Talking Michigan Transportation

As the Mackinac Bridge approaches the age of 65, a preview of this year’s Labor Day Annual Bridge Walk

September 01, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 117
Talking Michigan Transportation
As the Mackinac Bridge approaches the age of 65, a preview of this year’s Labor Day Annual Bridge Walk
Show Notes Transcript

This November marks the 65th anniversary of the opening of the Mackinac Bridge, the iconic structure linking Michigan’s two peninsulas. Each year, tens of thousands of people from across the state and other regions descend on the Straits of Mackinac for the experience of traversing the bridge. 

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, first, Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, a long-time member and chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, shares his memories of many walks with friends and family. As an iron worker, his father, Mike Gleason, helped build the bridge, and Shorty talks about the legacy and his own experience as an iron worker.

Later, Cole Cavalieri, assistant chief engineer at the Mackinac Bridge, talks about the ongoing work to maintain the bridge, projects in the works or planned for the future, and the pride he takes in watching people experience the bridge during the annual walk. 

He also discusses recent challenges in maintaining the bridge, including the changing climate’s role in altering freeze-thaw cycles and causing ice to melt and fall on the driving lanes.

Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast I'm your host Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking with a couple of people involved in the Mackinac Bridge walk, the annual walk coming up on Labor Day, September 5th this year. First, I'll be speaking with Shorty Gleason, a longtime member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. And the current chairman, who has walked several times with family and friends over the years and has a very personal connection to the bridge. And it's always interesting to hear him talk about that. And then I'll be with Cole Cavalieri, who is the assistant chief bridge engineer and is largely involved in protecting and maintaining the bridge, which turns 65 this November. Cole talks about all kinds of things, including what it means to him personally as a young engineer to be responsible for maintaining this beautiful bridge. OK, once again, we are here today with Shorty Gleason. Who has been on the podcast before to talk about the Mackinac Bridge walk, and since that's coming up here on Monday, Labor Day, September 5th, I thought it was a good time to preview it. Shorty plans to do it again. Shorty is a long-time member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and has been chairman the past few years, dealt with all kinds of things that his predecessors probably never anticipated. You know basically most of them got a little bit of an easier ride in terms of controversies and tough decisions, but Shorty persevered through all of it and called on his longtime experience and his passion for the bridge, which is informed by his own personal history. So, Shorty thank you for taking time to be here. 

Shorty Gleason: Well, good morning, Jeff, and thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure and what a great thing to talk about is the Mackinac Bridge. There's the bridge is second to any other structures as far as I'm concerned, it's quite a wonderful marvel of engineering and craftsman by the tradesman that built it. It's fantastic opportunity and what a great day it is to be able to walk that Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day and just envision all the beautiful sights around you. 

Cranson: Yeah, it's an incredibly cool tradition, and I think you know one thing we should probably encourage people to do if they are walking this year and never have is to check out the Walk of Fame for the iron workers that's on the Mackinaw City side in the park there just beyond the approach of the bridge. It's really cool history and worth seeing and talk a little bit about why that's special to you. 

Gleason: Well, several years ago that my dad was one of the founding members of the iron workers and the international Ironworker Hall of Fame together and you know it's grown. The festival has grown more and more every year. There's always more participation from the iron workers in both the United States and Canada. And it's a special meeting to the ironworkers that Mackinac Bridge. Because you know, when they built that bridge, that was really something. When you stop and think about job safety, the way we know today versus the way it was back in 54’ through 57’, you know, there was no OSHA, there were no MIOSHA safety standards in the construction industry whatsoever. So, they really had a tight camaraderie and really protected one another and made sure they always looked out for one another building that bridge and unfortunately, you know, there were five individuals who had lost their lives building that bridge. You know, Jeff, you know as well as anybody that there was a lot of skepticism at the time whether or not that bridge could even be built. And you know, that's probably the last thing you should never tell an iron worker, that they can't build something and get it done on time and on budget, but they delivered just like they knew they would.

