Richard Bingham talks about the summer he spent building the Mackinac Bridge.
My friend’s dad had a home in St. Ignace, and the family had a cottage in the Les Cheneaux Islands, east of the Straits. And Paul, my friend, said that I should come up there and look for work and that we’d both find jobs together. Well, after my first year of college, I had worked for this company that was putting an oil pipeline across the Straits, and then the next year, I had heard that they were going to start work on a bridge. So I called them up and they said they could use my help again. So I go up there, and get the job, but, of course, Paul was nowhere to be found. He was at his cottage all summer! And I’m working my ass off seven days a week.
Most of the job I did involved providing the cement that went into the caissons and cofferdams that were the foundation for the bridge. We would unload these 100-pound bags of dry cement from the semis and then load the bags onto barges. Then you’d jump on a little tugboat and they’d take you to the middle of the lake where you were working, and you’d unload everything you just loaded. Then you’d make the cement, put the cement in a wheelbarrow, wheel it over to where they were building a caisson, and you’d dump it in the water. We were not the steelworkers that you often read about when you hear stories about the building of the Bridge—the guys that climbed up the towers and so on. This was strictly common labor work. It was not very glamorous. If you were ever caught with a hammer in your hand, you would have been kicked off the crew. Every union was very strict, and only carpenters were allowed to carry hammers.
We started work at 6 a.m. and ended at 4:30 in the afternoon, and we did that seven days a week. Because it was a union job, you got your standard pay for the first eight hours, and because we worked 10-and-a-half hour days, you got time and a half during the week for that hour and a half you worked extra. On Saturdays, you got time and a half for the first eight hours and double time for the last hour and a half. Sunday you got double time all day. I made one dollar and eighty-seven-and-a-half cents an hour. I saved a lot of money—I don’t remember how much. But enough to put myself through the next year of college.
I only took one day off the whole summer—the 4th of July. I hitchhiked down to Torch Lake for the day. The guys on the crew thought I was crazy because on that day you got paid double-time.
I lived in a rooming house in St. Ignace. There was this lady that rented out her rooms, and she made a family-style dinner every night and made us all breakfast at 4:30 in the morning. She always offered eggs and bacon in the morning, but I hardly ever took it—I usually just had cereal. And for dinner, there would be a big bowl of mashed potatoes and a stew or a big pile of green beans. I mean, it was heaven.
Most of the guys I worked with were actually from Texas. They were gandy dancers—you know, people who, had they not been working on the Bridge, would have been working on a railroad line. Some of them were truck drivers. They were not necessarily highly educated men, but they were very pleasant. They would go out to the bars every night and drink and somehow make it to work the next day. Usually, when I got home, I would have an early dinner and read or something, and then I would collapse because I was so tired.
I befriended one of the guys. He was a truck driver. He even took me to a bar once, even though the drinking age in Michigan was 21 and I was 19. One week, we actually ended up working at my friend Paul’s dad’s cottage. See, Paul’s dad, Prentiss Brown, was a U.S. Senator and was instrumental in getting the bridge financed. He’s sort of known as the “Father of the Bridge.” And the company owed one to Paul’s dad, I guess. So one week, they needed someone to go out and repair his dock. And it was just a coincidence, but they sent me to go out there with a carpenter to work on it. And I don’t know how he found out, but this truck driver friend of mine, who would drive us out to the Browns for work, found out where I was from and that I was friends with the Browns. The day I left at the end of the summer, I saw his truck, and so I ran up and jumped up on the running board to say goodbye. And he looked at me, and said, “What are you doing here? Why did you even come up here for work anyway? You’re from Grosse Point; I’m not even allowed to drive through there. You don’t need the job, your dad could’ve put you through school. I don’t deal with that kind of person.” And then he took off.
I felt terrible. Really sad. You know, you don’t like to think that you can’t be a person on your own, and that people judge whether they’re going to accept you based on your family or where you come from.
I wasn’t resentful at all that Paul didn’t get a job. In fact, in a way, maybe I was little pleased. Because underneath it all, there was a lot of competition between the two of us. And I think he might have been feeling a little squeamish about it. But I wasn’t.
At the time, I didn’t think about being “proud” or anything that I had worked on the Bridge. If I hadn’t been there, somebody else would have done what I was doing. But it made a difference in my life. It was my first real job like this. I didn’t work when I was in high school. And to be put into a boiling pot, seven days a week, long hours, every day—that’s tough. And I think you learn that you can do it. I didn’t come back from that job patting myself on the back. But it had an effect. I think it’s inside you after that. You know that it’s possible and that you’ve done it and that now you’re an adult, so to speak.
I don’t go around telling people that I worked on the Bridge. At the time, I really didn’t think much of it. But it is kind of neat to think about now. It is a unique thing. It would be like saying you worked on the Empire State Building or something. It’s fun to have those kinds of things when you’re older. You need those things to hold onto. You need those things to remind you that you did things that were helpful and difficult and valuable.
When something is difficult, and then it’s over, it doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. Like, basic training was that way. Day in and day out, you wonder if you’re going to make it. And then six months later, you think, Well, that wasn’t so bad. But if you really think about the inconvenience and the time people spent in the middle of the summer trying to cross the Straits, before there was a bridge, you realize what a great thing the Bridge is. Even on a non-holiday in the middle of the summer, you had a four-hour wait for the car ferry. On a holiday, you might be in a line back down to Charlevoix, 30 miles south of the Straits. Sadly, once it all got better, people didn’t think about what a difference the Bridge made. But the fact of the matter is, it’s huge.
I’ve since crossed the bridge many times, and it’s exhilarating. And it’s still an awesome sight. I mean, you can start seeing the towers from 10 or 15 miles away. But I sort of have my issues now. But it’s with heights, not the Bridge. And that makes the trips across difficult for me. I can cross it and I do. But I don’t like it. It is annoying not to be able to enjoy the trip.