This is the second part of the story of Milwaukee’s
famous Hoan Bridge. Read
the first part here.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1972, with the future of the bridge still uncertain, three sections of the
Hoan’s huge arches were floated to Milwaukee
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.
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
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
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
was finally opened to traffic on November 5, 1977.
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
(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