Cranson: Isn't that amazing? When you think about so many things, you know from the past, you know, centuries past? That we accepted certain things and now the idea of five people, you know, dying in the construction of a bridge, no matter how important and how big we just we wouldn't accept that.

Gleason: No, no, it was it was a whole different scenario back then. You know the contractor for the student erection of the bridge was American Bridge and they really did look out for the men. But you know there was several days it was really adverse weather conditions up there even in July. And you know, to load those men up on the barges and tugboats the way they did and took them to their, you know, work points, it was quite an achievement. And you know that bridge was expedited so well by, you know, Doctor Simon, his team of engineers and the iron workers and when you stop and think about it, you know, building that project in three years because of the weather conditions were so rough during the winter, there were, unfortunately, they couldn't work on the bridge, but there was still a lot of work going on some things inside you were building all the trusses and scheduling how the iron would be shipped out to the waterway to be erected and you know when they when you look at those truss spans and trying to picture you know those barges hauling those large truss spans out and they had cat heads some type of what they call it cat heads; they were lifting devices that they lowered the block and cable down to account for those barges. Or hook on that kind of those cross sections on the barge and you know when you look at how rough some of those days are in the Straits of Mackinac you know how tough that would have been? To cut those truss sections off, big as they were, then hoist them into position. And it's really something special that those men did. 

Cranson: So, think about working at those heights and working in cotter dams that the tight spaces. I mean you could neither be claustrophobic nor certainly have any kind of fear of heights and do that kind of work? Did your dad talk about that and what it was like to be that high above the water? 

Gleason: He talked about it his entire life. And you know, Jeff, where I was really fortunate, I followed my father's footsteps through the coming our work for myself. And I served my apprenticeship with American British American bridge. Built several large projects here in the state of Michigan, but one of which was the Detroit Renaissance. And that's where I served my apprenticeship at. Building the Detroit Renaissance center. And on that job, because that was only like 20 years or so after the bridge was completed. So, I had the opportunity not only to work with my father that worked on the Mackinac Bridge but become very good friends with so many of those ironworkers that I had the opportunity to work with and quite often. There are very few days would go by in the shanty when you're having lunch or taking your coffee, break. The old timers would start talking about at the experience they had built at Mackinac Bridge, and I certainly wish I would have written all those stories down because it would have made for a great book. But it was such a pleasure to meet the large majority of those iron workers and to listen to all those stories from firsthand experience. 

Cranson: That's a rich experience. And I again, I not only the statues and that and that tribute to the iron workers in the park, but there's also a museum that has a lot of that history that you're talking about and. It's really cool stuff. So, we're coming up on the 65th anniversary of the bridge opening. That would be November 1st, 2022, marks 65 years. You've done this walk a number of times sometimes and not so great weather other times, that beautiful sunrise and Lake Huron that you see off to the left as you, you know, head south from St Ignace to Mackinaw City. Talk about why that never gets old for you. 

Gleason: Well, from my perspective, I obviously think about. My father and the all the iron workers were involved and what they had to do to build that bridge. But, you know, with my labor background, it really has another really special meaning, and you know, there is nowhere in the nation you see where they're such a respect for the amount of work for labor like the Mackinac Bridge Labor Day walk. When you take a consideration, you know it's were the host up there, but the whole state, the thousands of people that come up there and went away, it is to you know, thank all those individuals. That services state day in and day out year-round, making such a great service state the way it is, all those hard-working men and women, and went away to say thank you. You know, here's your bridge. You take this time and walk it. Enjoy it. And thank you for all the service you provide for this state. You know it's a wonderful, wonderful way for everybody to thank all those who labor day in and day out in this state and have the opportunity to just enjoy. Like Governor Granholm, I'm always said it's Michigan's crown jewel. You know, it's well, it's a wonderful, wonderful project. 

Cranson: Yes, so much so that we've stamped it on our license plates and it's the state symbol and many other areas. So, I think crown jewel is a is a fitting term when you think about it. You're a hunter, and you've been heading up north for a number of years and you know what it was like before that bridge was built, and cars lined up for hours to get on the ferries. And you know, it's a literal connection between two peninsulas that were not connected before that. Not everybody in the UP was actually that thrilled about having you and your deer hunting buddies all of a sudden, having access you, you remember that? What that was like? 

