The Way It Was – Burning of Belle Isle Bridge, 1915

When the flames arose on the afternoon of April 27, 1915, suspicions grew in some quarters


As conflagrations go, it wasn’t as dramatic as the Great Fire of 1805, which left Detroit in smoldering ruins. But the burning of the Belle Isle Bridge on April 27, 1915, was no piddling affair. The bridge opened in 1889, but as the city’s population grew, so did traffic on the thoroughfare to the island playground. Ferries to Belle Isle helped to ameliorate some of the congestion, but some city leaders, including Mayor Oscar Marx, felt a new and larger bridge should be built. However, many Detroiters felt that a new bridge was just an expensive boondoggle. So when the flames arose on the afternoon of April 27, 1915, suspicions grew in some quarters. The creosote blocks that formed the deck of the bridge caught fire, and the wood-and-steel structure collapsed. Here, firefighters in tugboats are seen battling the blaze. As recounted in William W. Lutz’s The News of Detroit, the fire started when hot coals were dropped by a city tar wagon. But Lutz mentions that the old Detroit Journal went so far as to suggest the blaze was intentionally set by the city administration. However, accusations and suspicions remained just that; there was no proof that the inferno was deliberate, or for that matter, accidental. In 1916, a temporary bridge was erected. Then, in 1923, a permanent cantilevered concrete arch bridge with 19 spans was completed, at a cost of nearly $3 million, according to George B. Catlin in The Story of Detroit. In the mid-’80s, the bridge underwent a major repair and restoration. In 1942, it was renamed the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, in honor of the World War II general. When the Sears Tower in Chicago was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009, the name didn’t stick; Chicagoans still call the skyscraper the Sears Tower to this day. Similarly, the MacArthur Bridge didn’t catch on. Detroiters to this day still call the link at East Grand Boulevard and East Jefferson Avenue the Belle Isle Bridge.