David B. Steinman: Architect of the Mackinac Bridge

The opening of the Mackinac Bridge on November 1, 1957 was a milestone many traveling Michiganders had only previously been able to dream of. Prior to the Mackinac bridge, travel between the upper and lower peninsulas was not without its long delays, as there were only nine ferries providing transit of nearly 9,000 cars daily between the peninsulas. [1] People were divided, however, regarding the necessity of a bridge connecting the peninsulas because some were unsure that the economic activity in the upper peninsula deemed a bridge necessary, not to mention the impending financial burden of bridge construction. Since traffic on the ferry service was so heavy after the service was opened in 1923, Governor Fred Green inspired the creation of the Mackinac Straits Bridge Authority of Michigan in 1934, which tried and failed twice to get loans and grants for the construction of a bridge from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works.[2] Despite the monetary setback, between 1936 and 1940 intensive studies of the Straits of Mackinac and traffic patterns were conducted and the 4,200 foot causeway at St. Ignace was built. Laurence Rubin was elected as the executive secretary for the Mackinac Bridge Authority in 1951 and in an interview with Richard Shaul he talked about the obstacles the bridge authority faced with obtaining funds, “The Authority proceeded carefully getting the opinions of experts that the traffic would grow. We had a pretty rugged time with the financing. The New York financiers had no knowledge or understanding of the geography of the area and when they learned how few people lived in the area, they were not going to build a $100 million bridge to serve those populations.”[3] Toward the end of 1953 when the market started to recover from the Korean War, 99.8 million dollars of Mackinac Bridge municipal bonds were bought by investors, thus contracts which had been conditional upon financing were instantly implemented.[4] Among those contracted was the bridge’s design engineer, Dr. David B. Steinman, who put over $200,000 of his own money toward financing the bridge.[5] In the interview, when asked how the Mackinac Bridge Authority members celebrated this financial victory in 1953, Lawrence A. Rubin recalled, “I think they would have been happy to have a great big dinner, but that didn’t happen. We just all went, “Well, we got that job done; let’s look forward to the next one!”[6]

David B. Steinman was born in New York on June 11, 1886 and died in New York on August 20, 1960. He was one of seven children who grew up very poor in the slums in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite his troubled childhood, he kept his head in the clouds as he dreamed of attending college to brighten his future. His hard work and drive took him to City College in New York in 1906 and then Columbia University in 1911, where he received three degrees and a PhD in civil engineering.[7] He taught at the University of Idaho for some time, however, his true passion since childhood had been bridge design. Steinman was determined to construct bridges as structurally and economically efficient as possible. Holton Robinson admired Steinman’s ideas; he approached Steinman and together they started a frim, Robinson& Steinman, which was contracted for the building of the Florianopolis Bridge in Brazil.[8] During the designing of the Florianopolis Bridge, they changed the plan by replacing conventional wire-cable with eyebar chains, which not only made the bridge sturdier but more economic, as less material was required. Steinman contributed to the design of more than four-hundred bridges in five different countries, including the Mount Hope Bridge, the St. John’s Bridge, Sky Ride, and the Henry Hudson Bridge. David B. Steinman was the president of the American Association of Engineers and prided himself as one of the top bridge engineers of his time. The failure of the first Tacoma Bridge in Washington in 1940 jeopardized the reputation of long distance suspension bridges, which inspired David Steinman to publish his theory that suspension bridge designs should include deep stiffening trusses and an open grid roadway to reduce wind resistance. [9] His recently published articles reflecting on suspension bridge improvement made him the perfect candidate to design the Mackinac Bridge. In January 1953 David B. Steinman was elected to be the design engineer of the Mackinac Bridge.[10]

Photo of David B. Steinman on Mackinac Bridge construction site, Image Source: Michigan History Magazine, 29.

Photo of David B. Steinman on Mackinac Bridge construction site, Image Source: Michigan History Magazine, 29.

