Recollections of the past and a look at today.
The Straits of Mackinac bridge, also called “The Mighty Mac” is a magnificent structure connecting the peninsulas of the state of Michigan. The trip over the bridge by car is a thrilling experience. For me it is even more so passing under the bridge on the water.
I did this just a few days ago on a boat. Not a mighty yacht, my boat was just under 23 feet from bow to transom with a few feet tacked on by the outboard and swim platform. On the water, this small craft takes its place beside Great Lakes freighters some 1,000 ft. in length. We are bound to obey the same rules and observe courtesies expected of any powerboat regardless of size. Below our hull, the water in the straits of Mackinac was more than 200 feet deep and the bridge span arched 155 ft. above. It carried a steady stream of cars and trucks. But it was not always this way.
In 1948 I had finished the eighth grade at Stellwagen Elementary in June and my dad had a surprise for me and my three brothers. We would be going from our home in Detroit on a one-week vacation to northern Michigan. He did not say exactly where, and we did not ask. I later figured out that dad was not sure where we would be going. He would “play it by ear”. Where we went would depend on how things were working out with four rambunctious boys and how long the money lasted. There were no credit cards then and personal checks were not cashed for strangers in small towns.
There were six of us packed into our new 1949 Plymouth; I was able to take along a friend named Joe.
Our first stop was Wilderness State Park near the top of the state. We pitched our large walled tent borrowed from Boy Scout troop 118 and stayed for two days. We slept in blanket rolls, cooked over a wood campfire, and played a form of field hockey on the shore of Lake Michigan. We called the game we invented “beach beat the beer can”. Beer was dad’s favorite liquid refreshment and he provided us with an ample number of pucks.
Confident that we would be up to the adventure, dad said, “now we’re going to the UP (upper peninsula). In those days that meant a boat ride. Although there had been talk about a bridge as early as 1880, it would not become a reality for more than a century and a half.
Continuing 20 miles north to Mackinaw City, we joined a line of cars waiting to board the car ferry, City of Cheboygan, for the one-hour trip across the five-mile Straits of Mackinac to the city of St Ignace. I had been on a large great lakes boat once before. It was for a trip from Detroit to Cleveland on a large side paddle wheel boat called the City of Detroit. We bought tickets for the trip on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Along with 100 other cars we enjoyed the one-hour trip across the straits. After three days in the UP sightseeing and camping we took the ferry back to the lower peninsula and headed home.
Joining the railroad car ferry that started in 1911, a Straits car ferry was launched in 1925. In 34 years, a series of boats carried 12 million vehicles and 30 million passengers. During peak times such as deer hunting season cars would be in line for as long as ten hours before boarding. In the summer we waited only a half hour to board the boat. Now there is seldom a wait to enter the bridge.
The five-mile-long bridge that cost just short of a billion dollars at today’s prices makes it possible to travel between the peninsulas in a car in 20 minutes. Before the bridge we would have had to travel through Wisconsin or Minnesota for hundreds of miles to reach the west end of the UP.
The bridge is exciting now, but as a twelve-year-old, so was the ferry.
By Savvy Senior
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