Before the bridge was built, the only passage over the bay had been a wooden toll bridge to the north. John D. Leathem and Thomas H. Smith had built this toll bridge in 1887. After completion of a rail line in 1894, the bridge carried the Ahnapee & Western Railway. Although the new Michigan Street Bridge replaced the old bridge for foot and vehicle traffic, the wooden bridge continued to carry the rail line until it was abandoned in 1968 and torn down in 1973.
These events happened long after the Sturgeon Bay Bridge, with its 140-feet centerspan steel draw, officially opened to traffic on July 4, 1931. The celebration of the city’s newest landmark included a Fourth of July parade under the bridge’s intricate steel truss work. Despite the newness of the bridge, its Scherzer-type, double-leaf, rolling-lift bascule design was already considered outdated. Today, it is the only remaining bridge of its kind in Wisconsin.
For twenty-nine years, the bridge opened skyward for passing boats and closed its drawbridge for vehicle traffic, but in 1960 a freighter accident caused serious damage. Despite a major rehabilitation in 1979, the bridge fell into disrepair. By its fiftieth anniversary in 1981, it was coming to the end of its life. However, its end was only the beginning.
The usual remedy for aging structures, such as a bridge is replacement, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) found that rehabilitation was an alternative solution for Sturgeon Bay’s bridge. Not only can rehabilitation of a structure be less costly than replacement, it also can maintain a community’s character by preserving some of its unique local history. The Michigan Street Bridge is an example of how historic structures—and a community’s character—can be preserved.
Beginning in 1995, the WisDOT for the Northeast Region considered tearing down the bridge and building a modern, concrete replacement. Even though the bridge was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, it had little protection against being torn down.
The possible loss of a city landmark caught the attention of Christie Weber, a Sturgeon Bay resident and board member of Sturgeon Bay’s Main Street Program, which promoted historic and economic redevelopment of Sturgeon Bay’s downtown. In 1987, she and other board members had begun fighting to save the bridge, which was located near the historic Third Avenue downtown district, from demolition.
“We started a petition and ran around with it,”Weber said. “We needed a name to put at the bottom, so it was Save Our Bridge, or SOB.” She admittedly enjoyed the acronym. “We thought we’d call ourselves that before others did.”
According to Weber, the issue of whether to tear down the bridge was already contentious. A large waterfront redevelopment was being planned. Replacement of the bridge would have left limited access to the city’s historic downtown during the two years it would take to construct the new bridge, thus threatening the well-being of main street businesses.
Because of this threat,Weber and the Main Street Program board members began doing business evaluations on days when the old bridge was shut down. “The businesses suffered, on average, about 45 percent,” Weber said, “but it ranged from 30 to 90 percent lost every day that the bridge went down.”
Although replacement of the bridge would take a toll on the Third Avenue district, redevelopment and a new bridge seemed economically promising to much of the city. Still Weber and her group wanted proof that replacing the bridge was the only feasible and cost-effective option.
The WisDOT conducted inspections that showed the bridge had a high enough efficiency rating to be rehabilitated. However, the department had never rehabilitated a structure like the Michigan Street Bridge.
“A 75-year-old or an 80-year-old bridge is typically not a candidate for rehabilitation,” said Steve Noel, WisDOT’s Northeast region project development supervisor. Noel said the WisDOT planned to replace the bridge because it believed the bridge was structurally and functionally deficient.
Believing the bridge was deficient, theWisDOT submitted documents to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in 1997 asking for a decision on whether or not the bridge warranted preservation.
Its submission led the FHWA, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Wisconsin State Preservation Officer to reach a programmatic agreement that the Michigan Street Bridge did not warrant preservation. A programmatic agreement, according to environment.transportation.org, establishes a process for consultation, review, and compliance with one or more federal laws, usually concerning historic preservation. By deciding theMichigan Street Bridge did not warrant preservation, it could, therefore, be replaced.
Despite this, the SOB group moved forward in its fight to save the bridge and became the Citizens for Our Bridge (CfOB), a nonprofit organization separate from the Sturgeon Bay Main Street Program.
Around the time the programmatic agreement was reached, a new petition by the CfOB was sent to the WisDOT. It included another call for the WisDOT to review restoration.
This time, however, it included an alternative proposal for a second bridge to be built on a Maple-to-Oregon Street route. The group collected, according to Weber’s estimates, more than five hundred petition signatures from local downtown business owners and customers. Despite including a potential alternative,Weber said theWisDOT and the city rejected the proposal. “It didn’t make sense they would just reject that idea,” Weber said. “It was a shorter distance, a less costly bridge. They weren’t providing the background information on why we had to tear the bridge down and why it couldn’t be restored.” The petition and cover letter was then sent to the FHWA and the governor, asking why the bridge could not be saved.
According to the federal protections of the National Historic Preservation Act, a response had to be sent in answer to citizen concern. As a result, the WisDOT was required to examine all prudent and feasible options other than replacement. Weber andWisconsin’s National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) placed the bridge on the list of the top ten most endangered sites in Wisconsin in 1998.
While the WisDOT planned to replace a bridge it believed beyond repair, the NTHP and CfOB were on their way to proving otherwise. The FHWA quickly approved CfOB’s idea for a second bridge on the Maple-to-Oregon Street route, but the WisDOT was still not entirely on board for rehabilitation, Weber said. However, once the statutory processes began, it was found that in light of repairs made to the draw section of the bridge in the mid-1990s, the Michigan Street Bridge had a high enough efficiency rating to allow for rehabilitation.
