On Friday, July 10, 1931, hundreds of spectators in downtown Port Huron clustered around the Black River to witness something new, something daring, something that would change Port Huron for the better.
The center span of the old downtown bridge was to be towed away on barges, and the new Abt Bascule bridge, weighing one million five hundred thousand pounds, and rising 175 feet high over the city’s downtown for weeks, was to be lowered into place.
On this warm summer day, several engineers for the Pere Marquette Railway company watched as the old bridge was cut away in the morning and the new bascule bridge dropped in its place.
According to reports, vital railway service was only briefly interrupted. Chief engineer, Mr. C.S. Sheldon was optimistic that the bridge would “fit properly when lowered.” But he also said, “They don’t always (fit), and if it doesn’t, it will mean a little further delay.”
According to reports, the bridge’s draw, 100 feet wide, was to be the largest on the Pere Marquette system. Many believed that the new bridge would be a great improvement to the entrance to the Black River, making the approach of the river wide enough to permit easy passage of steamers and the commerce they would bring to town.
As with many towns, jobs and commerce were key to surviving the Great Depression. Michigan’s railways hauled lumber, concrete, and agricultural goods. Whatever helped move the railways helped to bring a degree of prosperity. The new bridge, the new manufacturing technology of the time, helped both shipping and rail transport.
But that was then.
The site of the former Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge.
“Like so many pieces of our industrial heritage, the bridge is now relegated to obscurity,” says Andrew Kercher, local historian and Manager of Community Engagement for Port Huron Museums
Andrew Kercher, local historian and Manager of Community Engagement for Port Huron Museums.
As his position at the Port Huron Museums would attest, Kercher’s passion for historical preservation is readily seen. Daily, he is surrounded by hundreds of artifacts that are icons of another time, and they may not even be right for this time.
“When you preserve history, it’s not necessarily for people right now,” Kercher says. “Generations from now may benefit and realize the significance of symbols today.”
If symbols and icons of years gone do not find a home in a museum or another form of preservation, Kercher would suggest what preservationists call “adaptive reuse” which recycles or reuses an existing building or object for a purpose other than what it was originally used for.
As many of us do with relics or favorite pieces that no longer fit for what they were intended, local residents throughout the years envisioned the Abt Bascule Bridge’s second life as something else, perhaps a restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, or a marina and learning center.
Such suggestions speak to Port Huron’s current status as a tourism attraction, but part of the Abt Bascule bridge’s original design enhanced safety for steamboat passengers. In part, to avoid another maritime disaster, the worst ever for loss of life on the Great Lakes, which took place on a ship build in Port Huron, the ill-fated Eastland
Legacy of the Eastland
At approximately 7:30 a.m. on July 24, 1915, the Eastland
passenger ship capsized in the Chicago River with a loss of 844 lives. Twenty-two entire families were wiped out. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Eastland
capsized 20 feet from shore due to an “inadequate ship’s ballast system and its narrow design.”
Commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company in Port Huron, the Eastland’s width or beam was 38 feet, two inches but 280 feet in length. These dimensions reveal a long, narrow ship. But why?
The reason is, in part, because it was built in Port Huron, a city with three turnstile bridges — on Military Street, 7th Street, and 10th Street — spanning the narrow Black River. The Eastland’s design was narrow in order to navigate the Black River and clear the confining turnstile bridges.
The Abt Bascule design allowed for a wider berth for passenger ships, which brought a significant source of income to the Port Huron area, and avoided having to build narrow ships such as the Eastland, whose design flaw contributed to capsizing in the Chicago River where hundreds drowned 20 feet from shore.
So at one time, the Abt Bascule bridge – to some an “eyesore” – to others “a historic landmark” - nestled on the bank of the Black River as a technological improvement for shipping: both for trains and for boats. And it was also, in its time, a potential lifesaver.
After the railway was decommissioned, in 1975 the Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge was placed in an upright position allowing for ships to easily pass through. It remained that way until the bridge was demolished in April 2023.
“It is missed.”
Tyson Connolly, Commodore of the Port Huron Yacht Club.Commodore of the Port Huron Yacht Club (PHYC), Tyson Connolly, spoke fondly of the bridge.
“When I was eight years old, I flipped my sailboat by the bridge,” he says. “Removing a piece of my life is painful. It was a landmark, a part of the skyline.”
When PHYC bought the land where the bridge stands in 2011, it inherited the rusty hulk as the company that owned it previously didn’t follow through on dismantling the bridge. Despite good memories of the bridge, Connolly knew what the club was dealing with.
“Any structure lacking maintenance for 50-plus years has an end,” he says. “I have a history degree from Western Michigan. I would have loved to have seen it stay.”
When looking at the bridge, the club membership – the owners - worried about liability and safety issues, whereas others saw a piece of industrial history.
“When the workers dismantled the bridge, the spikes on the tracks could be pulled up by hand,” Connolly says. “The railings and ties were rotting.”
Nonetheless, Connolly says that lights on the side of the bridge were able to be saved and that they hope to incorporate them into future plans for the property to memorialize the bridge.
“We have a planning committee in place to talk about what to do with the land where the bridge stood and to have some sort of recognition about the bridge,” he says. “Let’s celebrate and honor it.”
Connolly noted that the yacht club’s motto is “Where members make it happen,” and says that “sweat equity” will be put to use to improve the property, both in the short and long term.
“For 70 years, we’ve built up our footprint,” he says. “We’ve been patient, methodical, and progressive, committed to the Blue Water Area.”
On July 10, 1931, Port Huron residents who gathered downtown might have felt the same way, respecting the past as it was hauled away, but welcoming a future represented by the new Abt Bascule bridge – a piece of Port Huron’s industrial history whose time has come and gone.
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