My Favourite Way to Leave Michigan
Column for April 3, 2005
When I get the urge to get away, the Blue Water area, which includes the cities of Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario is one place I like to go. On either side of the St. Clair River near the twin-span Blue Water Bridge, you can see the passing boats, big and small, look at the opposite shore in another country–so close yet so far away (wasn’t that a song?), and see the two beautiful spans linking two great nations. I prefer the Canadian side at Point Edward where there are several commemorative and historic plaques for the two bridges while there is only one on the American side, an aluminum road sign honoring the sidewalk supervisors who watched the construction of the second span. A young boy named Tom Edison got more appreciation than the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron. Under the bridge on the Port Huron side is the Thomas Edison Depot Museum in the former Grand Trunk Fort Gratiot station. Their URL is http://www.phmuseum.org/depot/depot.htm

The most direct way between Chicago and Toronto incorporates the Blue Water Bridge. The original span was opened in 1938 after 14 months of construction and a decade of planning. The Blue Water Bridge would become the third busiest border crossing between the USA and Canada. Over time, three expressways, Interstates 69 and 94 on the Michigan side and King’s Highway 402 on the Ontario side would converge on the two-lane cantilever truss bridge. In 1992, it was determined that traffic on the Blue Water Bridge is exceeding its rated capacity and that work must begin on a new bridge. Because of the intense need to get the bridge built, the Michigan Department of Transportation (which owns the American half) and the Blue Water Bridge Authority (which owns the Canadian half) were able to get a bridge designed and built in five years, half the time it took to get the original span built.

Because of the infrastructure in place, it was decided to build a second Blue Water Bridge span next to the existing one. Improvements to the Customs plazas at both ends of the bridge would also take place. Several designs for the second span were drawn up. The popular choice was an identical cantilever truss bridge. But historians vetoed that plan. Because the original Blue Water Bridge was more than 50 years old, it qualifies for historic status. Also, bridge design and construction techniques have advanced during that time allowing for stronger bridges using fewer spans which would have lower maintenance costs. To build a replica bridge would be like cheating history. The chosen design was a continuous tied-arch bridge which blends in with the original span yet stands out on its own. This would make the new span look like a newer version of the old span.

I took pictures of the new bridge under construction. I also took part in the bridge walk to help open the new span so I walked the whole length of the three-lane bridge just before it opened in 1997. Some of the pictures I took include those which would raise suspicion today as you can see from the photo of the twin span taken from underneath. In the post 9/11 world, there are now several security cameras in place underneath the bridges so I could risk getting arrested now if I took several pictures underneath the bridges.

Upon the opening of the new bridge, the old bridge was immediately closed for two years of refurbishing. Continuous use from 1938 to 1997 had taken its toll on the old span. This makes the new bridge the world’s most expensive detour. The entire deck of the old bridge was removed. Bridge architects and structural engineers realized that the original span was designed for two lanes of traffic so additional structure was added and worn out steel was replaced so that the refurbished bridge could accommodate three lanes of traffic. To make room for the third lane, the sidewalks on the original span were eliminated so pedestrians can only cross the new span which is the south span. Bicycles must be walked on the bridge. In refurbishing the bridge, any rivets which were removed were replaced by bolts. The new bridge was built without rivets, only bolts. Both bridges are painted a generic light gray color, no particular brand.

Before the original span reopened in 1999, there was another bridge walk. I was there, too. This time, the Americans had fallen behind schedule so when the bridge walk took place, the Canadian side was finished and the American side was not yet ready for traffic. You can see what I mean from the photo of the bridge taken at the boundary. When the old bridge finally reopened, the new or south span began carrying three lanes of eastbound traffic from Port Huron, Michigan to Point Edward, Ontario. The old or north span started carrying three lanes of westbound traffic in the other direction.

While I am symbolically in Canada, I’ll spend some time in Sarnia and take a symbolic alternate route back to the USA. I say symbolic as, again in the post 9/11 world, I cannot take this alternate route to the USA anymore–that is unless I happen to work for CN conducting locomotives. That’s the hint for the next two planned columns.

Before I wrap up this column, I’ll acknowledge an E-mail I received from Dan Crannie of Signs by Crannie who Googled his company and read my earlier column from January 20, 2004 mentioning his company changing the Amoco signs to BP signs in the Flint area. Mr. Crannie thanked me and wrote "As I was reading the page there were many more projects that we had a part in and it made me proud to see just how much Flint has meant to our family. We had a hand in the Arches, the Citizens Bank changeover, Capitol Theater renovations, U of M Flint, Walli's drive-in, Hamady Bros., Whaley Children's Center and so many more. We have only so much time here, and we can only hope that the marks we leave are good ones. Thanks for showing me some of our good ones." You’re welcome, Dan.

Relevant links for the Blue Water Bridge:

Transport Canada: http://www.tc.gc.ca/programs/surface/bridges/bluewater.htm

Blue Water Bridge Authority: http://www.bwba.org/

Michigan Department of Transportation: http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,1607,7-151-9618_11070---,00.html

Several good pictures of the bridges and plaques can be found at http://www.pcnate.com/bridges/truss/bwb/