Thursday, July 19, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 7-29-07
Jeff Gill

Engineers Can Be Poets, Often In Steel

Way back when, 50 years ago when Howard LeFevre was just fifty years old, a fellow named David B. Steinman built a bridge.
Little Davey grew up literally in shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, and as he went to school and graduated from Columbia, he wanted to build bridges.

The first work credited in his portfolio is a Boy Scout pioneering project near Moscow, Idaho, where he first taught engineering and did some scoutmastering, combining the two into a bridge over a creek larger than any the boys had built before.

Though the BSA was only 2 years old at the time.

Steinman went on to design and consult on his own, even helping supervise a renovation of his beloved Brooklyn Bridge, of which he wrote: “A bridge is a poem stretched across a river, a symphony of stone and steel” since David Steinman was a poet, inspired as much by Roebling’s architecture as by Shakespeare.

He was asked to consult on a bridge over the Tacoma Narrows in Washington state, and on reviewing the plans, said “when the wind picks up that structure will shake itself to bits.” His was the minority report, and filed accordingly.

They pulled Steinman’s file out when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge went from the joking tag “Galloping Gertie” for the resonance up-down wobble it always had, to a near-tragedy as Galloping Gertie shook herself (and one frightened dog trapped in the middle) to death, at least taking long enough to allow all the vehicle drivers to crawl off and for a local photo shop owner to make one of the most famous home movies ever seen.

If Steinman, the poet-engineer, had gotten that right, then the Michigan state government, wanting to connect their upper and lower peninsulae with an unprecedented, record-setting bridge, wanted him to design a bridge for the even windier Mackinac Straits.

1953 they hired him, and 1957 they honored him. “Mighty Mac” was built to withstand winds of over 350 miles per hour, which meant even the governor and senators could safely give speeches from the center span.

What makes Mighty Mac safe in high winds is also what makes it almost impossible for some to drive the five miles from shore to shore. The decking is steel mesh, meaning you can (as a passenger) look over the side and right through down to Lake Michigan 200 feet below (and another 200 feet of water below that). This is effect is either exhilarating or terrifying, though as a driver, why are you looking down, anyhow?

But the state highway folks keep a crew of people around to drive you across is you ask at the toll booth, and the last time we were there, one told me a fellow had to be driven across every month some years ago, and it bothered him so much that they had to lay a blanket over him lying down flat on the backseat. It’s a service they provide for free, or at least included in the toll.

Checking my facts on-line, I see that one of my favorite Eagle Scouts, Mike Rowe, will feature Mighty Mac on her 50th birthday in his show “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. Painting this bridge, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, never ends – you finish at one end, and just go back to the beginning and start over.

If you’ve vacationed in the Straits area, eaten Island fudge, or just passed through on your way to Sault-Ste-Marie and O Canada, you know what an amazing sight the bridge is, both far away and nearby. The towers are just under the height of the Washington Monument, catching clouds or sticking out of morning fog, while vast cargo vessels are dwarfed by passing under her.

The Lovely Wife and I honeymooned in its shadow 22 years ago, and we’ve since had occasion to take the Little Guy to visit, but a trip this summer didn’t work out, more’s the pity.

If you want to see the bridge, just go to the official website of the Mackinac Bridge Authority,, or check out their friends at You can see a live webcam, fog, rain, and all, plus pictures of bright sunshine or icebound in snow. Looking at David Steinman’s greatest poem is like a quick vacation in itself.

Oh, and I wouldn’t have known of the poet in the engineer, except that at Bethany College, just above Wheeling WV, the theater complex, not the engineering building, was given by the family in his honor, where a painting hangs in the lounge of David, with his background of course being: The Mighty Mac.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he wishes he had space to talk about Fort Michilimackinac, too! Share your vacation or anniversary tales at

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