Gleason: Well, I that quite that old where I was waiting in line. But I can certainly remember these stories from, you know, my father and uncle and other friends throughout my life that. It's amazing how it brought the hunters together because. You know they; you know, it was their claim to fame was they're the ones that really benefit the tailgating parties because, you know, quite often they would wait in there for six hours, but maybe 12 hours across. So, they stopped and talk and have a little lunch and get to know one another. And then obviously there's nobody can tell better stories than deer hunters. Well. Yeah, their claim to fame was they invented the tailgate party. 

Cranson: So that's funny. I never heard that. But I have seen the photos of the cars backed up. So, I can imagine that there was plenty of time to tailgate.

Gleason: Yes, yes. Many, many times there were. 

Cranson: So, this year, how many have you done? Have you kept track?

Gleason: Long before you know, I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the Mackinac Bridge Authority our family walked it for years. I guess I never really kept track of it, but you know, even back in the later 50s, we would always go up there because you know, dad took a lot of pride in the in that. Accomplishment. And each season may have a fellow and work or something like that day too well. 

Cranson: That first walk was in 58, so there's a good chance you guys walked to that first year. 

Gleason: Yeah, yeah, very good chance. I would have been just four years old at the time, but it was. It was something I've always, always cherished. And you can see that why there's such a large crowd every year that they always return to walk the bridge. 

Cranson: Yeah, seeing the families is always cool, you know that. The kids, I mean, my kids had to be drug out of bed. Pretty, doggone early. That they were always glad they did it so yeah. 

Gleason: Well, and, you know, early walk is always the best walk because as you indicated earlier, you know when you see that sunrise come over Mackinac Island, it just absolutely breathtaking, beautiful morning like that. 

Cranson: Yeah, it really is. We'll talk just a little bit. About your time serving on the Mackinac Bridge authority and your time as chair and you know what it taught you, what it meant to you, and you know how you feel reflecting on that. 

Gleason: First of all, it meant everything in the world to me. To have the honor and the privilege to serve on the Mackinac Bridge Authority and my personal life related next to my family. It's second to none. I've had such great you know, times meeting and working from my colleagues, the President, authority members, as well as the former ones, that they have all been a very wonderful group to work with. And you know each and every member of that authority, as long as I've been there. brings are very unique perspective to the Mackinac Bridge as far as their expertise and you know it's just been wonderful. But you know the icing on the cake to me is I really had the opportunity to meet the employees of Mackinac Bridge Authority. They are just such special people. You know, they really work in some adverse conditions themselves and they keep that bridge in top condition and their skill and their tradesmanship. It's really something special. And they're wonderful, wonderful people to work with the, you know, right from the toll takers that they always greet you with a smile. Have a nice day. And yeah, the administration has been wonderful to work with, you know, all the employees in the office. And, you know, it's just, you know, they take a lot of pride themselves in that bridge and just have been tremendous people to work with and get to know all my personal level is it's really been really special to me and what a wonderful group of people they are. 

Cranson: Yeah. They really do take pride in their work. I think that's well said and I'm glad you underscored that. You know, it's a tribute to you that you were appointed by governors from different administrations appointed and reappointed, and that says something about you and your ability, I think, to work with all kinds of people. So, thank you for, you know, all you've done for the bridge and for the state. And thanks again for being willing to share your thoughts on the podcast.

Gleason: Well, thanks, Jeff. And it's always a pleasure. You have wonderful day. And I look forward to seeing everybody up there on the bridge walk. 

Cranson: We will continue the conversation right after a quick break, 

MDOT announcement: Avoid the wait and remember, the Mackinac Bridge is closed to traffic Labor Day for the annual Bridge Walk starting at 6:30 AM. Spend some extra time in the UP or take your time heading north and the bridge won't reopen to traffic until noon to allow walkers to clear the bridge. For more information, head to 

Cranson: OK. So once again, we're back for another segment and we're talking now with Cole Cavalieri, who is the assistant chief engineer on the Mackinac Bridge. Important job, obviously when you consider that he's helping to protect and take care of our states signature, iconic piece of infrastructure. Cole, thank you for taking time to be here. 

