The day the bridge to Belle Isle burned down

Nothing remains of the old Belle Isle bridge except the bridge piers days after the wood and steel structure burned in 1915.

Fires on the old Belle Isle Bridge were everyday occurrences, but nobody seemed to worry much about it. Watchmen on the bridge kept buckets of water handy to douse the small blazes set off  by  cigars and cigarettes discarded on the creosote blocks used to pave the bridge.

Watchmen on the bridge kept buckets of water handy to douse the small blazes set off by cigarsand cigarettes discarded on the creosote blocks used to pave the bridge.

“We often have fires, I have put out as many as six a day,” said watchman James Kearney.

Kearney wasn’t too concerned that warm morning on April 27, 1915, when a steamrollerlumbered by towing a steel cart filled with hot coals to heat irons used for asphalt work on theisland. The swaying cart spilled hot coals in several places on the bridge.

“There was no wind and I swept them up before any damage was done,” Kearney said.

As the cart returned to the mainland that afternoon, Kearney and fellow watchman, Isaac Cohen,spotted a fire on the draw of the bridge. The pair grabbed their buckets and ran to put out thefire. Then they saw it — a trail of fire all the way back to the island.

They ran to turn in the alarm. Engineers at the draw section of the bridge, which could be swungback to allow ships to pass, stayed at their posts until the flames forced them to flee.

Detroit firemen battle the blaze from boats below the bridge span. At right is the fireboat James Battle.At left firemen train their hoses on the fire from the decks of an island ferry boat.

Two fireboats and 13 fire companies responded to the alarm, but their efforts weren’t enough tosave the steel and wooden bridge built in 1889. It collapsed and burned to the waterline asthousands watched on shore.

But Detroiters would not be separated from their beloved island for long. The next year atemporary bridge was completed west of the destroyed structure. Costing $100,000, it remainedin use until Sept. 1, 1923, when the present bridge was opened.

The new bridge cost $2,635,000 and the lives of five workmen. The subway approach underJefferson from East Grand Boulevard cost $467,000. It had signs warning motorists not to honktheir horns underneath, which were loudly ignored.

More than 25,000 celebrated the opening of the bridge. Anne Campbell, The Detroit News poet,read her poem for the occasion:

Our New BridgeThey call us a commercial town–
We rush so madly up and down.
Our smoke is black against the skies,
We build too close sometimes to see
The thwarted grass, the reaching tree,
And loveliness we brush aside
To make a place for pomp and pride.
But even we can pause to rear
A bridge of noble beauty here,
A monument that will endure;
In days of change, one thing that’s sure
Eyes that are weary now of schemes
Will smile to see out bridge of dreams.
And hearts that span this magic mile
Will lighter grow on fair Belle Isle.

The News had a long-time interest in the island. In the 1870s, the newspaper agitated for the cityto buy it to be used as a public park. The voters agreed. Famed landscape architect FrederickLaw Olmstead devised a plan to dig out the canals and fill in the swampy areas to make it moreuseable.

Canoeing became very popular on the island originally called ‘Mah-nah-be-zen’ (the swan) bynative Americans. French settlers later called it ‘Isle au Cochons’ (hog island), a name it lostin 1845 when it was renamed Belle Isle after Governor Lewis Cass’ daughter, Isabella.

William E. Scripps, son of the founder of The Detroit News James E. Scripps, sits at the controls of his flying boat around 1914.About a year earlier, according to a 1965 report by retired WJR executive George Cushing, Scripps flew the plane under the wooden bridge.

In 1913, William E. Scripps, son of James E. Scripps, who founded The Detroit News, flew aplane under the old wooden bridge. It was a 35-horsepower Curtis flying boat.

That feat was repeated accidentally in 1965 by pilot F. Don Pittman, who had been hired toentertain the crowd at the Spirit of Detroit powerboat races.

After a series of spectacular snap rolls and loops, Pittman flew his specially built, single-enginemonoplane almost into the river, and then whooshed through one of the bridge’s concrete arches,below viewers standing on the bridge.

“I might have gone up and over, but the top of the bridge would have been blanked out by mywings and I couldn’t have told how close I was,” he said. “I made a split-second decision to gounder. I knew I had plenty of clearance and if anyone was hurt it would be me.”

Pittman may have missed the bridge, but others did not.

In December 1927, a 60-mile an hour gale snapped 14 steel cables which lashed White StarNavigation Co.’s Tashmoo to her Griswold street dock . The storm drove the empty steamerthree miles upstream, crashing against the ferry Promise at the foot of Woodward, and coming toa halt when she hit into the Belle Isle bridge.

Several hours of pounding against the concrete abutments of the bridge severely damaged theTashmoo’s upper structure, and two holes were torn in her steel sides. Two tugs finally towed heraway.

The bridge survived that collision and many others. And, it still connects Detroiters to theirisland jewel.

Bridge facts

* 2,193 feet long.
* Maximum clearance above water of 30 feet.
* 85 feet wide — 59 feet for roadway, 12 feet for sidewalks.
* 3,000 tons of structural steel went into the building of the bridge, and 20,000 cubic yards ofconcrete form the foundations and grace the arches of its skeleton.
* Renamed Douglas MacArthur Bridge in 1942.
* Restored in 1986 under a $11.5 million federally funded project.

In 1915 the old Belle Isle Bridge burned down and according to what I was told I was in the last car over the bridge.My aunts had taken me for a ride in their brass band Ford to Belle Isle. On the way across the bridge, following them, there was a tar wagon being pushed and was dropping hot coals which they say caused the fire.We didn’t get home until late because everyone had to return on the ferry.My grandfather played the piano at Clark’s Dancing School for 25 years.I am afraid I don’t have any family left who can verify this as I am 81 years old.
Marjorie B. Hobbs, Westland, MI
March 19, 1996

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Patricia Zacharias and Ray Jeskey / The Detroit News