Fall 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

The Heavy Bridge

By Dennis Walikainen

Since 1960, locals have loved it and loathed it, tourists have walked it and photographed it, and everyone in the Copper Country—including students running late for class—has waited in line on it at least once.

Three Michigan Tech alumni were on the engineering team that helped build the Portage Lake (don't say "lift") Bridge, which marked its fiftieth anniversary in June. John Michels '51 of Ontonagon was a project engineer and remembers it as "quite a stressful engineering feat, especially erecting the steel."

The civil engineer, who worked with Tom Wiseman '49 and Don Kero '58, says the 2,200-ton center span was assembled on barges in Hancock and floated down the canal, pulled by tug boats. It was like threading a huge needle, with only four inches of clearance at either end of the lift span. The fact that it fit perfectly, including the expansion joints, was a relief to all involved, Michels said.

A crew of about one hundred worked on the bridge each day, including Bernard Gestel of Dollar Bay, who patrolled the waters in his boat to retrieve anything that fell in the water, humans included. Deep-sea divers toiled two hours on, four hours off. There were surprises: while workers were dredging the lake bottom, they unearthed a sunken scow, a hundred feet long and loaded with sandstone.

The lift bridge had three big advantages over the old swing bridge, says Michels.

"It was functional: you couldn't gain a large enough horizontal clearance for lake shipping with the swing bridge," he says. "It was also necessary for railroad traffic, and it was located at the shortest distance between the two towns."

That railroad bed (abandoned in 1982) would play a big role in the design and construction. It is the heaviest lift bridge of its kind (some 4.5 million pounds), in great part because of that deck.

"And the railroad is located more toward the west side," Michels recalls, "so the counterweights that balance the lift span are all heavier on the west side to account for the weight difference."

More delicate balancing is evident, according to Michels.

"The balancing chains are composed of steel blocks, and they offset the weight of the lifting cables," he says. "And the weight of the cables shifts from the lift span to the tower as it opens."

Smooth operators

Helping control the traffic via waterway, railway, or roadway has always been the responsibility of the bridge operators. Wayne Poisson worked the controls from 1963 to 1988.

He recalls one especially close call in the winter.

"The ore boat Wilfred Sykes was coming through, and it was snowing very heavy," he says. "I couldn't see him because of the snow, and he couldn't even find me on his radar, it was so thick. I looked up, and all of a sudden he was right at my door. I got the bridge up just in time. I don't know how he didn't hit me."

Poisson misses the work and camaraderie, particularly the signals that the boats and bridge would exchange: three long and two short signaling the master salute, "especially the old steam whistles," he says. "I would answer them anytime, day or night."

Today, five operators share the duties in eight-hour shifts, according to Bob "Butch" Paavola. These days, most of his traffic is sailboats, and August is the busiest month. "We get the tugboats and the Ranger, too." But ore boats are rare. "The thousand footers are too big," Paavola says.

It takes only five or six minutes to lift the span, although it seems much longer to motorists. And, there's no truth to the rumor that the operators wait to raise or lower it until traffic is heavy by Keweenaw standards— during the "rush minute" just before 8:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m.

By mid-December, traffic flows freely. The sailboats are in dry dock, and, as the last boat, a Coast Guard cutter, goes through, the operators' jobs are done for the season.


Michels returned to the Keweenaw recently and, thanks to Paavola, was able to visit the new control room and journey to the top of the towers. He was impressed by all the new machinery and undaunted by the heights.

Fifty years after he finished looking at blueprints, he says, "The height doesn't bother me."

After all, he built it.

Design engineer comes back to "his bridge"

After fifty years, Tom D'Arcy is back in town. The design engineer for the approach spans and the lift span of the bridge, this June he is visiting the Keweenaw to help celebrate his creation's golden anniversary.

"Structural engineers love bridges," he tells a crowd come to hear his stories about the link between Houghton and Hancock. "Our designs are exposed for all to see."

D'Arcy was a young engineer with the firm Hazelet and Erdel when he was assigned the task of designing the world's heaviest lift-span bridge. He remembers receiving some hard-knocks learning as he undertook the project. At a meeting in Lansing filled with gray-haired state engineers, his youthful—and in his opinion excellent—ideas were shot down one after another. On the long ride back home, he asked his mentor, "When are ideas accepted, regardless of age?"

"When you are the oldest guy in the room," his boss answered.

This day in the Keweenaw, in this room, D'Arcy was among the oldest, and the audience was rapt as he discussed the bridge that can mean more than just safely transporting people and vehicles.

"Bridges connect places, towns, even countries," D'Arcy says, but he also stressed the importance of building and maintaining those personal bridges that connect people's lives.

And, like the Portage Lake Bridge, D'Arcy says, if we make them strong, they will endure as they mature and age.