The question was no longer whether the bridge warranted preservation. It was now a question of feasibility. If the WisDOT was still going to replace the bridge, it would have to prove replacement was the most cost-effective option with few adverse effects. “We deal with these kinds of issues on all our projects,” said Kim Rudat, theWisDOT Northeast Region communications manager. “There are certainly people both within the DOT and outside the DOT who found the Michigan Street Bridge a very attractive bridge. At the same time, we’ve got to make decisions that benefit our transportation infrastructure and are in the best interest of our taxpayers.”
To ensure the bridge was structurally sound and determine what would need to be fixed and replaced if rehabilitation were to take place, the WisDOT set its engineers to work while CfOB and NTHP sent in their own bridge expert, Abba Lichtenstein of A.G. Lichtenstein and Associates. According to Weber, Lichtenstein came in and said he was happy to announce that the bridge did not have cancer, but merely a slight cold. TheWisDOT, too, found that what it had previously thought was a shifting of the piling under the bridge’s main channel was actually a normal mechanism for that particular type of bridge.
According to Rudat, after the WisDOT completed its engineering study, it was confident the engineers could do a good job of rehabilitating the bridge to ensure another twenty-five years of useful life. On March 7, 2002, the WisDOT announced it would rehabilitate the Michigan Street Bridge. Weber said she and her organization members were excited by the announcement, but there were many things to sort out before anything would be fixed, replaced, or built.
It wasn’t until 2005, when Governor Jim Doyle stepped in, that plans were finalized and put into action. According to Noel, all plans for building the Maple-Oregon Street Bridge and rehabilitating the Michigan Street Bridge sat at an impasse for years because of state statute 84.10. “Bridges that were at one time on our state system but are no longer on it would be operated and maintained till they were replaced,” Noel said. “That law, by precedent, had been expanded to say [the WisDOT] would replace those bridges. That was the law at the time, and that was about all we could do—we could replace that bridge.”
The 2005 Budget Bill (2005 Wisconsin Act 25) included a new state statute, 84.115, which directed the WisDOT to begin construction of a new bridge in the Maple-to-Oregon Street corridor within one year of the bill’s signing. After the Budget Bill was signed on July 25, 2005, the WisDot set to work.
“The governor said we were going to build the one bridge, rehab the other bridge, and own both bridges,” Rudat said. “And we did. We built that Maple-Oregon Bridge in a year and the day we opened that up we shut Michigan down because that was heavily posted, and we rehabbed that.” By having two bridges,Weber said, the Sturgeon Bay downtown district on Third Avenue was saved from economic hardship.
“Nobody had to compromise anything,” Weber said. “They got their new bridge, the community didn’t die, and we preserved one of the most significant structures in the state. There are no losses in there. And, we addressed our safety needs in the community— long-term—without negative business impact or job loss.”
In 2005, while theWisDOT was building the new bridge,Weber and the CfOB organized a Steel Bridge Songfest as a way to raise money for the continued maintenance of the Michigan Street Bridge. Weber’s brother, singer/songwriter pat mAcdonald (his preferred spelling), and his friend, musician Jackson Browne, were instrumental in creating the event. According to mAcdonald, it all started when Browne said he’d be willing to go to Sturgeon Bay and sing a song about the bridge. From there, it evolved into a full-day musical event with Browne headlining.
From 2005 and continuing today, the Steel Bridge Songfest has invited singer/songwriters to Sturgeon Bay the second week of June to perform original songs inspired by the old bridge, while also attracting music fans from all over. Although Weber and the CfOB are no longer involved in the planning of the event, the Steel Bridge Songfest continues to promote a message of how community activism works. Since 2007, mAcdonald has worked with his musical partner melaniejane to organize the festival.
“I think you can’t get a better point of inspiration for songwriters than a bridge,” mAcdonald said. “Now the idea is to have that bridge be the most sung about bridge in the world, and I think that will really save our town from becoming Anywhere, USA.”
The Michigan Street Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 17, 2008. After undergoing an extensive rehabilitation that began in 2009, the city of Sturgeon Bay re-opened the Michigan Street Bridge July 1, 2011—just days before celebrating the structure’s eightieth birthday July 4.
The Michigan Street Bridge was never modern even by the standards of its day. According to Noel, by the 1930s the state was building mostly girder bridges rather than truss bridges.
Though Noel said the mechanism of this drawbridge is not unique, what sets it apart are the overhead trusses, which are the steel framework the bridge is famous for.
Drawbridges built today, such as the Maple-Oregon Street Bridge, hide the mechanisms employed in opening the lift span or draw. On theMichigan Street Bridge, however, those mechanisms are exposed for everyone to see—located on the bridge itself rather than hidden underneath.
When the Michigan Street Bridge of Sturgeon Bay was dedicated on July 4, 1931, it served as the link connecting northern Door County to the rest of the state. On that day the city looked up in awe as their new bridge’s lift rocked backward on its track, the counterweights falling quietly, slowly toward the road, and the draw opened up into the sky. Eighty years later, its steel frame continues to open its arms up, welcoming visitors.