With construction beginning in May 1954 and its opening in November 1957, the Mackinac Bridge was under construction for three years. At its time of completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, at five miles long. Steinman wrote a poem about his achievement called The Bridge at Mackinac, “In the land of Hiawatha, where the white man gazed with awe, at a paradise divided, by the straits of Mackinac, men are dredging, drilling, blasting, battling tides around the clock, through the depths of icy water, driving caissons down to rock. Fleets of freighters bring their cargoes from the forges and the kilns; stones and steel – ten thousand barge-loads – from the quarries, mines, and mills. Now the towers, mounting skyward, reach the heights of airy space. Hear the rivet-hammers ringing, joining steel in strength and grace. High above the swirling currents, parabolic strands are strung; from the cables, packed with power, wonder-spans of steel are hung. Generations dreamed the crossing; doubters shook their heads in scorn. Brave men vowed that they would build it – from their faith a bridge was born. There it spans the miles of water, speeding millions on their way – bridge of vision, hope and courage, portal to a brighter day.”[11] Taking the failure of the first Tacoma Bridge into careful consideration, David B. Steinman designed the Mackinac Bridge to withstand winds up to 365 miles per hour, it can flex 35 feet in both directions, and it can hold 38,486 tons of weight from automobile traffic.

To begin construction, surveyors set eight triangulation points of reference, two in Mackinac City, five in St. Ignace, and one in Green Island, and they proceeded to survey across the water.[12] Six sea-station platforms placed in two parallel rows, each consisting of three pipes driven into the hardpan, were established at varying depths from 25 feet deep to 100 feet deep.[13] The foundations for the Mackinac Bridge piers are called caissons, which are double walled, circular, open-bottomed watertight structures made offsite and then floated to their locations and carefully sunk into place in the bedrock.[14] Once the caissons were sunk, they were filled with grout and aggregate to make them solid, and then the next section was added, so that the caissons were layered as deep as 100 feet into the sand, clay, and hardpan geology at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.[15] Caissons were used to construct piers 18, 19, and 20, while cofferdams were used to construct the other 30 water piers (one of the 34 piers was constructed on land).[16] Over 900,000 tons of Intrusion-Prepakt concrete were used to build the Mackinac Bridge and roughly 80 percent of this volume is underwater as deep as 200 feet.[17] Construction of the two, 552 foot high steel towers began in 1955. Derrick barges and a device called ‘The Creeper’ were used to hoist the tiers of the towers into place, which weighed up to 280 tons individually.[18] Supporting these towers are steel columns that descend into the bedrock 200 feet under the piers. 60,000 coils of wire were used for the cables, each coil was spliced to created 60 miles of continuous wire on each reel, and each reel weighed over 19 tons.[19] Four wheels were used for the cable spinning on the Mackinac Bridge, which was operated via a pulley system through loops which repeated itself until the bridge’s two cables were two feet in diameter, each housing 12,580 wires.[20] Supporting Steinman’s theory, the inner most lanes of the roadway are open grids which greatly reduce wind resistance, and at midspan the road is 199 feet above the water’s surface.

Photo of David Steinman in the official Mackinac Bridge dedication motorcade, source:  mightymac.org

The opening of the bridge was officially November 1, 1957, however, due to the harsh fall climate in the Straits of Mackinac, the dedication of the bridge as the world’s longest suspension bridge between cable anchorages was not until June 1985.  Oscoda resident Druane J. Herek was ten years old on the opening day of the bridge and she recalls, “My dad had often taken us up to watch the construction of the bridge over the past three years, and now we were going to see part of the opening day festivities. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and as we rubbernecked the congestion, [my sister] Diane missed the final off-ramp to Mackinac City. We had to drive across the bridge to St Ignace. The sight from the bridge was breathtaking, but it was fraught with another dread. How were we going to pay the toll? At that time it cost $3.75 to cross the bridge- one way.”[21] The toll of $3.75 in 1957 would be equal to a toll of $32.80 in 2017. Despite the expensive toll required to cross the bridge, it was an addition to Michigan that many people greatly appreciated. An interview with Hank Czerwick, a Michigander who lived long before the luxury of the Mackinac Bridge, exemplified the opportunity that the Mackinac Bridge granted people to travel with more ease, “At family gatherings, my uncles regaled all who would listen, with stories of their hunting prowess and the beauty of the Upper Peninsula. What stuck in my mind were the tales of the long waits to board the ferries that crossed the straits. As much as I liked hiking the fields and meadows with my dad, I was glad that we never had to endure the trials of the “crossing” just to put game on the table. Until November 1, 1957, the Upper Peninsula might have been a European continent as far as I was concerned. It was bad enough waiting for the bridge at Zilwaukee, let alone sweating it out for hours in all of those woollies! Since those days, my family has crossed the bridge to visit the U.P. on numerous occasions. Other states have their marvels, but none have a bridge linking a “mitten” to a “new world”!”[22]

