1923 : Belle Isle Bridge Reopens

November 1, 2020 all-day

On November 1, 1923, the current bridge to Belle Isle in Detroit was opened, replacing an earlier wooden structure that burned in 1915.

It cost $2.64 million to build, the equivalent $35.8 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

In 1932, it was proposed that the bridge be named after George Washington, but 10 years later, the Common Council chose instead to rename the landmark the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, in honor of the American military commander.

On June 20, 1943, the bridge was where false rumors sparked a race riot that left 34 dead, 675 injured and 1,800 arrested, and caused $2 million in damage.

A $11.5 million reconstruction of the bridge began in February 1984, the first major maintenance in its lifetime. It was rededicated Dec. 16, 1986.

The rest of the story:

Image result for douglas arthur belle isle bridge photoThe original bridge.

A steel cart used for heating tar had tipped and started a fire on the old wood-and-steel span. The creosote blocks that paved the bridge made ready fuel to feed the blaze, sending huge, billowing clouds of black smoke into the air. The fierce winds fanned the burning coals from the cart, and “soon the flames were wrapping themselves around the steel superstructure, which became grotesquely twisted. And the intense heat split some of the supporting stone piers, and they went hissing into the river,” Stark recalled in the Detroit News on the 25th anniversary of the fire.

The old Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit burns down on April 27, 1915.

Two fireboats and several fire companies responded, but it was no use. The bridge burned almost completely, providing what Stark called “one of the most spectacular fires in history” – or in Detroit’s history, anyway.

“People wept for the old bridge, for it was a token of a city’s gayer moments,” Stark said.

There were allegations made that the fire was intentionally set. Some even accused Mayor Oscar Marx of having the deed done as a way to get himself a new bridge in the face of public opposition.

Work on that first span to the island had begun in 1887. The steel-and-wood structure opened June 25, 1889, and cost $295,000 — about $7.6 million today, when adjusted for inflation. It was a swing bridge, with a section that opened up parallel to the river in order to let boats pass.

A temporary bridge opened a year after the fire, in July 1916, just west of the old bridge. It was known for its noisy wooden plank roadway. This structure remained in service until Nov. 1, 1923, when the permanent, current bridge opened.

The design by Emil Lorch called for a concrete-and-steel structure 3,500 feet long, including approaches, with 19 spans and 30 feet of headroom for boats. It cost $2.635 million to build — $35.8 million today, nearly five times more expensive than the original bridge.

Today, that span is officially the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, but most people just call it the “Belle Isle Bridge.”

Sources :

Dan Austin, “The day the Belle Isle Bridge burned down“, Detroit Free Press, April 27, 2015.

Douglas MacArthur Bridge, HistoricDetroit.org

Michigan History, November-December, 2014.

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