Cavalieri: Yeah. Thank you, Jeff, for having me. 

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about yourself, your background, how long you've been in this job, and you know what the trajectory was that got you here? 

Cavalieri: Yeah. So, I'm a native of the UP. I grew up in Iron Mountain, so over on the West side of the UP, I was always interested in structures. And I went down below the bridge to Michigan State University where I got my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. From there I actually worked for a couple different companies in the private sector, one in the UP doing a lot of construction, inspection, type of work, and then one in the Lansing area doing more bridge design and bridge inspection and that kind of took me to. I was always interested in. The public sector and I got the opportunity to join Mdot a few years ago in in their bridge design unit in Lansing and I was working there when I found out that the Mackinac Bridge had an opening, and the bridge was always kind of my halfway point between home and Lansing. And it's always had a special meaning to me both as an engineer and just personally, so it's just an opportunity I couldn't pass up. So now I've been with the Mackinac Bridge for about 2 1/2 years and it's really been a privilege getting to work on such an iconic structure. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's pretty cool for a boy from Iron Mountain, that's pretty far west. I was going to ask you said the bridges halfway. So how long did it take you to get to Michigan State when you're going to school? 

Cavalieri: Well, back before the speed limits on I-75 changed size is about an 8-hour trip. And the bridge was really close to about halfway. So, it's usually my stopping point. 

Cranson: OK. And then you got to tell me this. Are you still a Packer fan? 

Cavalieri: I actually am not. But my family are they're big Packer backers. 

Cranson: Wow. OK, so do you root for the lions? Are you just agnostic to the NFL? 

Cavalieri: I happen to be a black sheep and I'm a Denver Broncos fan and just always have been. Even when they played back in Super Bowl 32, my family were supporting the Packers and I was supporting John Elway and the Broncos.

Cranson:  You were rooting for Elway against Favre? Wow.

Cavalieri: I was. Yeah.

Cranson: Wow. Alright. Well, most of the reason I wanted to have you on. Let's see if we discount the pandemic year of cancellation 2020. This would basically be your third bridge walk to help with preparation. Is that right? 

Cavalieri: Yeah. Yeah. 

Cranson: Talk about what that entails and how those fits into, you know, the other things that you're doing for, you know, maintenance and preservation of the bridge. Yeah. So, the bridge walk is an event that you know is very sorely missed by the community in in 2020 when we had to cancel it because of the pandemic. But it's a big event and the Mackinac Bridge just means so much to so many Michiganders, especially that opportunity to walk across it is really important to people and so it's nice to have the event back. Takes a lot of work on our end, but you know it pays off on Labor Day when you see all the people walking and get to meet some of them and just really see the tradition that families have established for this bridge walk and you know, part of that is I work closely with the maintenance staff here at the bridge doing different repair work and inspections. And basically, just making sure the bridge says is in as good a condition as it possibly can be. So that we have it for you for years to come and the bridge walk, we kind of reroute our work for a couple weeks leading up to it to get all set up and prep. But we try to make sure the bridge is looking good for all those people coming up on Labor Day to see it and to walk across it. Like I said, it's really been special getting to see them then do that and kind of welcome into the bridge. We're here all the time, so it's nice to see how much, how well it's appreciated. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's nice because it would be easy to look at it like this is just a heck of a lot of extra work and hassle and you know, and it all involves a holiday weekend, but you got the right attitude. You look at it like it's great that so many people from across the state, even other states, want to come and celebrate this iconic structure. 