David B. Steinman calls the Mackinac Bridge his, “crowning achievement,”[23] and wrote the song of the bridge, “The light gleams on my strands and bars in glory when the sun goes down. I spread a net to hold the stars and wear the sunset as my crown.”[24] Today, maintenance of the bridge demands painting, electrical, steel and iron repair, welding and cementing, snow plowing, sanding, washing, and patching. The Operations Departments of the Mackinac Bridge is also imperative as it keeps surveillance of the weather and determines if conditions are safe for the bridge to remain open to travelers. The bridge is most typically closed due to wind or snow, however, it was closed for two minutes each when John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman were buried.[25] Today the Mackinac Bridge has been around for 60 years and transports millions of cars between the peninsulas each year. 2302 words

Notes

 

[1] “Mackinac Bridge,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed November 25, 2017.   http://www.asce.org/project/mackinac-bridge/.

[2] “History of the Bridge,” Mackinac Bridge Authority, accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.mackinacbridge.org/history/history-of-the-bridge/

[3] Interview conducted by Richard D. Shaul with Mr. Lawrence A. Rubin, conducted in his home in St. Ignace, Michigan, Spring 2006.

[4] “History of the Bridge,” Mackinac Bridge Authority, accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.mackinacbridge.org/history/history-of-the-bridge/

[5] LeRoy Barnett, “Fighting to Cross: Not Everyone Thought Building the Bridge Was A Great Idea,” Michigan History Magazine, July 2007, 29.

[6] Interview conducted by Richard D. Shaul with Mr. Lawrence A. Rubin, conducted in his home in St. Ignace, Michigan, Spring 2006.

[7] “David Barnard Steinman,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=11213

[8] Ibid.

[9] “David Barnard Steinman,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=11213

[10] “Mackinac Bridge,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.asce.org/project/mackinac-bridge/

[11] Mike Fornes, Mackinac Bridge: A 50-year Chronicle 1957-2007 (Cheboygan: Cheboygan Trubune Printing Company, 2007), 19.

[12] Linda McMaken, “Building The Mighty Mac,” Michigan History Magazine, July 2007, 38.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 42.

[18] Ibid., 44.

[19] Ibid., 48.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Dr. Roger L. Rosentreter, “Accidental Crossing,” Michigan History Magazine, July 2007, 56.

[22] Dr. Roger L. Rosentreter, “Big Mac and the New World,” Michigan History Magazine, July 2007, 67.

[23] “David Barnard Steinman,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=11213

[24] Mike Fornes, Mackinac Bridge: A 50-year Chronicle 1957-2007 (Cheboygan: Cheboygan Trubune Printing Company, 2007), 43.

[25] Ibid., 96.

Bibliography

American Society of Civil Engineers: Mackinac Bridge,

Stable URL: http://www.asce.org/project/mackinac-bridge/

American Society of Civil Engineers: David Barnard Steinman,

Stable URL: https://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=11213

Armstrong, Kristin Jass. “Job with A View,” Michigan History Magazine Vol. 91, No.4 (July 2007): 88-92.

Barnett, LeRoy. “Fighting to Cross: Not Everyone Thought Building the Bridge Was A Great Idea,” Michigan History Magazine Vol. 91, No. 4 (July 2007): 9-16.

Fornes, Mike. Mackinac Bridge: A 50- Year Chronicle 1957-2007. Cheboygan: Cheboygan Tribune Printing Company, 2007.

Interview conducted by Richard D. Shaul with Mr. Lawrence A. Rubin, conducted in his home in St. Ignace, Michigan, Spring 2006.

Mackinac Bridge Authority: History of the Bridge,

Stable URL: http://www.mackinacbridge.org/history/history-of-the-bridge/

McMaken, Linda. “Building the Mighty Mac,” Michigan History Magazine Vol. 91, No. 4 (July 2007): 36-55.

Rosentreter, Dr. Roger L. “Accidental Timing” and “Big Mac and the New World,” Michigan History Magazine Vol. 91, No. 4 (July 2007): 56 and 67.