Bridge, balloon & a prison break


Story by Larry Chabot

Illustrations by Mike McKinney

Finally, a bridge over the Mackinac Straits, that five-mile-wide waterway separating Michigan’s two peninsulas! Pre-bridge frustrations abounded, like 15-mile-long lines of hunters waiting to cross, line jumpers paying the penalty as angry drivers picked up offenders’ cars and turned them around, local residents car-sitting (for a fee) for hunters who left their vehicles for whatever. Locals also worked the lines selling food and drink. At one time long ago, gas tanks were emptied for safety reasons before drivers paid $40 to ride the ferry (they never got their gas back). LeRoy Barnett’s story in Michigan History Magazine in 2007 is full of such tales.

On November 1, 1957, Mighty Mac formally opened. A cavalcade of dignitaries was led by Gov. G. Mennen Williams, whose wife was at the wheel and paid the $3.25 toll because the governor forgot his license. Negaunee’s Frank Matthews and his wife slipped in behind the dignitaries in their station wagon festooned with Negaunee advertising. Marquette Mayor James Clark led a 25-car caravan across, and beauty queens from Michigan counties waved from convertibles. Regular folks drove back and forth for hours, enjoying their beautiful new bridge.

Two weeks earlier, the Hermansville area in Menominee County was the scene of a two-man Navy balloon crash. The craft had left Minnesota on a test run, reaching heights of 16 miles and speeds of 68 miles an hour before becoming lost in heavy clouds and ditching in a swamp four miles west of town. Guards were posted on the nearest road but looters still made off with most of the equipment. The log book was found at Hermansville High School, and other items were voluntarily returned, but only 20 percent was recovered. A helicopter yanked the balloon out of the swamp for its return to Minnesota by truck.

In other local news, Northern Michigan College figured that its new high enrollment of 1,307 was influenced by the new bridge. North Central Airlines, operating amid the military planes at Sawyer Air Force Base, was told to relocate to Negaunee Township, with the federals paying the cost. (Airlines returned to Sawyer after the base closed.)

The Crate Escape

Inmate Dale Line was working in the kitchen at Marquette Branch Prison, doing time for burglary and an earlier escape from Jackson Prison. On October 19, he hid in a large crate destined for the prison’s honor farm in Harvey; fellow inmates helped by packing groceries around him. Once underway, Line climbed out, kicked out truck driver Joe White, and drove off. He was captured in Minnesota on October 30. The stunt cost him another three to six years in the slammer. Marquette Warden Raymond Buchkoe told the press that Line had hacksaw blades strapped to his frost-bitten feet when captured.

In other crime news, St. Agnes Church in Escanaba—only eight months old—was entered by vandals who set fire to two altars. Burns Department Store in Munising was broken into with a crowbar attack on an alley door but the burglars were unable to crack the safe. Elsewhere in town, three wallets were stolen on one weekend.

Marquette was building three new elementary schools, a new college fieldhouse was going up, and housing at the air base was expanding. Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railroad warned that St. Ignace-to-Marquette passenger service would end in early 1958. In Baraga, the Pettibone Michigan plant was destroyed by a fire which wiped out the equipment, company records, blueprints and 60 jobs. Tough economic times in the mines brought 148 layoffs at the Tracy Mine and 106 at Cleveland Cliffs.

TV station bullseye

In November, viewers of WDMJ-TV (now WLUC-TV) complained of poor reception and frequent channel outages. A check of the microwave relay tower in South Marquette revealed heavy damage from shotgun blasts. The dish atop of the tower was riddled with bullet holes.

Honest deer hunters suffered through the poorest season in years, mostly due to lousy weather. Two fatalities spoiled the season: a 15-year-old Iron Mountain boy and a 41-year-old man from Baraga were mistaken for deer. Among the 85,000 hunters working U.P. woods was Mrs. Ellen Carrier of Chocolay Township, who bagged her 23rd deer in 23 years of hunting. She was not only a farmer but a barber, house painter, cabinet maker, township supervisor, and seamstress, adept with both rifle and fishing rod.

At the movies

Hottest films of the year were The Ten Commandments, Bridge On The River Kwai, and Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley, who bought a Memphis mansion called Graceland. While performing in Seattle, he asked the audience to rise for the National Anthem, picked up his guitar, shook his hips, and began singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” The crowd went wild.

The classic TV comedy “I Love Lucy” aired for the last time after 181 episodes. The teenage dance show American Bandstand debuted; it lasted 32 years. Boxing legend Jack Dempsey showed up in Iron Mountain to crown the U.P. Potato Queen. Anatomy Of A Murder by local author John Voelker was selected as Book-Of-The Month, sold to the movies and Broadway – before it hit the bookstores. Electrician Gerald DuBois of Manistique was one of 28 chosen to spend the winter at the South Pole.

TIME Magazine’s Man Of The Year was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. U.S. automakers continued making bigger cars, engines and tail fins. The average new car cost $2,749. In a startling claim, the makers of Kent cigarettes bragged that its new asbestos filter was “the greatest health protection in the history of cigarettes.”

In sports, the Chassell Panthers won their second straight Class D basketball championship. The Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and the Detroit Lions won the pro football title by demolishing the Cleveland Browns 59-14. As U.P. high school football Team Of The Year, the Marquette Redmen were rewarded with a trip to the Michigan-Iowa college game.

Cooing in their cribs in 1957 were Katie Couric, Spike Lee, Ray Romano and Vanna White. The average wage was $2.20 an hour, gas was four gallons for a buck, eggs cost 28 cents a dozen, and a first class stamp was three cents. On October 4, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and followed with Sputnik 2 a month later with the first animal in space, a dog named Laika. The first U.S. satellite reached orbit the following January.

A year of surprises

Miss USA of 1957, 18-year old Leona Gage, was stripped of her title when she was exposed as a Mrs., not a Miss with a husband and two kids. An Ohio salesman who vanished on a fishing trip was found alive in Nebraska eight years later posing as a TV celebrity. On April Fools Day, the British Broadcasting Company aired its classic hoax showing spaghetti being harvested from “spaghetti trees.”

I know you!

Fred Soyring of Gwinn, working in Italy with an international agency, walked into an officers club in Naples and ran into Gwinn native and Navy officer Chester Peterson, whom he hadn’t seen in 18 years. Soyring reported that “we discovered that we both had been ‘roving ambassadors of our picturesque Upper Peninsula.”

Two other Yoopers were featured in a 1957 story recalling a chance meeting in the South Pacific during World War II. Walter Vinskoski of Munising boarded a canoe on the island of Bora Bora when someone behind him remarked that the place “looks just like Munising Bay.” Vinskoski turned around to see Frank Methel of Trenary.

And so it went, 60 years ago…


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