There have been three bridges to Belle Isle, and between them, they've carried countless numbers of Detroiters to an island paradise in the middle of the Detroit River.
Work on the first span to the island began in 1887. The steel-and-wood structure opened June 25, 1889, and cost $295,000. It was a swing bridge, with a section that opened up parallel to the river in order to let boats pass.
On a warm, quiet afternoon on April 27, 1915, a couple of guys were playing cards in Henry Moesta's bar at Jefferson Avenue and East Grand Boulevard, near the bridge. Writing in The Detroit News 25 years later, George W. Stark recalled that day: "It was so quiet you could hear the ace drop on the card table every time Henry led with it."
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.
"'Busch, Busch, the bridge!'" he shouted. 'The bridge – the bridge is burning!'
Henry W. Busch was the general superintendent of the parks department at the time.
"' What's this all about?' Busch asked. 'What's the joke?'
" 'But it's no joke, Henry,' insisted Moesta. 'I tell you, the bridge is burning like 60. Send the firemen!' "
A steel cart used for heating tar had tipped and started a fire. 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 in April 1954.
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.
A temporary bridge opened a year later, in July 1916, just west of the old bridge. It was known for its noisy wooden plank roadway. This structure cost $100,000 and remained in service until Nov. 1, 1923, when the permanent, current bridge opened.
Third bridge is the charm
Plans for the current bridge were publicly unveiled more than six years earlier, in the late spring of 1917. 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. L.M. Gram was the engineer. The proposed bridge would be 86 feet wide with two sidewalks 12 feet wide on either side of a 59-foot roadway. The Detroiter described Lorch's design as "a pleasing architectural plan" that was "light in appearance rather than massive." To avoid traffic backups, a subway under Jefferson Avenue was proposed.
Lorch and his team at the University of Michigan clearly drew inspiration from a design for the bridge that was proposed by architect Cass Gilbert eight years earlier.
While the bridge was under construction, it was proposed that rails be added to allow for the city's streetcar lines. On Sept. 12, 1922, Detroiters voted 45,538-36,511 to approve the move. After all, Detroiters could take the streetcars to every other park in the city. Mayor James Couzens was onboard with the proposal, but Commissioner Edward G. Heckel of the Parks & Boulevard department was not: He feared traffic jams and backups on the bridge if there were streetcars plodding back and forth on it. In March 1923, he requested that the project be scrapped. But acting Mayor John C. Lodge wanted it to proceed. After all, the people had spoken and wanted the service. So the tracks were laid before the bridge's opening – yet they would never be used.
The Detroit papers heralded the coming of the bridge, saying that its opening brought "to realization a civic improvement upon which Detroit's dreams have been centered nearly a quarter of a century."
It cost $2.64 million to build, the equivalent $35.8 million today, when adjusted for inflation.
In 1932, it was proposed that the bridge be named after George Washington, but 10 years later, the Common Council chose instead to rename the landmark the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, in honor of the American military commander.
On June 20, 1943, the bridge was where false rumors sparked a race riot that left 34 dead, 675 injured and 1,800 arrested, and caused $2 million in damage.
In early 1959, an idea was floated about adding a 5-cent toll to cross the bridge, a way to bring extra money into the city without increasing taxes by charging a usage fee. "Detroit councilmen, though desperate over the city's rocky finances," were not crazy about the idea, the Detroit Times reported. For starters, such a toll would bring in only $150,000 a year, and the council was looking for millions. "I don't think we should be talking about sticking a finger in the dike," Councilwoman Blanche Parent Wise told the Detroit Times. "We should be re-examining the entire dike."
That made such a toll more of a "nuisance tax" than relief for the city's coffers. The council decided to gun for bigger fish – a city income tax.
A $11.5 million reconstruction of the bridge began in February 1984, the first major maintenance in its lifetime. It was rededicated Dec. 16, 1986. A much-loved, but much-crumbling underpass on East Grand Boulevard under Jefferson Avenue was removed as part of the project. It had opened Feb. 12, 1921, and — despite signs telling drivers not to sound their horn — many Detroiters just couldn’t help but give the ol’ echo chamber a shout or honk.
More on this Detroit landmark coming soon.