MY TURN: A 5-mile span that has stood the test of time


This week, as the annual Labor Day Walk across the Mackinac Bridge approaches, the late Senator Prentiss Brown would be smiling if he were there.

The 5-mile walk, in fact, probably should be renamed in his honor given his pivotal role in spearheading the construction of the Mackinac Bridge in the mid-'50s.

As the story goes, Brown, the prosecuting attorney in Mackinac County in the Upper Peninsula, needed to get downstate to attend a Michigan Supreme Court hearing on a frigid winter day in 1950.

"The ferries between the two peninsulas couldn't run due to thick ice in the Straits, so Brown walked across the ice to Mackinaw City in an attempt to get to Lansing on time," wrote Beth Anne Eckerle in an article appearing in The Legal News several years ago.

He came up short on his icy trek, retreating to the U.P. with a renewed sense of purpose.

"That bitter hike across the Straits made a lasting impression on me," he later recalled, "for the need of a bridge across the Straits," the beautiful expanse that separates Michigan's magnificent peninsulas.

"Brown would become known as the 'Father of the Mackinac Bridge,'" Eckerle wrote in her story on the iconic span. "He was a St. Ignace native who earned a law degree from Albion College in 1911. He returned to St. Ignace in 1914 and opened a law practice while raising his seven children with his wife, Marion. He was elected to the Michigan's 11th Congressional District and served from 1933-36, and in 1951 he took on a role that would define him in the history books: He was named chairman of the new Mackinac Bridge Authority, which he served on until his death at age 84 in 1973."

Brown, of course, wasn't alone in his desire to unite the two peninsulas. Others, according to Eckerle's account, also were committed to the construction cause, proposing such ideas as a "floating tunnel" or a "circuitous route of several bridges starting in Cheboygan," hopscotching several islands to the U.P.

Fortunately, a single suspension bridge won out, a link that would serve as a landmark to Michigan's past, present, and future.

To many naysayers, it was the "bridge that couldn't be built," principally because of its cost and the inherent engineering challenges that such a project presented.

"From 1954-57, hundreds of workers spent thousands of hours in arguably Michigan's most inhospitable environment, perched atop concrete girders, dangling above frigid, unforgiving waters and with cold stiff hands pouring over blueprints and pounding endless rivets into stretches of steel that reached from beneath the water to the sky above," Eckerle wrote. "Many who took a look at the project initially called it 'unbuildable,' and said it couldn't be done.

"But some believed otherwise, knowing they would build a monument not only to engineering prowess and perseverance in the face of harsh conditions, but also to the character of Michigan and its people: Beauty and function, elegance and strength, commitment and pride."

The "Mighty Mac" is all that and more, spanning 26,372 feet in length for the some 4 million vehicle crossings each year. The bridge took more than 3 years to build, opening to traffic on November 1, 1957 at a total construction cost of $99.8 million, a fraction of what its price tag would be in today's dollars.

"Priceless" is the word that Eckerle used to describe her trip to the top of the Mackinac Bridge several years ago. The exhilarating excursion was arranged by Bob Sweeney, CEO of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, who accompanied Eckerle some 550 feet skyward for the experience of a lifetime.

The trip via an elevator and a maze of tunnels, portals and ladders in the South Tower is not for the faint of heart or the "casual tourist," admitted Eckerle.

"Once you wiggle yourself out of the top hole and emerge on the platform that connects the two towers, about all you can muster is 'wow' . . . again and again," she said. "The vastness in every direction is equal parts beautiful and awe-ing: the color and clarity of the water; the natural shape of the jagged shoreline; the rooster tails from the speeding ferry boats; and the many islands scattered like a handful of rocks thrown into Lakes Michigan and Huron."

It was there that Eckerle posed for a photo or two with her host, taking time to soak up the splendor of a sun-drenched summer day at the apex of northern Michigan. It was a sight to behold, one that she and we can thank a long-ago state senator from the U.P. for helping provide.