Cavalieri: Yeah. And it's, you know, that's part of it. That's what we do the job for is. The traveling public and keeping them safe, and it's a day that they kind of get to pay tribute to the bridge and you know, it's a day that a lot of people take our transportation systems for granted, I think. And you know, they don't think about when the bridge wasn't here or even when, you know, a road wasn't there, and nobody likes dealing with construction, but you know it's an important thing and my work at MDOT and here at the bridge is trying to keep those systems working. So, I kind of try to take the bridge walk as a point where people can come and actually think about what the bridge is and what it means connecting our state. Also, hopefully they think a little bit about the people behind it and behind all of our infrastructure. I think they do, when you walk across it, it takes a while. So hopefully it allows them to, you know kind of take it in like that.

Cranson: Yeah, if you're walking at a very good pace, you can cover that 5 miles and you know 50 minutes to an hour. But that's, that's again, that's a really good pace. So that is that's plenty of time to give it some thought. And one of the things I think about when I walk across the bridge is the incredible ongoing constant maintenance to maintain a bridge at 65 years old now. And it's not just a 65-year-old suspension bridge. It's in the Straits of Mackinac. It's exposed to the elements in ways that lots of other infrastructure never is. So, do you feel like, you know, it's like you finished one project and you always have to move to another? You’re really never done. It's not like you can say, OK, you know we've done this and now we can wait another five years. I mean it's ongoing. What's in the pipeline, what big things do you have coming next? 

Cavalieri: Yeah. So, it is for its age. It's actually in really good shape. Which is a testament to the maintenance staff who have come before me and have kept it in good shape. But it is, you know, it is almost 65 years old, and it does require a lot of work. So, we actually have quite a few projects lined up. Our in-house staff currently has several projects, one that people notice a lot is probably that we're switching out our open grading and we we've had to replace more and more kind of as we've gone. And that's just because it is starting to get older, and our staff has really got it down to a science where they're able to switch out a panel in just a couple days. Thankfully we're able to keep up on that and we're able to do it in house, which is not a lot of bridges out there, have a staff that is capable of doing that's a big benefit to us. We also have some bigger projects. Coming up or we're in the design phase of a north viaduct rehabilitation project. Which our north viaduct is one section of the bridge and that will be some replacing joints, and repaving that area, doing some concrete repairs and then it's on to the next one. So, we have some repaving coming up and the pavement is getting older, but with these projects I know it sounds like a lot of work, but it's really going to extend the life of the bridge for a long time hopefully. We had a deck study done in 2020 just to see what kind of life we there's left in the bridge and how we can best increase that life, and thankfully it was that study came out that there's quite a bit of life left as long as we do the right kind of projects and take care of it. So hopefully we do a good job at that. 

Cranson: So, we talk a lot about the deck, but what about you know what supports this thing. And what about the towers and the anchorages? You know that that are into the bedrock below the straits. How do you, how do you inspect that and how do you get a feeling before you know, the health of those things? 

Cavalieri: Yeah. So, we actually just three weeks ago, we concluded an underwater inspection, and this were a very comprehensive inspection. It's something we contracted out with a company called Collins Engineering because we actually require scuba divers to dive all the peers and this this year's inspection, we actually included a hydrographic survey. Where they took some specialized sonar equipment and they did a whole scan of the bottom of the straits, and we're going to compare that with the last time we had that done was in 2007. So, I've seen that survey. And so, I'm really interested to see how it's changed in the last 15 years. Luckily, our peers, they they're so robust that they don't see a lot of deterioration. So, so far, 

Cranson: what would you look for? 

Cavalieri: Yeah. So, when they're doing an underwater inspection, what they're mainly looking for is any damage to any of the peers they're looking for scour, which is when the currents on the bottom of the channel are start wearing a way around the piers and kind of creating a void next to them, so they're not as well supported. 

Cranson: You've got some pretty strong currents at the bottom of the straits, right? 

Cavalieri: Yeah, we do. But luckily our piers don't see a lot of scour and partially that's because the bottom of the straits is actually between the towers, so part of the reason the towers were so far had to be so far apart is even though they're pretty deep, the deepest being about 142 feet deep. To the bottom, the Straits of Mackinac actually go up almost down to 300 feet deep, but that's actually in between the towers. And so that's where the strongest currents seem to be and our peers are over the years haven't showed a whole lot of evidence of scour, which is nice because there there's something that would not be easy to replace.

