November 28, 2022

A Bridge to the Past

The history and architecture of some of NoMi’s famous bridges
By Al Parker | Sept. 24, 2022

Northern Michigan is home to a wide variety of historic bridges, some very high profile and others tucked away from the public eye. Whether you’re a pontist—aka someone who loves bridges—or just a casual appreciator of these feats of creativity and engineering, read on for a quick look at a few of the North’s most spectacular spans. (Did we hear someone say road trip??)

Mackinac Bridge
Last century, connecting the state’s two peninsulas by bridge had been a dream of politicians, engineers, and business leaders for decades. Finally, in 1950, the Mackinac Bridge Authority was appointed. Three years later, D. B. Steinman was selected to engineer the project. Construction began on May 7, 1954, with 3,500 men working at the bridge site and another 7,500 working at quarries, shops, and nearby mills. Some 350 engineers produced 4,000 engineering drawings and 85,000 blueprints for the massive project.

Finally, on Nov. 1, 1957, the bridge was open to traffic, and it’s been buzzing with cars ever since. The 100 millionth bridge crossing took place on June 25, 1998.

The “Mighty Mac” is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere and fifth longest in the world. The total length is 26,372 feet, and there were 4,851,700 steel rivets and 1,016,600 steel bolts used in the construction. (But who’s counting…)

The width of the bridge’s roadway is 54 feet, though not all lanes are the same width. The outside lanes are 12 feet wide, while the inside lanes are 11 feet wide. There’s a 2-foot center mall and a catwalk, curb, and rail measuring 3 feet on each side, thus totaling 54 feet.

Cheboygan River Railroad Bridge
A worn, cracked plaque tells visitors that this span was built in 1904 by the American Bridge Company, part of U.S. Steel. It now serves as part of a popular snowmobile trail in winter and is open to pedestrians for hiking in other months.

Technically it’s a “warren through truss with all verticals” style bridge, and it stretches over the Cheboygan River in rural Cheboygan County. It’s part of the North Eastern State Trail, formerly the Detroit & Mackinac Railway.

The entire structure is only 138 feet long, with 130 feet of that being the main span.

“The wooden railings placed on the bridge have a gaudy appearance and detract from the visual qualities of the structure”, according to historicbridges.org, a website devoted to detailing time-worn bridges. “Metal pole railings might have been a better notion here, as they would have blended into the trusses better.”

Either way, we think this old bridge still looks grand.

Charlevoix Bridge
This venerable drawbridge is an iconic part of downtown Charlevoix, and we bet if you close your eyes, you can picture the two blue sections rising up in the air. When the bridge is open, it stops traffic on U.S. 31 to allow large watercraft to pass along the Island Lake Outlet, also known as the Pine River Channel.

The current span is the fifth version to cross the channel there, with the first being a pedestrian-only structure that was built in the 19th century.

Technically, today’s version is a double-leaf bascule bridge. It was planned in 1940, but when World War II broke out, the project was delayed. Construction bids were finally accepted in 1947, and work began immediately. The bridge was open to traffic in late June 1949.

Despite the fact that it briefly stops motorists heading north and south on U.S. 31, the bridge immediately became a popular tourist attraction and hot spot for photographers, who have captured images of all sorts of watercraft beneath the span.

Pierce Stocking Covered Bridge
This quaint covered bridge was one of the picturesque details that Pierce Stocking included in the drive that bears his name. You can find it along M-22 in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and it draws flocks of admirers, especially when the colors change.

Pierce Stocking spent his younger years working as a lumberman in Michigan’s forests. In 1948, he bought forest land from D.H. Day, south of Glen Haven, and ran a sawmill there. Stocking loved the woods and spent most of his spare time there, developing a self-taught knowledge of nature. He wanted to share nature’s beauty with others and conceived the idea of a road to the top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The planning for the road began in the early 1960s, and in 1967, the road opened to the public. Stocking operated the scenic drive until his death in 1976, and the following year the road became part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Later it was named the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The bridge’s roof is tall enough to allow a 13-foot, 6-inch vehicle safe clearance. It’s a timber and truss structure with a roof, deck, and sides, and the trusses are triangular frames that support a structure by distributing the weight of the deck. As with your typical covered bridge, the roof and walls protect the framework from snow and rain, and covered bridges tend to last longer than other wooden spans because they don’t need to be repaired or replaced as often.

But that doesn’t mean these bridges are immune to all problems. “The sides of the original bridge were largely consumed by porcupines, which seem to relish man-made structures more than the native wood of the forest,” according to the National Park Service website.

Manistee Swing Bridge
The original bridge on this site was built by the Manistee and Northeastern Railway in 1889 (and then rebuilt 10 years later). The wood and iron span was 160 feet long and rose 12 feet above the water line. Originally, the swing was powered by strong-armed operators who would crank the bridge into place.

The current version was built in 1939 by the Wisconsin Bridge and Iron Company of Milwaukee. No longer operated by human muscle, this historic span is a very rare style: a plate girder swing bridge.

Even more remarkable, it still carries trains for the Marquette Rail system across the Manistee River and opens and closes for maritime traffic, making it one of the few functional bridges of its type remaining in Michigan. It’s 312 feet long, with a main span of 100 feet.

The bridge is still in good working order and is a key intersection point for the Manistee area’s industrial rail freight and shipping. Watching a Great Lakes freighter navigate the tight opening through the river is a special sight that attracts onlookers on a regular basis during the shipping season.

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