April 8, 2000


Folk singer U. Utah Phillips has defined an expert for us, breaking the word into its component parts. Ex, a has-been. Spurt, a big drip. Pit one set of experts against another and when the test comes, one set will end up fitting that description. Case in point, the bridge over the Straits of Mackinac.

Granted it must have seemed almost impossible back in the mid-1880s when the idea first surfaced. It would require a bridge unlike anything ever built, spanning more than four miles of open, wind-whipped water. The underlying rock wouldn't support a bridge, the elements would rip it apart, the experts said. Besides, it didn't really fill a great need at the time. A few wealthy bigwigs from the East would find it quicker and more convenient than waiting for a ferry; hardly enough to justify the expense. The 1920s arrived. Enter the automobile. The tourist was born. Eager for battle, platoons of experts grabbed their slide rules off the wall. And waited.

In 1928 the State Highway Department put out a report stating that a direct-route bridge would cost $30,000,000. Nothing happened. Six years later public works funds became available from a Federal government trying to revive the nation's economy, and a Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority was created by Michigan. Two plans were floated, both were turned down. The Bridge Authority persisted, hiring the bridge engineering firm of Modjeski and Masters in 1937. Geologists made test borings in the bedrock, transportation engineers projected possible future traffic volumes. Final costs of $24,340,000 were projected. With the lowered estimate a causeway was constructed in 1941 out into the shallow water from off St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula. A bridge was now certain to follow. Then Pearl Harbor halted the project in its tracks. The Japanese had sunk the unbuilt bridge as surely as they had sunk the USS Arizona.

The war years passed. Talk of a bridge was revived, but in 1947 the legislature dismantled the bridge authority. It would be another three years before proponents could get the Authority resurrected, but then its ability to raise funds was severely hampered. Opposing sets of experts took aim. The wrangling continued for another 3 years. The Authority slogged on, winning first the right to raise funds, then the right to have the bridge built. The legislature waded in, voting two to one in favor of the bridge. An attempt to block the sale of bonds was thwarted after further wrangling. Finally, on April 30th, 1952, Michigan governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams accepted the first signed bids for the Mackinac Bridge. Full steam ahead! Not quite. Another delay followed as a slow bond market, this year and next, twice caused a postponement of sales. Engineers, surveyors, contractors, sandhogs, tourists, steel mills, all dangled in limbo as the political logjam began to stir, creak, loosen and break apart. We'll dangle too. One more week.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte