No Small Stretch

A vote for progress, following a nasty public squabble, propelled the Ambassador Bridge.

Building a bridge over the Detroit River, first envisioned after the Civil War, would have come about differently in the 1920s had Detroit Mayor “Johnny” Smith gotten his way. Smith and his supporters opposed the idea by former Detroiter Joseph Bower of a privately financed and operated span linking Detroit and Windsor at the river’s narrowest point.

A self-anointed man of the people, Smith, who came into office in 1924, believed the bridge should be a public endeavor, “built for the good of all citizens.” But Bower, who had made a tidy fortune in New York’s banking circles, declared in early 1927 that enough dithering had gone on between representatives of the two cities. “At the end of their conferences, they were apparently as far from arranging for a bridge as when the discussions were begun,” he said.

Facing re-election, Smith — who had a powerful ally in real estate developer Robert Oakman — took to the airwaves to cast doubt on the privately-funded proposal and warned of the greed of “The Barons of Wall Street.” As full-page newspaper advertisements touted each side’s position, the project survived Smith’s veto following unanimous approval by the Detroit Common Council.

Tired of the political delays, Bower shelled out $50,000 to conduct a referendum on whether the privately-held bridge should be constructed. On the eve of the vote, June 27, Smith made his final pitch to newspaper and radio outlets for support. Following an interview at one studio, he ran into the commissioner of street railways, H.H. Esselstyn, a respected engineer who favored Bower and his plan to build a privately-held bridge. Smith immediately fired Esselstyn.

Undeterred, Esselstyn went on the air and made his case for the bridge. Gathering the necessary calm to close his address, he uttered a phrase that proved to be the turning point. “I want all Detroiters to know that because I made this short speech, I have been discharged as commissioner of street railways.”


The next day, in an unusually high turnout, voters approved the plan for a privately-owned bridge by an 8 to 1 margin. Later that year, