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Business and Industry
A view down the suspension cables toward Sandwich, Ontario, during construction of the Ambassador Bridge in 1929.
The building of the Ambassador Bridge
By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News
For the past 67 years,
the Ambassador Bridge has served as a graceful link between Detroit and
its neighbor, Windsor, Ontario, and as a weathered monument to the
friendship and cooperation of two great nations. But the bridge itself
was born not out of peace and cooperation but amid bitter squabbling
between public and private interests over whether it should be built
and who would build it.
Detroit River and the Great Lakes it links were of enormous importance
to industry and commerce since the early days of the fur trade. As
British and French explorers opened up the region Detroit, settled
first by the French, became the key to control of trade on the lakes.
Forts Pontchartrain, Shelby and Wayne were built along what is now the
American side of the river. Fort Malden near Amherstburg guarded what
is now the Canadian side.
the Revolutionary War, Detroit was the primary British outpost for
raids on American colonials in New York, Illinois and Ohio, and once
again was the key to control of the Great Lakes.
the treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the war and recognized the
independence of the fledgling United States, Detroit and the area
surrounding it came under American control.
settlement of the Detroit area and Ontario boomed during the 19th
century the Detroit River took on even greater importance. Railroad
magnates lobbied for an easy way to cross the river and were bitterly
opposed by steamboat interests who wanted to protect their control of
the waterways. Early proposals of drawbridges and winter-only crossings
were successfully fought by the boat owners who insisted any kind of
bridge would be a menace to nagivation.
Battles raged on both sides of the river between politicians and merchants over where a bridge should be located.
the midst of the boomtimes of the "Roaring Twenties," Joseph A. Bower,
a former Detroiter who now headed a New York financial syndicate, was
approached by James W. Austin, then head of Detroit Graphite Company.
Austin wanted Bower to build a bridge over the Detroit River and he
wanted a contract for his Detroit Gaphite Company to paint it.
Construction workers compact the suspension cable with hydraulic tongs.|
went to Congress and got a building franchise only to face a huge
political hurdle in the form of Detroit Mayor John W. Smith. Mayor
Smith wanted the cities of Detroit and Windsor to join in building a
municipally owned bridge, even though such an arrangement was
impossible due to charter limitations in both Detroit and Windsor.
with time running out on his congressional franchise, Bower had
Austin's l6-year-old daughter, Helen, drive in the first spike of a
bridge approach ramp at Jefferson and 2lst Street on May 7, l927. The
next day, 50 workers started sinking test borings to determine the
depth of the bedrock.
correctly assumed that Congress would accept these moves as the
beginnings of construction and buy him more time to battle Mayor Smith.
with the help of Detroit City Council President John C. Lodge and
Detroit business leaders, Bower took his case to the voters of Detroit
for approval of a bridge ordinance:
This diagram from The Detroit Times shows the extent of the
tear-down when faults were discovered in the steel cable. More than
11,000 miles of steel wire was unstrung and the entire flooring of the
bridge had to be removed.|
I interpret the Mayor's statement," Bower argued, "he is not in favor
of a bridge being built by a private company. This matter has been
under discussion for several years, and we recall conferences between
Mayor Smith and Mayor Mitchell of Windsor, at which time, these
gentlemen endeavored to find a way in which the municipalities could
join in building an international bridge. At the end of their
conferences, they were apparently as far from arranging for a bridge as
when the discussions were begun."
voters were swayed and the bridge ordinance passed . Full scale
construction began on both sides of the river in August of 1927 and the
bridge began inching across the waterway. But then new problems arose.
In March 1929, construction was halted when faults were discovered in
the steel wire of the bridge's two main cables. The Pittsburgh
construction firm, McClintic-Marshall Company, had to dismantle the
suspension cables and take down the roadway before construction would
continue. Despite the delay, the bridge was completed nine months ahead
Armistice Day, Nov. ll, l929, thousands of parading veterans joined a
crowd of 60,000 for the dedication of the bridge. Days earlier, the
stock market had suffered its worst losses and financial panic was in
full bloom. But despite the ominous clouds, a burst of civic pride
lifted the spirits of the crowd. After all, Detroit now boasted the
longest suspension bridge span in the world -- l,850 feet.
Thousands attempt to get on the bridge for the official dedication on Veteran's Day, 1929.|
Herbert Hoover was the first choice as speaker at the dedication
cxeremonies, but Hoover had been in Detroit only a few weeks earlier
for the dedication of the Edison Institute in Dearborn and his advisers
feared other states would accuse him of favoritism if he returned to
Detroit so soon. Vice-President Charles Curtis also declined.
desperation, the celebrants turned to Michigan Gov. Fred W. Green. He
didn't disappoint the revelers. Gov. Green wound up with an eloquent
oration addressed to the bridge:
you endure for, aye, not only a work of material beauty and utility,
but as a symbol of loveliness and usefulness. May you portray
international confidence and the mutual honor of the nations whose
territories, and whose people you bind together."
the Canadian side of the bridge, Charles McCrae, Ontario Minister of
Mines, expressed the hope that "the sun shall always set upon this
connecting link between two great countries with their friendships
firmly set and their goodwill warmly alive."
construction of the bridge, it was referred to as the 'Detroit River
Bridge'. Joseph Bower felt this was too impersonal. He turned down
recommendations to have it named the 'Bower Bridge' and suggested
instead, that it be called the 'Ambassador Bridge'.
after the bridge opened, it became the site of numerous publicity
stunts. In December of l929, Dottie Reed, niece of actor Wallace Reed,
toe danced across the bridge. Swimmers and high divers announced plans
to dive off the span but decided against it after measuring the depths
and strengths of the river currents.
bridge became a popular site for weddings, but marital bliss for many
turned to panic when it was pointed out that the bridge was an
international no-man's land and the weddings may not be valid.
Mrs. George E. Hammond of Detroit arrived at the bridge at 5 a.m.
the morning of the dedication to become the first woman to cross the
In the early days, people were permitted to walk or ride bicycles
across the structure. It soon became a popular spot to end a life. In
1930, a Canadian inspector became the first to jump to his death off
the Ambassador Bridge. Over the years, many others would follow. Few
survived the jump.
Prohibition, rumrunners smuggled whiskey across the bridge to thirsty
Detroiters but the bridge traffic was small potatoes compared to the
smuggling on the river below.
During World War II, the bridge was guarded as a vital military transportation asset.
over ownership and control of the bridge continued for many years. In
1978, the Detroit International Bridge was merged with Central Cartage
of Sterling Heights. The second busiest crossing along the country's
northern border remains in private ownership. In 1981, after a campaign
by the Central Business District Association and CBDA President, Diane
Edgecomb, permanent year-round lights were added to the bridge. To the
surprise of many, they found that the bridge had already been prepped
for lighting during its earlier years.
seven years after its dedication, the inscription etched in identical
tablets at each end of the bridge is still appropriate:
"The visible expression of friendship in the hearts of two peoples with like ideas and ideals."
Michigan Gov. Fred W. Green, standing behind the microphone at right, waits to deilver his eloquent oration to the bridge.|