Historic Bridges of Grosse Ile

East River Bridge
East River Road over the North Hickory Canal

Ferry Street Bridge
Ferry Street over the Thorofare Canal

Parke Lane Road Bridge
Parke Lane Road over the Torofare Canal

South Pointe Drive Bridge
Pointe Drive over the Swan Island Canal

The State of Michigan Registry of Historic sites, in 2012, listed about 135 bridges.  Some are included because of their architectural significance and some because of their importance to the commerce and development of the state.  Three of those historic bridges allow Grosse Ile residents to cross canals.  In Michigan’s earliest days as a territory and state, almost all travel was by waterways.  There were some Indian trails that connected some of the rare inland settlements.  While serving as the territory’s representative in Congress in the early 1820s, Father Gabriel Richard secured federal funds to pave a trail that extended west from Detroit toward Chicago—roughly the current route #12.  However, paving that trail meant laying logs across the muddy track to create a corduroy road.  This was not a very good system since the logs were often swallowed by mud in spring rains.  To promote economic development in the state, the first Governor Stephen T. Mason, proposed, in 1837, that three railroad be built across the Lower Peninsula.  By 1852, a rail line finally connected Detroit to Chicago.

Some roads for carriages, wagons and horses were laid out in Michigan in the later Nineteenth Century.  Many of these with privately-owned toll roads.  With the coming of the automobile, however, people wanted roads that were passible all year and accessible without tolls.  Questions arose about who would pay the considerable cost of constructing roads.  The railroads and interurban lines that connected almost all Michigan cities and hamlets by 1910 were built, for the most part, by private capital although federal land grants helped built several major railroads. Who would pay for building and maintaining roads?  This was important questions but was quickly answered with the non-controversial answer that local governments, often with funding from the state and federal government, would construct roads.

By 1920, residents in many counties were demanding that roads be built.  There were many challenges.   One county might want to pave roads so that farmers could get to the merchants in a city within the county but they had little interest in building roads that would allow residents to travel outside the county.  Also, some counties had little money to build roads.  Gradually, a system emerged whereby the state taxed petroleum and then allocated those funds to county road commissions.  The federal government also got involved in the 1920s, and using tax monies, began allocating substantial funds to states for highways.  And, of course, the interstate highway system that we enjoy today was built with federal tax dollars during the administration of President Eisenhower in the 1950s and 1960s with the unrealistic rationale that it was a National Defense Highway System, meaning that if the Russians bombed major American cities, residents could get in their cars and drive away from the target before the Russian planes arrived.

The three bridges on Grosse Ile on the state and national historical register are:

Ferry Street Bridge1947 – Ferry Street over the Thorofare Canal
Parke Lane Road Bridge 1929 – Parke Lane Road over Thorofare Canal
South Point Drive Bridge –           Pointe Drive Over Swan Island Drive

Grosse Ile was settled in the early years of the French control of the Detroit area.  After the Civil War, several of the prosperous families in Detroit sought ideal locations for summer residences.  Some of them selected Grosse Ile.  They built the very attractive array of gracious homes facing the Detroit River.  I assume that many of them traveled by ship from downtown Detroit to Grosse Ile.  In 1873, a rail line linked Grosse Ile to the Michigan mainland and Detroit.  One of the two vehicle bridges that now permit you to drive to Grosse Ile is the former rail bridge.

As Grosse Ile developed, numerous major canals crisscrossed the island.   They were built to keep much of the island dry.  When automobiles became common after World War I, these canals challenged for road builders

Ferry Street Bridge — This bridge was constructed in 1947 by the Wayne County Road Commission.  It replaced an 85-foot bridge that the township had erected on this site.  To minimize the use of steel, this is a concrete slab bridge.  I believe it consists of four 26-foot-long slabs.  It was designed by Julian C. Mead of the Wayne County Road Commission.

Parke Lane Road Bridge — This is the most appealing bridge on Grosse Ile.  Sometime around 1900, residents of this area of the island built a hand-operated swing bridge to carry Parke Lane across the Thorough Canal.  By the late 1920s, that lightweight bridge was becoming obsolete because of the increasing volume of traffic and weight of vehicles.  The Wayne County Road Commission built this bridge.  It is a graceful concrete cantilevered arch span with ornamental hand rails and cluster lighting.  Orange pebble aggregate was used to add an attractive color to the spindles.  The designer included octagonal lamp standards at the end of the railing.  The bridge was completed in 1929.  It was designed by the local firm of Gosner and Flynn.

South Point Drive Bridge — The Wayne County Road Commission took ownership from the township of a four-span timber trestle bridge located at this point.  During the Depression decade, bridge inspectors assessed that the concrete abutments for the bridge were fine but the wooden deck needed to be replaced.  When that replacement work began,  the engineers found extensive decay and that the abutments were not structurally sound.  Apparently, the bridge had to be closed but the Road Commission had no funds for a replacement.  This isolated residents at the southern end of Grosse Ile so a temporary bridge was quickly built. Luckily for the residents of Grosse Ile, the Works Project Administration stepped in and provided the labor needed for the construction of the bridge that you see pictured here.  This is a 40 foot T-beam span that was completed in 1939.

The three bridges mentioned here are listed on the state and national historic registers.  But if you visit Grosse Ile to see bridges, there are others to see:

East River Road Bridge — 1936.  This is an historic concrete slab bridge.
Grosse Ile Free Bridge — Originally built in 1873, very substantilly rebuilt in 1931. The Michigan Central railroad build a bridge to access Grosse Ile in 1873. This was to connect to a rail ferry that carried freight cars across the Detroit River to and from Canada. The railroad, for some time, ran commuter trains from Grosse Ile into downtown Detroit. However, rail service ended in 1929. The county obtained this former Michigan Central bridge and rebuilt it for automobiles. it is a truss style bridge with a swing span. This is no toll for using this bridge so it is known as the Free Bridge. It is not pictured on this website.
Grosse Ile Parkway Overpass — 1932.  This is a cantilevered concrete arch bridge.
Gross Ile Toll Bridge — 1913. Edward W. Voight was a Detroit entrepreneur who, in the early 1900s, owned about 400 acres toward the north end of Grosse Ile. I believe he may have raised cattle here. He realized that there was no easy way to get a vehicle to or from Grosse Ile. The Michigan Central provided commuter and freight service  Mr. Voight, in 1912, formed a Grosse Ile Bridge Company to design and built a bridge for vehicles at the north end of Grosse Ile. This is one of the longer truss bridges in the state and includes a swing span to permit ships to pass. I believe that it is still owned by descendents of Mr. Voight and is, so far as I know, one of two toll bridges in the metropolitan Detroit area. The other is the Ambassador Bridge owned by Mr. Maroun. This bridge is not pictured on this website.
Swan Drive Bridge — This bridge was, apparently, rebuilt on Grosse Ile in 1950.  It is the only truss bridge on the interior of the island.

Website describing historic bridges in Michigan: http://www.historicbridges.org/map_mich.htm
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:
Ferry Street Bridge           P25, 620
Parke Lane Bridge             P25, 589
South Point Drive Bridge P26, 628
National Register of Historic Sites:
Ferry Street Bridge             Listed February 18, 2000
Parke Lane Bridge              Listed February 2, 2000
South Point Drive Bridge Listed March 15, 2000
Photographs:  Ren Farley; July, 2012
Description updated: June, 2015

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