The Z-Bridge: The turbulent history behind Michigan’s Zilwaukee Bridge

The Zilwaukee Bridge started as a draw bridge

** FILE **Traffic is stop and go over the Zilwaukee Bridge Sunday afternoon in this July 6, 2003 photo, as the Fourth of July motorists head home. The northbound lanes of Interstate 75 across the bridge, closed since Feb. 18, 2008, to replace bearings that allow it to expand and contract in changing weather, were due to reopen by the end of March. But the $3.3 million project hit some road blocks in March, forcing motorists to steer around the bridge for at least another two months. (AP Photo/Michael Hollenbeck/The Saginaw News (Michael Hollenbeck, AP2003)

Some believe this Michigan bridge marks the start of Up North. Others just marvel at its vast span and view of the Saginaw River. We’re talking about, of course, the Zilwaukee Bridge.

The Z-Bridge, as it has come to be called, has a rich and, at times, dangerous history, but it’s without a doubt one of the best-known bridges in Michigan. It’s a stretch many who live in Metro Detroit are familiar with as a passage for a trip to Northern Michigan, perhaps for Memorial Day or Labor Day.

Origins of the Zilwaukee Bridge

Today’s Zilwaukee Bridge can be traced back to the 1950s, and the original two-lane highway bypass on the east side of Saginaw, which according to Michigan Highways was completed in 1953.

With the implementation of Interstate Highway System, developed by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, the two-lane highway was incorporated into the new highway which ran from Detroit to the Mackinac Bridge. The Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957.

In 1960, the new route opened -- and the Zilwaukee Bridge was born. Well, hold on -- not exactly. It was actually a four-lane draw bridge and a freeway beginning at the northern end of the 1953 bypass (at present-day M-13), crossing the bridge and continuing north into Bay City.

The original Zilwaukee Bridge as a four-lane draw bridge. (MDOT/Michigan Highways)

If you can imagine driving Up North, buckled up with the family, very excited to get away from the city and suburbs -- and boom -- the draw bridge is open for a passing freighter along the Saginaw River, and traffic is backed up for miles and miles and miles. Crank up the tunes. Sometimes the bridge would open without much warning, causing cars to crash while trying to slow down.

And it wasn’t just the cars that suffered. Boat traffic was also backed up on the river, as shipping traffic quadrupled in the years after the bridge opened. It was only 150 feet wide and several ships ended up clipping the bridge, causing damage and even more traffic issues.

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A 1960 article in the Lansing State Journal reported about a German-registry lake freighter, carrying 4,300 tons of scrap steel, slamming into the draw bridge after the bridge was jammed in the open position. It took several hours for tugs to move the ship back into Saginaw Bay. The bridge wasn’t even open for traffic yet at this point.

The State Journal story from Nov. 11, 1960. (The State Journal)

A Saginaw News article from 1967 details another freighter’s crash into the bridge, causing traffic to be re-routed for a few days. It was a lime-stone hauler from Buffalo. The ship failed to respond after turning the bend near the bridge. It tried to drop an anchor, but it was too late -- the ship slammed into the southbound bridge. The ship’s captain suffered minor injuries. The freighter was fine but the bridge suffered “substantial” damage.

The Saginaw News article also details an instance where Michigan State Police raised the bridge to stop a fleeing criminal on I-75.

The fix and the accident

Needless to say, the draw bridge wasn’t exactly working. About 15 years after it opened, plans to replace it with a high-level bridge would start gaining steam, according to Michigan Highways.

Here’s an aerial map that shows the location of the draw bridge vs. the new bridge:

Aerial map of Zilwaukee Bridges by Chris Bessert/Michigan Highways. (Chris Bessert/Michigan Highways)

Construction on the new structure, projected to cost about $77 million without ramps and approaches, started in late 1979. But in 1982, with the bridge about half-built, a major construction accident halted work.

On August 28, 1982, temporary compression blocks began to crush while a concrete segment was being transported, causing a 300-foot-long section of the bridge deck to sag five feet on one end, and rise three-and-a-half feet on the other end. It caused serious damage. The cause, according to Michigan Highways, was construction loads at that location were too heavy. (You can read a lot more about the construction issue here)

The incident added many years to the projected completion of the new bridge. Originally, the Zilwaukee Bridge was to be completed by November 1983. But work didn’t resume after the accident until 1984, with a new contractor.

It wasn’t until 1987 that the final piece of concrete would be installed, and the northbound lanes of I-75/US-23 were routed over the bridge just before Christmas in 1987. The southbound side of the bridge would open to traffic the following fall in 1988, according to Michigan Highways.

Zilwaukee Bridge. (MDOT/Michigan Highways) ((MDOT/Michigan Highways))

The Zilwaukee Bridge these days

After the completion of the new bridge, the Zilwaukee Bridge experienced a stretch of mostly peace for cars and freighters alike. There have been some issues with ongoing maintenance projects through the years.

In 2008, a $3.3 million construction project to replace bridge bearings hit a snag. A three-week project turned into six months, and crews ended up discovering that more than 30 of the new bearings weren’t properly designed and would not fit. Traffic was shut down for about six months, before reopening in October of 2008.

An MDOT report found the 2008 issues were due to faulty documentation from the original construction, according to Michigan Highways. Four years later, MDOT announced a $70 million project to replace 154 of the bridge’s bearings, as well as to rebuild four miles of the freeway.

Bonus fun fact:

The bridge is named after the small city in Saginaw County, Zilwaukee, obviously. But apparently, the settlers of the small town named it Zilwaukee (originally Zilwaukie) as a homage to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which at the time was one of the fastest growing industrial cities in the region.

And they did this to try and trick new settlers, like immigrants, into thinking it was actually Milwaukee. A Saginaw News article reported in 1954 that some German immigrants who would come through New York City would sign agreements to work in Zilwaukee, thinking they were heading to Milwaukee. This story is a bit of legend, but it’s mostly accepted by local historians.

It didn’t really work, and Zilwaukee did not turn into Milwaukee. The town’s population, as of 2010, was about 1,600. (Thanks to Claire Kerk for the tip!)

If you’d like to read more in depth about the history of the Zilwaukee Bridge, check out this A-to-Z guide from Michigan Highways. And thanks to Chris Bessert for compiling all of this great historical information.

Zilwaukee Bridge from riverfront park. (Wikipedia Commons)

About the Author:

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.