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Mackinac Bridge rose from the Straits, thanks largely to a prosecuting attorney

By Beth Anne Eckerle
Legal News

On a frigid winter day in the 1950s, Sen. Prentiss Brown, the prosecuting attorney in Mackinac County in the Upper Peninsula, needed to get downstate to attend a Michigan Supreme Court hearing. The ferries between the two peninsulas couldn't run due to thick ice in the Straits, so Brown walked across the ice to Mackinaw City in an attempt to get to Lansing on time.

He didn't make it.

The frustrating experience, however, provided just the determination he needed to press harder for building a bridge over the Straits of Mackinac.

"That bitter hike across the Straits made a lasting impression on me," he later recalled, "for the need of a bridge across the Straits."

Brown would become known as the "Father of the Mackinac Bridge." He was a St. Ignace native who earned a law degree from Albion College in 1911; he returned to St. Ignace in 1914 and opened a private practice while raising his seven children with his wife, Marion. He was elected to Michigan's 11th Congressional District and served from 1933-36, and in 1951 he took on a role that would define him in the history books: He was named chairman of the new Mackinac Bridge Authority, which he served on until his death at age 84 in 1973.

During his chairmanship, the Authority oversaw the construction of the bridge, which would be Brown's most significant public legacy.

On a plaque dedicated to him posthumously in 2007 by the State Bar Association of Michigan, it was noted: "He grew up in St. Ignace at the dawn of the 20th century and often gazed south across the Straits, a daunting stretch of cold, deep water. He could not know then that despite a life of achievement placing him among Michigan's most distinguished citizens, he would best be remembered as the 'Father of the Mackinac Bridge.'"

Like Brown, there were many throughout the reaches of Northern Michigan who were committed to uniting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Some had more obscure ideas, including a floating tunnel; another involved a circuitous route of several bridges starting in Cheboygan. Others, though, envisioned a single suspension bridge that would serve in perpetuity as a landmark in Michigan's history and its future.

The bridge builders won.

The 'Bridge that Couldn't Be Built'

From 1954-57, hundreds of workers spent thousands of hours in arguably Michigan's most inhospitable environment, perched atop concrete girders, dangling above frigid, unforgiving waters and with cold stiff hands pouring over blueprints and pounding endless rivets into stretches of steel that reached from beneath the water to the sky above. Many who took a look at the project initially called it "unbuildable," and said it couldn't be done.

But some believed otherwise, knowing they would build a monument not only to engineering prowess and perseverance in the face of harsh conditions, but also to the character of Michigan and its people: Beauty and function, elegance and strength, commitment and pride.

Those characteristics were strong in the state during the mid-1900s, after the World Wars and during the heyday of industry; automotive and otherwise. Michigan was on the national map as the automotive capital, with Detroit churning out cars and trucks at a rapid clip. Tourism was growing as people began to appreciate the beauty of the state surrounded by the most freshwater on the planet.

By the 1950s, Emmet County, Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island had already become hugely popular tourist destinations. Part of the experience of traveling Up North, especially if you were heading to the Upper Peninsula, was driving aboard a car ferry that shuttled you across the wide and sometimes wily Straits of Mackinac.

Car ferries were established by order of the state Legislature in 1923, to accommodate the growing travel interest in Northern Michigan. Within five years, traffic became so heavy that Gov. Fred Green ordered the State Highway Department to draft a study of bridge feasibility.

While those early studies were under way, ferry demand continued to skyrocket through the '30s and '40s, with captains taking great pride in their job transporting passengers between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

Bob Sweeney's dad was one of those ferry boat captains.

While Bob has been the Executive Secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority for 14 years, the Mighty Mac and the Straits of Mackinac have been a backdrop to his life since childhood. He's a St. Ignace native who grew up with the bridge as a symbol of home.

Bob's father, Aaron "Mickey" Sweeney, started as a deckhand on the vessels plying the Straits in 1938. He would end up working on every boat that operated in the Straits by the end of his career. After a brief stint on the Ariel out of Port Huron, he returned as 1st mate to St. Ignace and was involved in the inspection of the well-known Vacationland ferry as she was built in 1951. He became captain of the Vacationland in 1957 the youngest captain ever for the State ferry fleet.

In their last year of operation before the Bridge opened, the Vacationland and all the state's Straits ferries transported 900,000 vehicles a testament to their busy and important work.

The opening of the Bridge in November 1957 would alter the elder Sweeney's career path. He was just 40 years old when the ferry boats were mothballed as part of the agreement with the state that there wouldn't be any competing interests taking away from bridge-toll revenues. Mickey Sweeney went to work for MDOT on land, a career he continued until his retirement in 1980.

Coincidentally, his son Bob would also have a lifelong career with MDOT, and have a major career change in his 40th year.

"When I turned 40," Bob notes, "I took over this job as the director of the Mackinac Bridge."

Bridging opinions about crossing the Straits

To folks like the Sweeney family and residents of Emmet, Cheboygan and Mackinac Counties, the connection to the Mighty Mac runs strong and deep, much like the waters of the Straits themselves. Some in the area can still remember watching it being built, though it's not likely many can recall the early conversations about how to best connect the peninsulas dating back to the 1920s.

In a report to the state of Michigan in 1951 by the Mackinac Bridge Authority's engineers, who were charged with determining the feasibility of building a bridge, it was noted: "The desirability of uniting these areas by a bridge or tunnel has long been apparent. In 1920, the late Horatio S. Earle, Highway Commissioner, suggested a submerged floating tunnel and invited discussion on its feasibility and advantages. A counter-proposal was made by Mr. C.E. Fowler, who suggested a series of causeways and bridges starting at a point near Cheboygan and proceeding via Bois Blanc Island, Round Island and Mackinac Island, to St. Ignace."

