How to get to Canada: The Ambassador Bridge

Michiganders love to talk about our affinity with our neighbor to the north (and in some places, south). Canada may be a foreign country, but in many ways it feels like just another state because it is so close by to many parts of Michigan. Sure, it’s slightly harder to cross the border these days since you need a passport or an enhanced drivers license, yet many Michigan residents cross over often, to see shows, visit friends and relatives, to work, go shopping, or, if you are 19 or 20, to have a drink.

I swear, I'm just honoring my rum-running forefathers! Image from Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

We’re just honoring our rum-running forefathers!
(source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

But how do we get to Canada? Michigan is the only border state with no land crossings. Until the early 20th century, you would need a boat to get from Michigan to Canada. Today however, it is easier than ever. There are currently three bridges, one tunnel and two car ferries that will take a passport-bearing American citizen to Canada. These are located on the three rivers that narrow the gap between the US and Canada surrounding Michigan – the Detroit River, the St. Clair River and the St. Mary’s River. I’d like to eventually talk about this history behind all of the border crossings, but I also don’t want to make any promises I may not keep. So I will just start with the most interesting story, about the most well-known crossing: the Ambassador Bridge.

The Ambassador Bridge at night. (source)

The Ambassador Bridge at night (source)

The Ambassador Bridge is a Detroit landmark, lighting up the river and making for an impressive skyline. It might not seem like a terribly long bridge today, but it was actually the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1929. The 1920s saw a great deal of new construction in the city, including the Fisher and Penobscot buildings. The city was growing at a rapid pace, yet it had no easy way for residents to reach its closest neighbor, Windsor (a rail tunnel, built in 1910, helped with freight traffic). Many people from around the Midwest and east coast tried to make plans for a bridge, but none of the plans came to fruition. That is, until John W. Austin met up with Joseph A. Bower. The two of them hatched a plan for a privately funded bridge between the two nations. They raised the funding, and received approval from all the necessary authorities, except one. Detroit Mayor John Smith opposed the plan, and vetoed the project. He did not like the idea of a privately owned bridge, and it seemed like all was lost.

However, Bower knew his plan was popular, and so decided to fight the veto. He put up $50,000 to have a special election on the issue of the bridge. Soon, both sides were fighting for votes, with newspaper advertisements, endorsements from leading citizens, and radio ads. In the midst of all this, Mayor Smith was up for re-election. John C. Lodge, a supporter of the bridge, used the issue to launch his mayoral campaign, causing the two issues to be inexorably intertwined.

John Smith and John C. Lodge on election day

John Smith and John C. Lodge on election day (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Mayor Smith was ruthless in his campaigning, which turned out to be his undoing. The day before the election, he gave a speech on the radio condemning the bridge. After the speech, he ran into H. H. Esselstyn, the Commissioner of Street Railways and former engineer on the Belle Island Bridge. It turned out Esselstyn was planning to make a contradictory speech in support of the bridge. Incensed, Mayor Smith fired him on the spot. Esselstyn still made the speech, despite his shock. At the end, he told the listeners that due to his opinions, he had been fired from his position. The unprofessional behavior of the mayor turned even more Detroiters against him, and his side was walloped the next day in the election. The bridge won by an 8 to 1 margin. Later that year, Smith was defeated by Lodge for the mayoral primaries (although he would become mayor again in 1933).

Construction, which had actually slowly begun before the election, picked up in earnest. It was finished in just over two years (and ahead of schedule). Unfortunately, the bridge opened 21 days after the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, at the very beginning of what would become the Great Depression. Additionally, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened in 1930, creating competition for the bridge’s traffic. The bridge endured a decade of financial troubled before things began looking up in the 1940s. Although passenger traffic was stayed low due to travel restrictions and gas rationing during the war, truck traffic increased greatly due to war manufacturing. Finally, the bridge was on solid financial footing.

Cars travel over the newly constructed Ambassador Bridge in the 1920s (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Cars travel over the newly constructed Ambassador Bridge in the 1920s (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Over the years, use has continued to grow, especially by commercial trucks. Many improvements have been made to the bridge to stabilize the now aging infrastructure and help manage the growing number of vehicles. Despite these changes, the current bridge is still not enough to handle the daily traffic from Detroit to Windsor. For this reason, a proposal was created in 2004 to build a  new bridge across the Detroit River, this one publicly owned. The proposal has been through multiple setbacks, including vehement opposition from the Ambassador Bridge’s current American owner, Manual “Matty” Moroun, but it has prevailed and preliminary construction has begun. In fact, just this week two huge obstacles to the bridge were overcome. It will surely be a while before the new bridge, named the New International Trade Crossing, will open – but when it does, Michiganders will have a whole new way to get to Canada, for whatever it is they want to do there.

toronto 007

Source: myself, on a trip to Toronto in 2006 (no, I didn’t buy anything there).


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