A Tale of Two Bridges: History of Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge

Freighter Saginaw Under the Blue Water Bridge

Untitled, photo by Diane

The website Michigan History was produced by someone at MSU. While I have no idea who or why they gave up on what was shaping up to be a cool website, the history checks out. The page on Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge says:

Perhaps Port Huron’s greatest claim to fame is the Blue Water Bridge, a historic arcing bridge that serves as a means of transportation between Canada and the United States. The bridge is located over the St. Clair River, and connects Port Huron, Michigan, to Sarnia, Ontario. In 2013 the Blue Water Bridge celebrated its 75th anniversary, and a closer look at its history show why Port Huron residents take pride in the structure.

The original Blue Water Bridge was constructed in 1938, and was built by the American Bridge Company of New York, and the Hamilton Bridge Company of Ontario. The original bridge is an arch cantilever bridge, which was designed to not only support large amounts of traffic, but also to have an aesthetic arching look. In the late 1980s the border crossing became so popular that plans for a new bridge were brought up. However, instead of demolishing the old bridge, a new one was built in 1997 beside the old bridge, to support eastbound traffic.

The Michigan cost for building the new bridge, and renovating the old one was $62.6 million dollars. (Michigan Department of Transportation) The project was considered an enormous success and won awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Ontario Institution of Steel Construction, and the Federal Highway Administration. For Port Huron residents the bridge signifies the close connection with Canada, and the willingness of the two sides to work closely together.

Click for more about the history of Port Huron. If you want to get really in depth, The Construction History of the Blue Water Bridge (pdf) is an excellent account that details the political maneuverings and construction challenges of both bridges.

View Diane’s photo of the freighter Saginaw passing under the Blue Water Bridge background bigtacular and see more in her Freighters and the St. Clair River slideshow.

There’s more Michigan bridges on Michigan in Pictures, and since you’ve read this far, Boatnerd’s page on the Saginaw has everything you’ll want to know about the self-unloading bulk carrier that was launched May 9th, 1953 as the John J. Boland. It’s one of three near sister vessels built by this shipyard: The John G. Munson which is still plying the lakes and the Detroit Edison that suffered a career-ending grounding in Lake Michigan in December of 1980.

Michigan’s First Lighthouse: Fort Gratiot Lighthouse

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, photo by charles hildebrandt

Terry Pepper’s Seeing the Light is the go-to resource for Michigan lighthouses. His Fort Gratiot Lighthouse page begins:

The entrance into the St. Claire River from Lake Huron had long been deemed of strategic importance. Named after General Charles Gratiot, the engineer in charge of its construction, the Fort Gratiot military outpost was established at the entrance to the river in 1814, and ensured the security of vessels making the passage.

With the surge in vessel traffic on Lake Huron in the early 1800’s, the need for a lighthouse to guide vessels into the river and away from the shallows at the River entrance became a matter of increasing importance. In response to this need, Congress appropriated $3,500 to construct a lighthouse “near Fort Gratiot, in Michigan Territory” on March 3rd of 1823.

The contract for construction of the lighthouse and keepers dwelling was awarded to Captain Winslow Lewis of Massachusetts. Lewis was the inventor of the patented Lewis Lamp, which the Fifth Auditor had universally adopted as the primary source of illumination in the nation’s growing inventory of lighthouses. A staunch supporter and ally of the Fifth Auditor, Lewis had branched out into the business of lighthouse construction, and as the frequent low bidder, was being awarded a growing number of contracts to fulfill the nation’s need for navigational aids on the East Coast.

Lewis sub-contracted the construction of the tower and keepers dwelling that would become known as the “Fort Gratiot Light” to Mr. Daniel Warren of Rochester New York. Work commenced on the structure, but appears to have been running far beyond the scope of the original bid, since Congress appropriated an additional $5,000 for the project’s completion on April 2, 1825.

With the completion of construction on August 8th of that year, Fort Gratiot Light held the honor of becoming the first lighthouse in the State of Michigan.

Read on for much more including a couple of old photos of the light.

View Charles’ photo background big and click for more of his lighthouse photos.

Many more Michigan lighthouses on Michigan in Pictures!

Ice Harvesting in Michigan

Ice Harvesting, Shooting Cakes into the House

Ice Harvesting, Shooting Cakes into the House, photo courtesy Detroit Publishing Co / Library of Congress

Today’s feature comes via eatdrinkTC, and you can head over there for some photos of ice harvesting in Traverse City and a cool video!

There was a time when the winter ice harvest was as critical as any other harvest, allowing folks in Michigan and elsewhere to enjoy & keep fresh food in summertime. Knowlton’s Ice Museum of North America in Port Huron is dedicated to chronicling what was once a huge industry for Michigan that is now almost forgotten. They explain:

Michigan was one of the main sources of ice harvesting because in those times people cherished the clear hard ice harvested from the beautiful Great Lakes. In the winter months farmers would make money to feed their families by working on the ice fields (rivers, ponds and lakes). Using primitive ice tools they would scrape snow off of the field, measure ice thickness, and saw ice cakes or blocks of ice.

The 300 lb. blocks would then be loaded onto horse drawn flat-bed type wagons and moved off the ice field. The horses hauled the load to stick built ice houses created along rivers and lakes where the ice was stored until the summer months when it could be sold. The ice was stacked and packed inside the ice house. Sawdust was used for insulation and placed in between layers of ice. Some ice houses stored over 1,600 ton of ice. The work these men did each long day was dangerous and cold. Once a luxury, ice became a common household and business commodity by 1900. The ice delivery man would weigh ice blocks and deliver ice by horse drawn covered wagon to homes and businesses. Each order was carried into the home and placed into the top shelf of an ice box to keep food fresh.

