Bridge to Nowhere! A Brief History of the Hoan Bridge Part II

Sep. 12, 2016
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Note: This is the second part of the story of Milwaukee’s famous Hoan BridgeRead the first part here.

With the push for a harbor bridge now in its third decade, bridge backers were not going to let a triviality like 90-plus extra miles of highway stand in their way. In fact, much less roadway would be needed thanks to some clever maneuvering by the state. Officials managed to talk the feds into greatly reducing their demands on the south branch of the project, with all sides coming to an agreement that the lakefront interstate would instead end at West Layton Avenue and link General Mitchell Airport into the system. With the plans all set, work began on the tied-arch style bridge which had been selected for the project.

The addition of the airport spur had already delayed the project, and as work began at the harbor, the feds began to make more demands on road improvements around Layton and the other areas in which exit ramps were to be located. The targeted end date for the project, once set at 1969, was pushed back to 1972, then to 1973. The bridge was also still without a name. After the Red Arrow proposal was dropped, it was suggested that the bridge be named for James Lovell, who grew up in Milwaukee and had just commanded the infamous Apollo 13 mission safely back to earth after an aborted trip to the moon.

 An alternate design for the would-be Hoan Bridge, proposed in 1965.

In October, 1971, with work on the bridge ahead of schedule and plans quickly progressing for its north and south connections, the County Board of Supervisors voted to name the span for the late Mayor Daniel W. Hoan, who was regarded as one of the city’s most able and honest leaders. Incidentally, Hoan himself probably would have hated the idea of the bridge, let alone attaching his name to the structure. Hoan had even opposed the placement of the War Memorial on the lakefront, calling it “a crime against Milwaukee,” because of its obstruction of the lake from the shoreline parkland. Now, he was being honored with an even greater obstruction – one that would end up cutting right through the lakefront parkland.

Fittingly, it was this parkland that caused the next major disruption to the bridge plan. A clause in the 1936 transfer of Juneau Park from the city to the county held that if the land ever ceased to be used as a park, its deed would transfer back to the city. At the onset of the project, this was not much of an issue for bridge-backers. Six years into the project, however, more and more city officials had taken an anti-interstate stance. Should the land go back to the city, it would almost certainly sink the project and might make the partially-completed bridge itself ineligible for federal funding. To avoid having to foot the bill on a very expensive and potentially unusable bridge, county officials proposed that a 1,000 foot long tunnel be dug through Juneau Park, preserving the land above as a public space and keeping control of the land in the hands of the pro-interstate county government.

The push-back against the interstate was in large part due to the wishes of city residents, many of whom did not want to see more of Milwaukee’s landscape torn up to make way for the hulking structures. By the early 1970s, Bay View residents had even turned Mayor Maier – who still backed the bridge and the tunnel underneath Juneau Park – against the southern spur to Layton Avenue. This was the same part of the project that the locals had promised the feds in order to beg out of extending it down to Chicago.

In 1972, with the future of the bridge still uncertain, three sections of the Hoan’s huge arches were floated to Milwaukee from Pittsburgh. That November, the arches were connected and the bridge assumed its now-familiar shape. But in February, 1973, bridge backers were dealt a huge blow when a federal judge ordered all work on the downtown loop system to be stopped while an environmental impact study was performed – the proposed tunnel being the main cause of the ruling. It was reported that the study could take up to four years to complete. The total cost estimate on the bridge had now run to $67 million. As the roadbeds were laid in the summer of 1973, it was not yet clear at all who would pay for it or if it would ever be used.

And still, public opinion of the bridge and the project had not yet bottomed out. On June 29, 1973, a set of scaffolding on the side of the structure collapsed. Three men fell to their deaths and a subsequent investigation revealed that the setup was not in compliance with state safety guidelines and that the cables supporting the scaffolds had been badly frayed from rubbing against the side of the bridge. A few weeks later, with water levels on the lake three to four feet higher than usual, the freighter Ruthie Michaels was forced to spend several hours in the harbor, taking 2,500 gallons of water into her ballast tanks just so she could fit under the bridge.

The span had been designed with a 120-foot clearance over the average water level on the lake – which matched the Seaway Bridge on the St. Lawrence Seaway. But the Seaway was a controlled channel with a fixed water level. Lake Michigan, of course, was not. Milwaukee’s port director also expressed fears that the bridge could be struck by long-bowed freighters docked at the Jones Island cargo terminals. Some of the largest vessels that docked there were only about 20 feet away from the structure. Through the summer of 1974, with work on the bridge completed, at least five freighters had difficulty in passing beneath the bridge, with one actually sustaining damage from scraping against the span. Meanwhile, there was no clear plan on how to connect the interstate system to the bridge and the federal government was threatening to recall the tens of millions of dollars they had invested into the project.

 The Hoan in its unfinished state, about 1975.

Then, the bridge won an award. It was honored by the American Institute of Steel Construction as one of the 17 most beautiful bridges to open to traffic in 1974. There was, of course, the minor detail of the bridge not actually being open to traffic. The award committee, however, decided that work being completed on the span was good enough. They also might have feared that if they waited until traffic actually passed over the Hoan, they might never get a chance to hand over the trophy.

Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford released $2 billion in addition federal funds for interstate projects that included $22 million for Wisconsin to finally open the bridge to traffic. The north end would now be connected to the unfinished I-794 southbound ramps and the south end would connect to Carferry Drive – the same spot which had been considered insufficient by the feds nearly a decade prior.

 People walk across the Hoan on the day it opened to the public. (Milwaukee Public Library)

After two more years of work, and still more attempts to create an airport spur in the system (it would never happen, although the Lake Parkway would finally connect the bridge to the airport in 1998), the Daniel W. Hoan Memorial Bridge was finally opened to traffic on November 5, 1977.

POSTSCRIPT: A long-persisting myth has it that there is a scene in The Blues Brothers that was filmed on the bridge in its unfinished state. There is indeed a scene in the film, when the Blues Brothers are being chased by Pinto-driving Illinois Nazis, that was filmed in Milwaukee. The US Bank Building (then the First Wisconsin Center) and other city landmarks can be seen very briefly during the chase, which culminates in the Nazis soaring off the end of an unfinished freeway ramp and landing in downtown Chicago. It was not, however, filmed on the bridge or on anything that would have led to the bridge. Indeed, it was filmed in the summer of 1979, almost two years after the bridge was opened to traffic. The scene was actually filmed on the section of I-794 that would have led northbound on the never-built lakefront part of the downtown loop.


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