In 1928, after some limited studies, MDOT concluded that a bridge would be the best solution. The estimated cost was $30 million. Negotiations were started for financing such a structure, but they never came to fruition. Six years later, in 1934, the state legislature created the three-member, Governor-appointed Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority to revive the conversation. Fowler was selected as the planning engineer.

The Authority was charged with finding engineers and contractors who would do the work, figure out how much it would cost, and how long it would take to build. The men also needed to develop a plan to sell the necessary revenue bonds to finance the project, and to collect tolls that would be assessed on vehicles.

The Authority made two attempts between 1934 and 1936 to obtain loans and grants from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (PWA) to fund a connection project, but both applications were denied despite endorsement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a report that even President Roosevelt favored construction of a bridge. The rejected 1934 plan was Fowler's 1920 proposal to build a series of smaller bridges from Cheboygan to St. Ignace, which was met with much public disapproval.

In 1938, the MBA brought more professionals into the mix to consult on what it would take to build a bridge. On June 3, 1940, this group of engineers submitted their recommendation to the Authority to construct a bridge "extending almost due north across the Straits from the point at which highway routes U.S. 31 and U.S. 23 converge on the south shore."

It was submitted to the governor on June 25, 1940. But before any action could take place, the U.S. entered World War II.

Finally, a solid plan emerges

On July 12, 1950, a new Mackinac Bridge Authority was established by the governor, with a singular mission: to determine the bridge feasibility. The law required the authority to consult with three of the world's foremost long-span bridge engineers and traffic consultants for advice on physical and financial practicalities.

Authority members invited three engineers to the table who were recommended by the Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan. Their early observations noted: "The combination of deep channels, exceptional rock formations, severe ice conditions and winds present unusual engineering problems. The extreme peaking of traffic compared to the average volume required careful consideration in establishing the capacity for the bridge."

Ice impacts also were calculated and geologists were called in to consult. The geologists concluded, "We have no doubt that the rock strata underlying the Straits along the recommended location are entirely capable of withstanding the moderate pressures assumed in the design."

They added: "The chances of finding a more economical location are so remote that the cost of the investigation is not warranted."

It was just the news the MBA needed to proceed with a final recommendation.

Mackinaw vs. Mackinac

It's one of the most recognizable Michigan landmarks - and maybe one of the most misspelled, too. The Mackinac Bridge is always spelled with the "ac" ending, and here's why: Believing the shape of Mackinac Island resembled a turtle, the Native Americans in the region named it "Mitchimakinak," meaning "Big turtle." That name was eventually given to the entire Straits of Mackinac region. By the 1820s, it was shortened to Mackinac. The founders of Mackinaw City opted for the phonetic "aw" spelling, probably as a way to distinguish their town from Mackinac Island for confused postal carriers. Today Mackinaw City retains the "aw" spelling while the Bridge, the Straits and the Island steadfastly use the "ac" spelling. (No matter how it is spelled, however, it is always pronounced "Mackinaw.")

Building the bridge

In January of 1951, the Authority submitted a very favorable preliminary report to the state, with the cost the bridge estimated at $86 million. Due to the start of the Korean War, however, legislation to finance and build the bridge was delayed until early 1952.

Revenue bonds were the expected funding method. The MBA asked the Reconstruction Finance Corp. (a government corporation that operated from 1932 to 1957 to provide financial support to municipalities after the Great Depression) to purchase $85 million worth of bonds in 1952. While this agency was studying the request, a private investment banker became interested in the project, and offered to manage a group of investment companies that would underwrite the sale of the bonds. The Authority accepted the offer and was ready to offer its bonds for sale by March 1953. In order to make the bonds more attractive, the Legislature passed an act during the Spring of 1953 whereby the operating and maintenance cost of the bridge, up to $417,000 annually, would be paid for out of gasoline and license plate taxes. Toward the end of 1953, the market recovered and $99.8 million worth of Mackinac Bridge bonds were bought by investors from all over the country.

And with all the pieces in place, bridge construction was officially begun amid celebratory ceremonies on May 7 and 8, 1954, in both St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Who built the bridge?

The five-mile long bridge (including approaches) had been designed by the reputable engineer Dr. David B. Steinman. Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corp. proposed $25,735,600 to build all the foundations, which led to the mobilization of the largest bridge construction fleet ever assembled.

The American Bridge Division of United States Steel Corp. was awarded a $44,532,900 contract to build the superstructure. In U.S. Steel's mills the various shapes, plates, bars, wire and cables of steel necessary for the superstructure and for the caissons and cofferdams of the foundation were prepared.

Hundreds of workers helped build the Mighty Mac. Sadly, during construction five men lost their lives; one died in a diving accident; one man fell into the water and drowned; two men fell from a temporary catwalk into the Straits, from near the top of the North tower; and one man fell in a caisson while welding.

1957: A Michigan landmark is born

The bridge opened to traffic on November 1, 1957, according to schedule, despite the many hazards of marine construction over the turbulent Straits of Mackinac. The last of the Mackinac Bridge bonds were retired July 1, 1986. Fare revenues are now used to operate and maintain the Bridge and repay the State of Michigan for monies advanced to the Authority since the facility opened to traffic in 1957.

Prentiss Brown's son, Prentiss M. "Moie" Brown, has reflected on the bridge's history in several interviews over the years, commenting on the role his father played from obtaining financing to ensuring the construction contracts were negotiated fairly.

During a 2003 ceremony honoring Brown with a new toll token, his son noted, "The Mackinac Bridge was the highlight of his public life."

(This article first appeared in the "Essence of Emmet" historical magazine series, Part III.)

Published: Fri, Feb 19, 2016

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