Over the River
Michigan’s bridges range from busy and controversial to historic and crumbling
May 2014 Travel Feature
Over the River
Happy Birthday Bard
The Detroit River is one of the planet’s most active waterways. And, until about a century ago, ferries carried trade between Detroit and Canada. When trade volume exceeded the capacity of the ferries, a bridge connecting the countries was proposed.
The Ambassador Bridge connected Detroit to Windsor in 1929. For a couple of years, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it’s the busiest international border crossing in North America, with about a quarter of all trade between the U.S and Canada passing over the span.
Privately owned by the Moroun family since the late 1970s, the bridge is frequently mentioned in headlines — for everything from lawsuits to stop a proposed New International Trade Crossing to residents of Windsor’s countersuits against the bridge owners for decreasing their home values.
But not all of Michigan’s bridges earn as much attention. There are thousands of bridges of all types in the state. Three of them (of the 13 nation- wide) connect the U.S to our Canadian neighbors: The Ambassador Bridge, The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, and the International Bridge, which connects Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
No matter the destination, bridges capture our imagination. Some are worth crossing based on charm or historical significance. What makes a bridge significant isn’t just age. Some newer bridges are noteworthy based on design and engineering.
The Mackinac Bridge — or “The Mighty Mac” — (1957) spans 5 miles, connecting Michigan’s two peninsulas. It’s the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. A tourist attraction by itself, every Labor Day the Annual Mackinac Bridge Walk attracts thousands who cross the bridge by foot.
But Michigan’s bridge history begins way before the “Mac.” And sadly, many historic bridges are disappearing. Some are gone because of obsolescence or dangerous conditions; others are removed and sold or relocated for private use.
Covered bridges (truss bridges constructed mostly of wood), like those made famous in The Bridges of Madison County, are noteworthy. Michigan’s covered bridges once crossed rivers and streams all over the state; now fewer than 10 remain.
In July 2013, an arson destroyed the oldest covered bridge in Michigan, White’s Bridge, which was constructed in the late 1860s in Ionia County. There’s also an example of a 1830s-era covered bridge — The Ackley Covered Bridge at Greenfield Village. In 1937, the bridge was dismantled in Pennsylvania, moved to Dearborn, and reassembled. Langley Bridge in Centreville is one of the longest covered bridges in the country.
Michigan has more than 20 movable bridges —drawbridges are an example — that raise and lower to allow water travel. One example is The Island Lake Outlet Bridge (1949), a double-leaf bascule that connects Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix.
Within Detroit’s tri-county area you can still cross (some only on foot) a few notable bridges:
/// THE CHESTNUT STREET BRIDGE, Detroit (1920), passes over the Dequindre Cut.
/// THE DOUGLAS MACARTHUR BRIDGE, Detroit (1923), is a concrete arch bridge connecting Detroit to Belle Isle.
/// THE GROSSE ILE TOLL BRIDGE, Riverview (1913), is a swing bridge that connects mainland Riverview to Grosse Ile.
/// THE WEST JEFFERSON AVENUE–ROUGE RIVER BRIDGE, Detroit (1922), is the only surviving pony truss bascule bridge in Michigan.
/// THE FORT STREET–PLEASANT STREET AND NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILROAD VIADUCT, Detroit (1928), is an ornamental concrete “superhighway.”
/// THE EAST RIVER ROAD–NORTH HICKORY CANAL BRIDGE, Grosse Ile (1945) is a concrete slab bridge connecting Grosse Ile with Hickory Island.
/// THE GIBRALTAR ROAD BRIDGE, Gibraltar (1932), is a reinforced-concrete cantilevered-arch bridge.
/// THE LILLEY ROAD-LOWER ROUGE RIVER, Canton Township, (1923), is a camelback pony truss bridge.
/// ROCHESTER MICHIGAN CENTRAL RAILROAD BRIDGE, Rochester (1872), is one of the oldest concrete arch bridges in Michigan.
For a listing by county of historic bridges on state-owned roads in Michigan, visit michigan.gov/mdot and enter “historic bridges” in the search window.