June 16, 2016 — The narration of a 1950s Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) documentary film highlights the geographical and historical reasons behind the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, one of one of the state’s iconic bridges.
“Lake Superior … is a temperamental lake. It can be serene and wildly beautiful … or violently stormy, the equal of any of the oceans of the world,” the narrator intones. “Thrust into the middle of the lake, like a giant finger, is Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.”
Getting around that finger has been a problem as long as people have sailed boats on the Great Lakes. While it provided a crucial shortcut around the Keweenaw and shelter for maritime traffic, the 1860s construction of the Keweenaw Waterway essentially turned the Keweenaw Peninsula into an island. Since then, a bridge between Houghton and Hancock has provided the sole land link between the peninsula and the mainland. A series of bridges served that function, with the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, built from 1957 to 1959, the most recent and ambitious of the structures.
An MDOT documentary on the lift bridge’s original construction has recently been digitized and restored, available online at https://youtu.be/4D6Vx8XHMu0. The film, “Keweenaw Crossing: Michigan’s Elevator Bridge,” details the engineering challenges of building one of the world’s heaviest and widest double-deck vertical-lift spans.
A recent $8.4 million MDOT project was designed to keep the bridge performing its critical mission. The one-and-a-half year project included upgrades to the bridge’s mechanical and electrical systems, along with concrete and steel structural improvements. It was one of the biggest overhauls since the Portage Lake Lift Bridge’s original construction – and a key player in the birth of the bridge got to see it. John Michels, 88, was one of the original engineers in charge of construction.
“There were three project engineers during the life of the bridge project. I was the third,” said Michels, who retired about 25 years ago after 38 years with MDOT. “I came on just after most of the foundation work had been completed.”
The documentary was filmed by Bruce Deter, Michels said, a professional photographer who also worked on the project as a concrete plant inspector for MDOT when not shooting footage.
Michels said the film did a good job of capturing the challenges of the complex bridge construction: building the massive caissons, sinking the bridge piers, erecting the steel superstructure and delicately floating the central bridge span into place to create what the film calls a “ponderous yet nimble” structure.
While he worked on many projects during his time with MDOT, Michels said the bridge project was a serious test of his abilities. “There were civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering components of the bridge project,” Michels said. “Three main segments of my profession.”
Current MDOT construction engineer Alan Anderson said he felt privileged that the recent bridge rehabilitation project gave him a chance to get to know Michels.
“John has an incredible memory of the construction and operation of the bridge,” Anderson said. “He called me in the middle of last summer to check in on the progress of the bridge project. From that time on, we talked occasionally.”
Michels contributed information and photos to a project presentation Anderson made at the annual Michigan Bridge Conference in Lansing in March, and he was invited to the conference as a distinguished guest.
“John was instrumental in producing the documentary film,” Anderson said. “He has also written a valuable history of the bridge construction that is still being used to this day.”
For his part, Michels said he’s very proud of how well the bridge has functioned over the years. “The bridge has operated exceptionally well,” he said. “But after more than 50 years, it needed an upgrade.”
Some electronic components available today simply didn’t exist when the bridge was built, he noted.
Michels said he’s happy he’s been able to see the bridge refurbished for its next 50 years of service. “I’m about the only one I know of who had any contact with the original bridge project who’s left living,” he said.
Bridgefest, an annual celebration of the Portage lake Lift Bridge’s anniversary, which includes a parade, fireworks, concerts, contests, boat tours, and sporting events, runs Friday through Sunday, June 17-19, in Houghton and Hancock.
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