poetry and bridges. Near the end of this rich life, he would design the Mackinac Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge, the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the world, finished in 1883, caught more than just a little boy’s fancy. It inspired folks in Michigan to dream big—a longest-bridge-in-the-world kind of big. A 5-mile feat of engineering suspended 500 feet over water 250 feet deep. A feat that had never been performed in the history of the world. In France, Gustave Eiffel was dreaming of a crazy iron structure that would rise a breathtaking 1,000 feet in the air. In Michigan, they wanted to go long. Way long.

June 15, 1956: Erecting east catwalks between north and south towers. © State of Michigan 2019

The idea ignited imaginations from Lansing to St. Ignace, where, in 1884, a local businessman published a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge with the caption: “Proposed bridge across the Straits of Mackinac.”

More commanding was a statement at the 1888 Grand Hotel’s Board of Director’s meeting by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt: “We now have the largest, most well-equipped hotel of its kind in the world for a short season business. Now what we need is a bridge across the Straits.” Yes, the future, Vanderbilt presaged, was in tourism.

Over the course of the next 70 years, discussions about building the Mackinac Bridge hiccuped along, tripped up by two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Korean War. Eventually, car ferries did the work of transporting cars between the peninsulas, but not as efficiently as a bridge would.

October 19, 1956: American Bridge Division workers boarding a personnel boat at shift change from Pier 22. © State of Michigan 2019

In 1950, the state got serious and instituted the Mackinac Bridge Authority. Almost $100 million worth of bonds were to pay for the new bridge that was estimated to cost $45 million, and David Steinman was hired to design it.

At 70 years old, he’d built bridges in the United States, Thailand, England, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Canada, Korea, Iraq and Pakistan. The Mackinac Bridge would be his final and greatest project. At its completion, the 5-mile long bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world.* Steinman designed it to withstand 350 mile-per-hour winds.

It took four years, 3,500 workers, 895,000 blueprints, 71,300 tons of structural steel, 931,000 tons of concrete, 42,000 miles of cable wire, 4,851,700 steel rivets, 1,016,600 steel bolts and, tragically, the lives of three men who died on the job, to build her.

*Although the Big Mac is now the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, at 8,614 feet (the distance between her towers) she still holds the title of longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Thank you to the Mackinac Bridge Authority and mightymac.org for providing Big Mac facts.

Workers checking the diameter of the east cable during compacting near the top of the south tower. © State of Michigan 2019

Cars began flowing over the Mackinac Bridge on November 1, 1957. The first car over was a shiny new 1958 Dodge Coronet, courtesy of Brown Motors, a family-owned dealership still doing business in Petoskey. At the bridge’s official dedication the next June, 103 sparkling white Oldsmobile convertibles bearing dignitaries paraded across the bridge. The epic moment didn’t escape anyone involved. The bridge was a global phenomenon; a structure that would facilitate commerce; offer people access to better medical treatment and open up the world to the Upper Peninsula. And likewise, it would open up easy access to three Great Lakes coastlines, to miles of backcountry hiking, skiing and (my personal favorite) pastie-gorging. Raison d’etres all for the Mackinac Bridge. But when you are midway across this steel, concrete and wire goddess of strength and beauty, gazing down on the mirrored shorelines, Mackinac Island and the ruffled waves of two Great Lakes, the voyage is all about the Mackinac Bridge. The greatest 5-mile road trip, ever.

Keeping the Mighty in the Mac: Meet The People Who Maintain the Mackinac Bridge (Yes, they climb to the very tippy top.)

Dr. David B. Steinman © State of Michigan 2019

Now the towers, mounting skyward, reach the heights of airy space. Hear the rivet-hammers ringing, joining steel in strength and grace. // A stanza from Dr. David B. Steinman’s poem, “The Bridge at Mackinac”