Big Mac!

The “bridge from nowhere to nowhere” that opened up amazing vistas from the Upper Peninsula to Pacific Northwest.

By Mike Olmstead, Contributing Writer

Whether you’re pulling a trailer full of sleds, ATVs, or driving your Jeep, if you’re headed for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) from just about anywhere in the lower mitten, you’re going to have to cross the Mackinac Bridge! I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that just about everyone reading this article in Michigan Snowmobiler + ORV knows the proper pronunciation, however, just in case,  ‘Mackinac” is pronounced “MAK-e-naw”!!

Sure, not all of us trek to the UP for our trail riding, but there are a whole bunch of us who do!! Many of us travel regularly to the UP to take advantage of the excellent trail systems (not to mention the plethora of other recreational opportunities!). Many only make the trek occasionally, and yes, there are those who’ve never been to the UP to ride the trails but just know in their hearts they’re going to make the trip eventually! Bottom line though: No matter which group you fall into, to get ‘there’ from ‘here’ (Michigan!), you will have to cross the Bridge!!

So with that in mind, even though we tend to take the Mackinac Bridge for granted sometimes, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one of the world’s iconic bridges, and share some of the history and background behind  Mighty Mac!

Prior to the opening of the Bridge, travel between the peninsulas was by ferry boat. The State of Michigan Highway Department owned and operated a fleet of seven ferries that made the trek back and forth across the straits, with a total capacity of 635 autos. It was about a one-hour trip to get across the five-mile wide Straits on one of those ferries – once you finally got aboard! Seasonal delays were common; and it was not unusual to wait as long as 24 hours to cross the Straits on one of the State Ferries in deer season!

In addition, every year right up to the Bridge’s opening traffic across the Straits increased.  In 1957, the year the Bridge opened, the State Ferries were hauling 90,000 cars a month across the Straits.

“To illustrate the impact the bridge had on the area, the first month of traffic saw almost 120,000 cars and trucks cross the Bridge. And in 1958, the first year of operation, there were a total of 1,411,000 crossings, compared to 900,000 for the last year of ferry crossings.”

The Mackinac Bridge opened up the UP!

And not just the UP! In addition to the UP,  the Bridge has had a positive impact on Wisconsin and Minnesota, not to mention it’s a positive alternative to Chicago for east-west travel for long-haul truckers coming from the Pacific Northwest, the Dakotas, and Minnesota.

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere, and depending who you talk to, it is the 5th longest suspension bridge in the world.

Construction started on the Mackinac Bridge in 1954 with a $99,800,000 budget, and it was opened to traffic in November 1957 – just in time for that year’s deer season!  Official opening ceremonies and dedication were conducted later in 1958, in the hopes of friendlier weather.

Mike & Kaitlyn

To my knowledge, it is the only one of the world’s major bridges built literally in the middle of nowhere! In fact, that was one of the original criticisms to building the bridge, it was called the “bridge from nowhere to nowhere”! No major cities or metropolises on either end, essentially just northern Michigan wilderness. Yet despite that, the Bridge is the economic lifeblood of the region’s economy.

The Bridge wasn’t only an engineering marvel of its day, it remains an engineering marvel yet today. The Bridge in total is five miles long, with pier and truss construction at either end joined in the center by 7,800 feet of suspended span. The two magnificent towers – 3,800 feet apart – rise up out of the Straits 552 feet like ivory spires reaching to the heavens.  In tandem they carry the massive main cables that in turn hold the smaller cables that actually support the bridge deck below.

It took a total of 3,500 workers on site four years to build this impressive structure – and that’s not even working year round! Because of the northern locale, work through the winter was just not possible. Consequently, work out in the Straits ceased every year once winter had set in hard and didn’t continue again until the following spring.

Here’s just a couple of the construction details to illustrate how massive this undertaking was:

• Number of Steel Rivets: 4,851,700

• Number of Steel Bolts: 1,016,600

• Length of Wire in Main Cables: 42,000 Miles

Ladder to the top
Hatch Into Tower

An interesting fact about the Bridge is like all suspension bridges it’s designed to be flexible, and depending on the wind the center span can “sway” or move as much as thirty feet at the center of the span! The Bridge Authority is quick to point out however that to the casual observer this is almost impossible to detect. Next time you cross the Bridge note the massive expansion joints in the road deck at each of the towers!

