OPINION: Spills, chills preceded Blue Water Bridge opening 80 years ago

This photo was taken on May 21, 1938, five months before the official opening of the Blue Water Bridge 80 years ago next week. Passing beneath is the Hamonic, a luxury Great Lakes cruise ship that was based in Sarnia. Photo courtesy, John Rochon Collection

 

Phil Egan

Reader Bob Murray dropped by The Sarnia Journal offices recently with an interesting historic souvenir.

It was an invitation to the official opening of the Blue Water Bridge festivities on Saturday, Oct. 8, 1936 – some 80 years ago. Inside were two reserved seat tickets.

Working on the $3.6-million project was a valued job in the days following the worst of the Great Depression. Construction of the international span progressed from the Canadian and American sides, meeting in the middle with the centre span the last to be bolted into place.

According to the Sarnia Canadian Observer issue of Aug. 10, 1936, workers didn’t drop their tools and climb down from the structure when the noon whistle blew. Time didn’t allow workers to return home for lunch.

“Faithful wives,” the newspaper tell us, “packed a bucket and took it to the bridge.” The husbands lowered a rope and pulled up the grub.

On June 4, 1936, Wesley Hayes had the fright of his young life, when the 16-year-old decided to become the first person to cross the bridge.

It was early evening, after his co-workers had left for the day, and Hayes climbed a ladder on the anchor tower on the U.S. side and stealthily making his way across the structure.

But Hayes was startled to find the span wasn’t entirely complete, forcing him to scramble across steel girders in the middle to reach the Canadian side.

Twelve days later, a 45-year-old U.S. worker lost his balance and fell 130 feet to his death – the only fatality during the bridge construction. The workers didn’t use safety nets.

Another scare was fraught with dark humour and caused a sensation in Port Huron. On May 24, a worker gazing toward the bridge in the early morning hours was shocked to see it was gone. Convinced some calamity had caused it to collapse into the river, he called Port Huron police to report a disaster.

A police officer bolted from the station and raced to the first open spot on the river. Stunned, he realized the report was true. He hurried to several other spots, trying to spot twisted girders in the water.

Finally, a wisp of fog cleared and the unfinished Blue Water Bridge came into view. In the meantime, scores of concerned Americans were rushing to the scene to view the horror.

With the great project finally complete, on Oct. 8, airplanes from the naval base near Detroit flew overhead, bands played, aerial bombs were fired and crowds cheered as the Blue Water Bridge officially opened.