One Sunday afternoon during the unseasonably warm weather in early October, I joined some friends for a leisurely cruise on the Inland Route. Sailing from Cheboygan to Burt Lake, we enjoyed the waterway at a time when many had already pulled their boats out for the season. A gorgeous day with hardly any traffic – it seemed like a shame, but then again who would have imagined such pleasant weather that late in the year?
At any rate, our journey took us under the Indian River “camelback” bridge. The familiar site is to be taken down, which although a shame, is understandable. I’m sure I’m not the only one who used to slow down and grip the steering wheel a bit harder when crossing it!
The Indian River camelback bridge on Old 27 has been a local landmark since its completion in 1924. It must have been a most welcome upgrade over the former wood-decked bridge that it replaced. Built by the J.B. Whitcomb Construction Company of Detroit, the camelback’s style is properly known as a “concrete curved-cord through girder.” The architecture was designed to be simple, strong, long-lasting, and to require very little maintenance. The total length of the bridge is 91 feet with a roadway width of just 22 feet (compare this to the width of the road as one approaches the bridge – about 36 feet). A sidewalk can also be found on this bridge, a relatively uncommon feature on such a structure.
Camelback bridges were built primarily in Michigan (though they were built in other states) and Ontario, and usually only in rural areas. Still, most of them were only built to a maximum length of 60 feet, a traditional limit for concrete through girders. Michigan built bridges of up to 90 feet in length, an important architectural achievement at the time. Thus, they are not only important historically but also from an engineering standpoint.
But the Indian River camelback bridge is by no means the only important historic bridge in the area. The current Cheboygan bascule bridge (the “State Street Bridge”) is noted for being a two-leaf bridge in a place where a single-leaf bridge probably would have sufficed. Construction was delayed after the premature death of the contractor, but was finally completed in December 1940. It was the last bascule bridge built in Michigan before World War II ended in 1945.
Constructed at a cost of $206,000, the grand opening of the bascule bridge was attended by State Highway Commissioner G. Donald Kennedy. Kennedy called the bridge “a construction of statewide importance, and the key to the opening of the new Huron Shore Road [US-23, from Mackinaw City to Port Huron.]” He opined, quite correctly, that the bridge would “add greatly to the popularity of this scenic highway among the thousands of tourists who annually visit Northern Michigan.”
Page 2 of 2 - This bridge replaced the old wrought-iron swing bridge that had been built in 1877 at the then-princely sum of $6500. That bridge, according to Kennedy, was so dilapidated that it vibrated noisily with traffic when heavy vehicles drove off either end of it, and caused the “rusty old structure [to] bounce up and down on its seat.” The bascule bridge was rehabilitated in 2003 by the Michigan Department of Transportation with the intent of preserving the historical integrity of the structure.
We would be remiss if we did not also mention another historic bridge in the area which, although does not see as much traffic as it used to, is gradually seeing more and more use. The Cheboygan Railroad Bridge, which crosses over the Cheboygan River just off of M-33, is in many ways a symbol of a bygone era. As the Detroit and Mackinaw Railroad began making inroads to the area in the early 1900s, a new bridge had to be constructed over the river to complete the journey into town. Constructed in 1904 by the American Bridge Company, it is of a metal-riveted warren through steel truss style. Through the redevelopment and revitalization of the old railroad bed to become the new North Eastern State Trail, the old bridge now sees use not for rail travel but for bikers, hikers, and snowmobilers.
We go about our busy lives and rarely think about the things that are going on around us – or what we might be driving over. But the bridges in our area are not just merely necessities we hurriedly cross every day. No, they are also bridges to our history, linking our current lives with our rich local history.
Matthew J. Friday is the Executive Director of the Cheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce and the author of books on area history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org