That One Time in Michigan…When the Mackinac Bridge Was Built

(Source: Mackinac Bridge Authority)

By Karel Vega

September 7, 2023

A story of sacrifice and a ton of hard work. 

Crossing the Mackinac Bridge is a rite of passage for Michiganders. Whether you’re heading north into the natural splendor of the Upper Peninsula or coming down into the Mitten, few things compare to the wonder you feel as you drive over the Mighty Mac. Of course, the Mackinac Bridge wasn’t always there. Prior to its opening in 1957, people crossed the Straits of Mackinac in other ways. Here’s what they did, and how the bridge eventually came to be.

(Source: National Park Service)

A Tale of Two Peninsulas

Humans arrived in Michigan around 12,000 years ago, after mile-thick glaciers melted and left behind the distinct shape of our Mitten—along with the Great Lakes.

The Earth’s last Ice Age also gave us the spectacular Upper Peninsula, which is surrounded by Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron, and at its western border, Wisconsin.

Before any one nation controlled the Upper Peninsula, it was already home to the people who have lived here since about 800 C.E.—indigenous tribes that today are collectively known as the Anishinaabe people.

Then, in the 1600s, French colonists laid claim to the land, until the French and Indian War ended with Great Britain taking it over in 1763. In the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the Upper Peninsula—which, at the time, was simply part of the region called the “Old Northwest” or the Northwest Territory—became part of the United States.

The Northwest Territory in 1787. (Source: Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.)

Living off the land at that time was difficult. Bodies of water separated the Upper Peninsula region from surrounding land on three sides, making it tough for most inhabitants to trade goods. A government report even went so far as to describe the UP as a “sterile region on the shores of Lake Superior destined by soil and climate to remain forever a wilderness.”

When the Territory of Michigan received statehood in 1837, its boundaries included the Upper Peninsula as part of a deal to end the Toledo War (yup, Michigan went to war with Ohio). That’s when Michiganders began to “discover” the rich minerals, like copper and iron, in the UP. (Of course, Indigenous people in the Keweenaw Peninsula had been metalworking 7,000 years prior to that.)

Though not always successful for very long, mineral mines are what led to the UP’s establishment of cities and towns.

Crossing the Straits of Mackinac

(Source: Mackinac Bridge Authority)

Whether for business or pleasure, people have needed ways to cross the Straits of Mackinac for ages. Boats helped span the distance, with ferry services starting in the early 1900s.

These ferries became so popular that travelers sometimes had to wait up to a day to embark on the 5-mile, one-hour trip across the Straits. However, the state was about to embark on an ambitious project to permanently connect the two peninsulas.

The Mighty Mac is Born

(Source: Mackinac Bridge Authority)

In 1934, the Michigan legislature established the Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority to explore the possibility of building a bridge across the Straits. The authority estimated that it would take roughly $32 million to construct a combined two-lane highway and one-track railway bridge. (This estimation would prove to be entirely off from the final figures.) After several setbacks due to a lack of funding, the state finally made real progress in building the bridge in 1954.

Construction was an immense and dangerous undertaking.

Hundreds of workers spent 42 months doing everything from sinking gigantic foundations down into the bedrock below the Straits to stringing a massive cabling network of more than 42,000 miles of wire. Sadly, five men died during the bridge’s construction, amid multiple tragedies—including diving accidents and accidental falls.

Finally, on Nov. 1, 1957, the bridge opened to traffic, with a final cost of around $100 million.

Opening ceremonies included a parade across the bridge. (Source: Mackinac Bridge Authority)

The Bridge Today

(Source: Mackinac Bridge Authority)

At 26,372 feet, the Mighty Mac is the world’s fifth-longest suspension bridge, and is the top record holder in the western hemisphere. Millions of people have traveled across and enjoyed the splendor that the bridge provides. In September 2009, the bridge celebrated its 150 millionth crossing. See pics of it here.

Every year as part of the Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk, Michiganders are invited to walk across the bridge en masse. The first walk took place in 1958, and has been a Michigan tradition ever since.

Whether you’re partaking in the annual walk or admiring Michigan’s most iconic structure from afar, take a minute to imagine what life would be like without our Mighty Mac.

Photo galleries you might love:

The Mackinac Bridge’s Opening Ceremony

Building the Mackinac Bridge

Live shots from the Mackinac Bridge (The images refresh every minute.)

The Mackinac Bridge in every season

The Vacationland automobile ferry (1957)

That’s this week’s story about That One Time in Michigan. Get these weekly historic glimpses of the Mitten State sent directly to your inbox on Mondays by signing up for our newsletter here. Know a story we should explore? Tell us here!


  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.


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