The bridge is open 24-7, with rare exceptions for inclement weather, usually high winds and/or icing conditions. The bridge is built to withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour.

However, it’ll partially close when winds gust 50 miles per hour and entirely closes at 65 miles per hour.

Under those conditions it’s not unusual to allow passenger car traffic to pass while holding back ‘high profile’ vehicles back until the weather abates (high profile vehicles would be large trucks and trailers, and may include camper trailers as well the trailers we use to drag our ‘toys’ back and forth).

Even in the harsh weather condition that the Bridge is subject to, it has an amazing safety record.

Throughout its history, only two vehicles have fallen off the side of the Mackinac Bridge. However, none of them were the result of wind

Another feature about Big Mac is that there is no provision for walking across the span. Researching this article I discovered that there is no hard and fast rule for the major bridges when it comes to allowing pedestrians to cross! In addition to the Mackinac, the Verrazano Narrows (NYC) and Detroit’s Ambassador bridges do not accommodate pedestrians, while the George Washington, Brooklyn, Golden Gate, and Detroit’s newest suspension bridge, the Gordy Howe all have pedestrian walkways.

Mike Olmstead in August 1957
Mackinac Bridge under construction

But if your heart is set on walking across the Mackinac Bridge there is a way! Since the Bridge’s first full year in 1958 they have conducted their Annual Bridge Walk on each Labor Day. The Bridge is totally closed to vehicular traffic on Labor Day morning for participants to make the walk. 26,000 people participated in the 2022 Bridge Walk, with the largest participation in 1992 when an estimated 85,000 walkers made the walk! If you’re interested and would like some more information, here’s a link from the Bridge Authority with everything you need to know about this year’s bridge walk:  Oh, one other thing: If you are going to or coming from the UP over Labor Day, stay away from Monday morning!

Another view of the Bridge that only a relatively few people have had the opportunity to see is the Mackinac Bridge ‘Tower Tour’. I had the good fortune to take the ‘Tower Tour’ a few years ago with my granddaughter and it was incredible!

It starts with a ride out to the south tower in one of the Bridge Authority’s work vans, climb through an access hatch, ride a tightly cramped elevator up the east leg of the tower to a platform about 30’ below the tower’s peak. We then snake our way through a labyrinth of steel superstructure cells, and then the hard part! A 30’ climb up a vertical steel ladder to a hatch at the top, and then you step out onto one of the coolest places I’ve ever been: the top of the Bridge tower!!

The view is breathtaking to say the least. If you’re afraid of heights this is not the place to be! You’re accompanied by a Bridge employee who is first well versed in what you can see, the ‘how fars’, ‘how highs’ and ‘how manys’, but second, probably more importantly, watches you pretty close to follow the rules and make sure you stay safe!

As we exited the tower I took note of the ‘massive expansion’ joint in the roadway at the tower. What was very interesting was that you could actually see it ‘working’, i.e., moving a couple inches back and forth as the Bridge’s main span flexed in the breeze!

The Mackinac Bridge brought a lot to the area besides just an expedited trip across the Straits! Because of the Bridge and the subsequent exponential growth of both St. Ignace and Mackinac City, tourism flourished, both with local attractions and as an oasis for travelers & truckers passing through. Nearby Mackinac Island is world known, and an hour north lie the “World Famous Soo Locks”! Several casinos have also sprung up in the general area providing some diversity to the menu of things to do. 

On the heels of this growth are some events that should be attractive to all of us motorsports enthusiasts! Each of these events typically includes an actual drive across the Bridge as a single file group!  Here they are:

• Jeep the Mac – May 12-14, 2023; Jeeps only!

• Bronco the Mac – June 9-11 2023; Broncos (any year!) only!

• Trek the Mac – September, tbd.; ATVS and SxS’s only!

• Antique Snowmobile Crossing – December 9, 2023; Machines must be at least 25 years old or older to participate and also have a wheel kit installed.

There aren’t too many things cooler than crossing the Bridge with a bunch of ‘brothers in arms’! More information about these events, as well as other events in the area (St. Ignace does one heck of a classic car show every June!) can be found on the St. Ignace website here:

So, that’s the short story on the Mackinac Bridge! Additional information about the Mackinac Bridge can be found at:,

I’ll bet you never take it for granted again!

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