Ambassador Bridge

Fisher Freeway or I-75 at Porter in the United States
Bridge connects to Ontario 3 in Canada

Shortly after the Civil War, manufacturing output increased substantially on both sides of the Detroit River, leading to a great increase in the number of people and volume of freight crossing the river. At that time, railroads were the leading means of transport, but Detroit presented a great problem to them: railroad cars had to be taken off trains and then put on ferries for the short trip across the Detroit River and then trains were reassembled on the other side. This costly portaging of railroad cars on the Detroit River began in 1867 and continued for more than a century. As early as 1872, the Great Western Railway of Canada sent surveyors to Detroit and Windsor to see if it were possible to build a bridge. Nothing came of those early plans. Consideration was given to a tunnel and, by 1891, the Canadian National Railroad completed a tunnel under the St. Mary’s River linking Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan.

In 1903, the Detroit Board of Commerce formed an International Bridge Committee, but the group failed to start construction of a bridge. Numerous other proposals were put forth, but nothing came of them. Just after World War I, Charles Evan Fowler, a New York civil engineer, drew up plans for an immense bridge that would carry rail lines, cars, electric street cars and pedestrians from downtown Windsor to downtown Detroit. He worked earnestly on this project and formed two corporations: the Canadian Transit Company and the American Transit Company. Apparently, he secured approval from both Parliament in Ottawa and Congress in Washington for his bridge.

Fowler was not successful in raising the massive funds needed for his project, but one of his collaborators, John W. Austin, strongly endorsed the bridge and took over for Fowler. In 1924, Austin made a key decision, one that directly led to the construction of the Ambassador Bridge. He contacted Joseph A. Bower, a former Detroit resident who had become a very successful banker in New York. Bower enthusiastically took on the Ambassador Bridge project and remained closely linked to the bridge for the remainder of his long life. He is the entrepreneur who built the bridge that became the nation’s busiest international gateway. He obtained an exclusive franchise to erect this bridge from federal officials in both Canada and the United States, secured the approval of most local governmental officials, satisfied the conflicting interests of the numerous transportation and commercial firms who had specific concerns and, most importantly, arranged financing. By the mid to late 1920s, it was feasible to build a bridge for vehicle traffic only. The Detroit –Windsor Railroad Tunnel had been completed in 1910 serving the needs of the Canadian Pacific and Michigan Central railroads. The Canadian National, Grand Trunk Western and Wabash railroads continued to ferry rail cars across the Detroit River.

One person strongly opposed and, for some time effectively thwarted, Joseph Bower’s plans for a massive bridge: Mayor John Smith of Detroit. He was a pro-labor Republican who served in city hall from 1924 through 1928. He realized that private capital would build the bridge, assumed that the bonds would be paid off after a few years and that the owners would then generate tremendous profits from their structure for decades into the future. Viewing the bridge as a public utility that should be built for the good of all citizens, Mayor Smith advocated public ownership. For some time, his efforts and much litigation delayed the building of the bridge. But the bridge had many supporters and, eventually, Joseph Bower said he would pay for a referendum in which the voters of the city of Detroit could decide whether a privately-held bridge should be constructed. After a spirited campaign, Detroit’s voters went to the polls on June 28, 1927. Mayor Smith had misjudged his constituents since they voted 8 to 1 in favor of a privately-owned bridge to Canada. Bower had actually begun work on his bridge about six weeks earlier since Congress had specified that he would lose his franchise if he did not start construction by May, 1927.

John Bower and his colleagues selected the McClintic-Marshall firm of Pittsburgh to design and build the bridge. This firm was founded by Howard McClintic and Charles Marshall, engineers who graduated from Lehigh University in 1888. By the 1920s, they were a leading steel fabricating and bridge building company. Indeed, that firm built the Golden Gate Bridge but when they did that, they were a subsidiary of Bessemer Steel.

The contract was signed in June, 1927 with interesting provisions. If the firm did not complete the bridge by August 16, 1930, they would have to pay the interest on the bonds until the bridge opened for revenue service. If the firm completed their work early, they would keep one-half the revenue the bridge generated prior to April 16, 1930. They finished the bridge on Armistice Day, 1929, so they earned their bonus. You can see some elements of Art Deco and, perhaps, even Gothic styling in the large towers if you view them from the banks of the Detroit River.

With an 1,850-foot center span, this was the largest suspension bridge in the world when it opened. The bridge is 152 feet above the surface of the Detroit River allowing the largest ships to sail under it. The overall length from the original US customs station to the one on the Canadian side is 1.75 miles. The silicon steel twin towers rise 386 feet above the surface of the water and were built on concrete piers that reach 115 feet below the water level to sit on the bedrock that underlies this part of North America. The huge cables that stretch from the twin towers and support the bridge deck consist of 37 component strands. Each of those strands is made up of 218 individual strands of cold drawn galvanized steel. The original bridge contained a 47 foot wide roadway with an eight foot wide sidewalk on the south side of the span. It was once possible to walk, run or ride a bicycle from Canada to the United States and back on that sidewalk. However, security measures invoked after the September 11, 2001 incidents led to the closing of the sidewalk.

The Ambassador Bridge faced economic challenges even before it opened. Just 21 days before the first drivers paid their tolls in November, 1929, the stock market had crashed, leading to the nation's most severe economic crisis. And then within one year of its opening, the automobile tunnel linking downtown Windsor and downtown Detroit opened. In 1930, an average of 4,400 vehicles crossed the bridge daily but the Great Depression cur that to 3,000 per day in 1931 and then down to 2,300 daily the following year. Joseph Bower and the Detroit International Bridge Company defaulted on their bond payments less than two years after the structure’s opening. Nevertheless, Bower held on to his bridge and eventually arranged a successful financial reorganization in 1939. To solve his financial problems, Bower had to issue stock to his bond holders, so the bridge became a publicly-held firm. During World War II, relatively few passenger cars crossed because of gasoline and rubber rationing, but truck traffic increased greatly as defense industries boomed on both sides of the Detroit River. After the German and Japanese dictators were defeated in 1945, business picked up and, for the first time in many years, the bridge operated in the black. The period since World War II has generally been a prosperous one for the bridge. Perhaps business reached a peak in the late 1990s when about ten million vehicles crossed annually or an average of about 10,000 trucks and 17,000 cars daily. At present, the Ambassador Bridge is the busiest international crossing point in North America. The US and Canada are each the leading trading partner for the other country, with the volume of trade currently about 400 billion dollars annually. Slightly more than one-quarter of that international trade crosses the Ambassador Bridge.

The creator of the bridge, Joseph Bower, retired as chairman of the Detroit International Bridge Company in 1959, but continued to serve the firm for years after that. He died in Florida in 1977 at age 96. Two years later, his heirs retired from the bridge business and put their holdings in the Detroit International Bridge Company up for sale. Warren Buffet immediately bought one-quarter of the stock. Apparently this motivated a very successful Detroit trucking magnet—Manuel J. “Matty” Maroun—into action. He owned seven local truck lines that frequently used the bridge. Maroun bought all the shares including those held by Buffet and continues to personally own the bridge you see pictured above.

Date of Construction: 1929
Architect: Jonathan Jones employed by McClintic-Marshall Company
Architectural style: Suspension bridge spanning and international body of water
Use in 2007: International Bridge
City of Detroit Designated Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: #80004793 listed as a structure in 1980
Photo: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
Description prepared: November, 2007.


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