We found the above photo from the Detroit Publishing Company via Emily Bingham’s excellent Found Michigan website that has a really nice article about ice harvesting in Michigan.  Also check out an article about ice harvesting and ice saws from the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society.

What Was There, Michigan Edition

Princess Theatre, Detroit photo courtesy WhatWasThere

The other day I came across a new website called WhatWasThere. This innovative project ties historical photos to Google Maps and Google street views so you can see what was there. You can browse around a map, zooming in and out and then click on photos. The site lays them over the Google street view and lets you fade the old photo to reveal what’s there now!

Unsurprisingly, Detroit has the best coverage so far, and it’s pretty cool to see how sites like Woodward Ave looking north at Jefferson (location of the Spirit of Detroit) or Griswold Street have changed. Water Winter Wonderland (a cool site in its own right) has a sweet shot of the interior of the Princess and says that the Princess Theatre was shuttered in 1922 and located at 520 Woodward. That’s the present site of the old Comerica Bank HQ. At another of my favorite sites for old photos, Shorpy, you can get this photo bigger and even buy a print!

Here’s the link to WhatWasThere for Michigan.  There’s not a whole lot of photos to be found (yet) outside Detroit, but one of the coolest things is that you can add your own historical photos, so the site is only going to get better. There are some definite gems though – be sure to check out Grand Rapids City Hall, the seriously cool looking Lansing Masonic Temple at the site of Cooley Law School and the not very much changed Front St in Marquette. A surprising hot spot is Port Huron – check out Sperry’s Department Store to get going.

US Coast Guard Cutter Bramble: A Ramblin’ Gal

USCGC Bramble

USCGC Bramble, photo by k.l.macke.

Wikipedia says that the USCGC Bramble (WLB-392) is one of the 39 original 180-foot  seagoing buoy tenders built between 1942-1944 for the United States Coast Guard. Bramble is currently a museum ship, part of Port Huron Museum. The museum’s page on the USCG Cutter Bramble says:

The Coast Guard Cutter Bramble was commissioned in 1944 at a cost of just over $925,000. Following World War II, the Bramble participated in “Operation Crossroads,” the first test of an atomic bomb’s effect on surface ships, at Bikini Island. In 1957, along with the cutters Spar and Storis, it headed for the Northwest Passage, traveling through the Bering Straits and Arctic Ocean. Traveling for 64 days through 4,500 miles of partially uncharted waters, the vessels finally reached the Atlantic Ocean. These three surface vessels were the first to circumnavigate the North American Continent, an ambition mariners have had for more than 400 years.

In 1962, the Bramble transferred to Detroit to perform the missions of search and rescue, icebreaking, and law enforcement throughout the Great Lakes, in addition to aids to navigation. In 1975, the Bramble reported to Port Huron. The cutter’s areas of responsibility included eastern Lake Erie, southern Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, and maintaining 187 buoys, one NOAA weather buoy, and three fog signals. During winter months, its capabilities as an icebreaker enabled it to escort ships through ice and assist ships in distress. The Bramble was decommissioned in 2003 to be used as a museum.

Check this out bigger and in Keith’s Ships, Boats & Water Toys set (slideshow).

Night and Day Fountain in Port Huron

Day & Night Diptych

Day & Night Diptych, photo by jrde3.

Here’s a few more views of this sculpture and also check out Jonathan’s Port Huron, MI set (slideshow).

The sculptures are located at McMorran Place in Port Huron where they explain that noted sculptor Marshall Fredericks:

…designed these over-life sized figures for the NIGHT AND DAY FOUNTAIN outside of the McMorran Auditorium in Port Huron. The fountain is beneath the 22 ft. diameter sculptural clock, which was also designed by Fredericks. He chose time as the theme of the auditoriums exterior ornamentation because the donors of the building put great value in punctuality. In keeping with the long tradition on western art, the sculptor personified time with figures representing night and day.

Check out more work by Marshall Fredericks on Michigan in Pictures.

Memorial for the 1971 Port Huron Water Tunnel Explosion


“TUNNEL DISASTER”, photo by uthomie7264.

I got all excited that the 60,000th photo had been added to the Absolute Michigan pool on Flickr, but when I researched it, I found that there’s a terrible tragedy associated with it. The Detroit News relates that the events of December 11th, 1971 that resulted in the deaths of 22 workers.

Construction of the tunnel had begun in the spring of 1968 and was plagued by controversy, mishaps and plan changes from the start. The tunnel was to go five miles under the lake off Port Huron through bedrock to access fresh water for metropolitan Detroit. It was to be capable from the beginning of pumping 400 million gallons of pure drinking water per day to a thirsty Detroit, later expanding to 1.2 billion gallons to meet the demands of a rapidly growing area. The $120-million project was only three weeks from completion at the time of the blast.

“I don’t remember much about the explosion,” said one of the survivors, Richard Green, then 27. “I thought an air line broke, but it pushed the hell out of me. It seemed like a bomb. I was on top of the form (for concrete pouring) and the next thing I knew I was flying through the air.”

You can read more about the Memorial for the 1971 Water Tunnel Explosion from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and more about the sculpture from sculptor Paula Slater’s web site.

Be sure to check this photo out bigger too!