Special Report: The Causeway

Today, crossing the Straits of Mackinac is pretty simple thanks to the Mackinac Bridge.

But before the bridge, there was another plan drawn up in the 1920s and, if that proposal was acted on, it would have changed the whole makeup of the how we would look at and cross the Straits.

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s in a picture or standing on the beach, we all stand in awe of Michigan’s icon, and, thankfully, it’s there.

Before the Mackinac Bridge, traffic was a major issue, even as far back as the 1920s. Something needed to be done.

“So at that time, the highway commissioner of Michigan called out to all engineers to propose a permanent crossing in the Straits of Mackinac. And he, himself, proposed a floating tunnel across the Straits and then an engineer out of New York proposed a series of causeways and bridges,” said Bob Sweeney with the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Charles E. Fowler was his name, and his proposal was massive.

“It’s my understanding the causeway was a proposal presented to the highway department about a series of bridges and causeways from Cheboygan to St. Ignace to make the Straits crossing,” explained Sweeney.

Here’s the how it would have been laid out.

Starting in St. Ignace across the Straits to the south end of Mackinac Island. From Mackinac to Round Island, then from Round over to Bois Blanc Island all the way down the center of the island, splitting the Twin and Thompson lakes, back into Lake Huron landing in Grass Bay just east of Cheboygan. Just about a 25 mile combination of bridges and causeways.

“If they would have built that series of causeways and bridges, they would have ended up with a suspension bridge between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace because there is a deep channel,” said Sweeney.

In these graphics, the bold lines would have been the causeways. Two suspension bridges would have had to be built.

“They probably could have built a causeway from Cheboygan to Bois Blanc Island, they would have had to build a bridge for the shipping channel portion of that,” explained Sweeney.

Then there’s the problem of spanning the waters between Mackinac and Round.

“They would have had to build a bridge with the ability to open it, or allow shipping traffic to go there, too,” explained Sweeny.

The proposal did get some traction. To this day, you can see survey markers on Bois Blanc for this massive project.

“I heard that there is a survey line on Bois Blanc of that alignment for the road that would cut across Bois Blanc and it was from the 1920s, so it’s thought to be part of that survey line of the suggest series of causeways and bridges that was proposed by C.E. Fowler recommended,” said Sweeney.

It’s hard to conceptualize what the Straits would look like just if this plan happened. Cars on Mackinac Island?

“It would have changed Mackinac Island significantly. The island as it had been known for generations before would have disappeared. It would have been a different place, it would have been a pit stop off this major bridge system,” explained Steve Brisson with the Mackinac State Historic Parks.

About 80 people live on Bois Blanc year round. Imagine a major traffic system running through the beauty of the island.

“I think Bois Blanc would have seen significant development because of it, and the whole nature of it, all the sudden these remote islands in the Straits would have been support systems for this bridge system,” said Brisson.

Envision the skyline standing in St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, and Cheboygan. Thankfully, it never happened, but it’s still neat to think about.

“It is a fascinating proposal. It’s interesting as you sometimes stand on the island and look across to Round Island and Bois Blanc and they look kind of close, but fortunately they decided that the bridge as we know it today was the more cost effective and practical way that it happened,” said Brisson.

Yep, we’ll just stick with the Mighty Mac.

“The whole area would have been a lot different if that had taken place, and I’m glad it didn’t happen as well,” said Sweeney.

A special thank you goes out to the Keyhole Bar & Grill in Mackinaw City and Mikey Doodle of Bois Blanc Island for your help in making this special report.