ANN ARBOR, MI — Over 110 years ago, Ann Arbor’s new Wall Street bridge across the Huron River was a picture-perfect image worthy of placing on postcards.
“New Wall Street Bridge, Ann Arbor, Mich.,” read the text of onefeaturing the two arching spans with decorative railings.
Versions of the postcard circulated not long after the celebrated crossing opened in 1910 and for years afterward.
Another sepia-tone photograph shows an older, wooden Wall Street bridge collapsed in the river in August 1909 with two people examining the damage. That was the buggy wreck that prompted the city to build the new concrete structure, though it wasn’t the first time disaster struck. The Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat reported in April 1902 the Wall Street bridge was so badly destroyed by a storm that an entire new structure was needed.
After the 1909 collapse, which injured five people, the city moved swiftly to erect a new bridge that would stand for decades, serving as a long-lasting link between Ann Arbor’s Lower Town area on the north side and what would become a growing University of Michigan medical campus and downtown.
The sturdier Wall Street bridge stood for over 70 years before the city eventually demolished it in 1982, replacing it with the Maiden Lane bridge just to the east. But the ghost of the old, mostly forgotten bridge still haunts the river.
Looking west from today’s Maiden Lane bridge, close observers may notice a clear dividing line in the river creating a two-tone surface, as if there’s something in the water disrupting the current.
That is the historical location of the Wall Street bridge, said Jen Lawson, the city’s water quality manager, who until recently thought there may still be some old foundation structures in the river causing the strange phenomenon.
After an inspection by city staff, it turns out the structure under the river surface is just a 12-inch-diameter water main installed in the 1980s at a very shallow depth, she said.
While kayakers and others may navigate the stretch of river without even realizing it, the phenomenon on the river surface, which shows up clearly in aerial and satellite images, serves as a ghostlike reminder of the old Wall Street bridge.
Bridge to the past
Old news articles, photographs and other accounts tell the storied history of the different spans that, going back to 1881, once extended from Wall Street across the river.
Darla Welshons, an Ann Arbor District Library archives technician who has researched the history, noted the decorative concrete structure built in 1910 was used for many years for Memorial Day ceremonies. Usually flowers — sometimes a whole wreath — would be tossed into the river below to honor lost soldiers, she said, and after ceremonies organized by local patriotic groups on the bridge, participants would march to one of Ann Arbor’s nearby cemeteries.
And even in the days of the old wooden bridge, it was a place of innovation.
“The motor is a success,” declared an August 1903 article describing a new “water machine” invented by two Detroit men, J.G. Hacking and David McIntyre, using chains, paddles and gears connected to a motor to generate hydropower.
“It is claimed by the inventors that with an outlay of $5,000 one of these motors could be put in the Huron at Wall street that would develop at least 200 horsepower and furnish all the power necessary to light the city at a merely nominal expense,” the article stated. “If this is true, they certainly have one of the cheapest powers in use and have a fortune in sight.”
The 1909 collapse
The bridge’s big collapse on Aug. 6, 1909, was front-page news the next day in The Daily Times News, which reported a buggy with a female driver and four children from the Lutz and Nagel families was crossing the bridge when it fell, leaving all five occupants injured and in need of rescue.
Six-year-old Esther Nagel was most seriously injured, suffering a fractured thigh bone and was taken to the University of Michigan hospital for treatment.
“When the platform of the bridge collapsed, an iron beam from the heavy girders which supported the structure fell, and it was this that struck Esther Nagel on the thigh, and which crushed the buggy as if it were an egg shell,” the newspaper reported. “Buggy, horse and the occupants fell with the bridge platform, which did not strike the water, the timbers holding the platform when it had fallen within a foot of the water.”
The female driver said she had taken the children for a ride and they wandered about the university, watching the antics of squirrels, and were laughing happily before the collapse. The city paid over $2,000 in damages and injury claims arising from the incident.
Various reports about the bridge’s deteriorating condition in 1909 described bolts eaten through by rust and timbers rotted, and many believed the structure should have been condemned years earlier. City records indicated it was originally built in 1881, rebuilt in 1902 and repaired again in 1905.
It was one of a few city river bridges in the area, including others nearby on Broadway Street and Fuller Street.
Several years before the 1909 collapse, the bridge had been condemned for a while with signs warning it was unsafe and it was fenced off before being repaired by a local contractor, The Daily Times News reported.
Mayor William Walz quickly called a special meeting after the collapse and City Council resolved to build a new concrete bridge suitable for all traffic.
Orlando Worth Stephenson’s book “Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years,” published by the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce in 1927, includes a passage about the bridge rebuild.
“Steps were taken almost immediately in the direction of providing a new one,” the author wrote. “In March 1910, the Council let a contract to Hermann Tapp Construction Company, of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, for $9,100, the city agreeing to furnish the labor and the cement. This bridge was ready for use within a year and since that time has been looked upon as valuable both from the standpoint of utility and beauty.”
Construction was completed in October 1910.
In 1926, as part of an experiment in pavement construction using asphalt over a gravel base, the bridge was paved with asphalt by the Ann Arbor Construction Co.
1947 — view of bridge and hospital
1956 — safety concerns raised
1959 — bridge gets new look
1966 — view from Island Drive
1979 — hanging tough
1982 — demolition
By the fall of 1982, the new Maiden Lane bridge was standing and the old Wall Street bridge was no more, taken down in conjunction with a Fuller-Glen road realignment and construction of a $285-million UM replacement hospital.
The changes made Maiden Lane the new major route from Broadway Street and Plymouth Road to Fuller Road and the medical center.
But the way the old bridge was demolished concerned some environmentalists who worried about impacts to the river.
In 2023, Ann Arbor officials are considering widening the main access bridge to the Michigan Medicine complex where Maiden Lane becomes East Medical Center Drive, a controversial proposal awaiting City Council’s OK to go forward.
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