Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Belle Isle Bridge (old)

On a warm, quiet afternoon in 1915, a couple of guys were playing cards in Henry Moesta's bar at Jefferson Avenue and East Grand Boulevard, near the old Belle Isle Bridge.

"It was so quiet you could hear the ace drop on the card table every time Henry led with it," George W. Stark recalled in the Detroit News.

Things changed unexpectedly – and in a hurry.

Out of nowhere, Moesta jumped up and rushed to the telephone. It was a little after 3 in the afternoon April 27, 1915.

"The bridge – the bridge is burning!" he screamed into the phone.

A steel cart used for heating tar had tipped and started a fire on the old wood-and-steel span. The creosote blocks that paved the bridge made ready fuel to feed the blaze, sending huge, billowing clouds of black smoke into the air. The fierce winds fanned the burning coals from the cart, and "soon the flames were wrapping themselves around the steel superstructure, which became grotesquely twisted. And the intense heat split some of the supporting stone piers, and they went hissing into the river," Stark recalled in the Detroit News on the 25th anniversary of the fire.

Two fireboats and several fire companies responded, but it was no use. The bridge burned almost completely, providing what Stark called "one of the most spectacular fires in history" – or in Detroit's history, anyway.

"People wept for the old bridge, for it was a token of a city's gayer moments," Stark said.

There were allegations made that the fire was intentionally set. Some even accused Mayor Oscar Marx of having the deed done as a way to get himself a new bridge in the face of public opposition.

Work on that first span to the island had begun in 1887. But it wouldn't be until Oct. 5, 1888, that the first span of the bridge was placed. The section had been ready for installation for several days earlier, but rough weather and choppy water delayed the work.

“The span was floated out sideways on two scows towed by the tug McKinnon,” the Detroit Tribune wrote the following day. “It was about 2 feet higher than the piers upon which it was intended to rest. In about an hour, the tug had it between the two piers nearest the mainland. Then the span was lowered by partially filling the scows with water. This dropped the span into its proper place, blocks and tackle being used to regulate its descent.”

There were about 10 more spans to go. Each span took about three days to build and place. Nevertheless, the bridge company’s president expected the project would be done before Jan. 1, 1889. It would not go nearly that fast. The steel-and-wood structure was turned over to the City on June 18, 1889, and it was formally unveiled June 25, 1889, and cost $295,000 -- about $7.6 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

It was a swing bridge, with a section that opened up parallel to the river in order to let boats pass.

A temporary bridge opened a year after the fire, in July 1916, just west of the old bridge. It was known for its noisy wooden plank roadway. This structure remained in service until Nov. 1, 1923, when the permanent, current bridge opened.

The design by Emil Lorch called for a concrete-and-steel structure 3,500 feet long, including approaches, with 19 spans and 30 feet of headroom for boats. It cost $2.635 million to build -- $35.8 million today, nearly five times more expensive than the original bridge.

Today, that span is officially the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, but most people just call it the "Belle Isle Bridge."

More on this landmark of Detroit coming soon.