Cranson: That really sound like Doctor Steinman and his team were really forward thinking with everything that they did.

Cavalieri: Yeah, they definitely designed quite the bridge and they actually during the design process. They actually moved the bridge 30 feet N because when they were starting to lay it out before construction, we actually found that the north tower was right on the edge of a kind of a bedrock Cliff down into that ravine, underwater canyon, I guess you could call it. So, luckily, they hadn't started constructing, so they actually picked up the whole bridge and moved it about 30 feet N, so the bridge is 30 feet north of where they originally were planning on it, but that was just to get it into more solid footing. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's really interesting. Well, is there anything else you want to say, Cole about? You know what's coming up and you know what people could look forward to and maybe just about, you know, you talked about the walk and how that's kind of inspiring to see so many people admire your workplace, basically what inspires you and keeps you excited about your job. 

Cavalieri: You know it's a really, it's mostly the people I get to work with, and the Mackinac Bridge. Like I said, I worked for a design company, and I worked in construction and the Mackinac Bridge is really a unique position where I kind of get to work with all kinds of I work with our staff kind of doing construction, inspection and but the difference is they're just as invested in this bridge as I am. And you know, as the Mackinac Bridge authority, it's all of our goal to keep that bridge going. So, it's really nice to work, it's a team effort and at the end of the day, everyone's here for this bridge and that's really inspiring to be able to come to work with people who, you know, it's a pretty special area. You know, we see a lot of people here in the summers, but what people don't see is when. Over here, you know, and that's cold February days, but we're still here. Sometimes we have to go out on the bridge in inclement weather, but. Our goal is to just keep this bridge going and it is good shape as we possibly can. 

Cranson: Well yeah in recent years. Right. Well, while you were arriving, and you would have been on the thick of it because of changes in the climate and all kinds of issues with ice traffic and you gotta manage that soon. That's. That's the challenge, I'm sure. 

Cavalieri: Yeah, it is a challenge, and you know it has been incurring more frequently and you know, part of that is that we're just seeing more freezing rain and more freeze thaw compared to when it used to freeze it used to stay up there, something you’re and kind of melt slower. Julie and I actually had a meeting with a group of US students who kind of noticed it in the news about the bridge undergoing ice closures and they approached us and figured they could take a stab at it, so they're actually participating in the competition and going throw a different idea at it. And you know that's that was nice to see just this because this isn't an easy problem to solve. Other long span bridges in climates like ours undergo ice issues and it's not an easy thing to solve, so it's inspiring to see the new generation wanting to take a stab at it and seeing what they can find out, because unfortunately it seems like it is. Becoming an increasing problem, 

Cranson: yeah, if you can figure out some ways to mitigate that, you would make a lot of people happy to know how frustrated people get when it seems like they've been sailing right along, either across the UP or coming up north and all of a sudden on what looks like an otherwise sunny day. They're told that they can't get across the bridge because of ice falling. So. Yeah, that's a frustrating one and I'm glad you and your colleagues are focused on what you can do. 

Cavalieri: Yeah, and educating people about the problem is, is a big step and we've had a lot of help from the North region and James Lake, our communications director, who has been. Helpful and MDOT put out a movie about the falling ice or video, and really letting people know the danger is real and why we have to do it even though you know it might look sunny, the ice is that just means the ice is starting to melt and could be coming down. So yeah, big effort. 

Cranson: We give our video team a lot of credit for that. It was very, very helpful and educational and the media picked it up and I think it helped explain the issue. So yeah, the more we can do along that that front, we will.  Well, Cole, thank you very much for taking time to talk about this. And you know, I think I speak for everybody. I appreciate how much care and passion you bring to your work and taking care of that beautiful bridge. 

Cavalieri: Yeah. Thanks Jeff and appreciate you having me.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I would like to thank Randy, Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week podcast to subscribe to show notes and more go to Apple Podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.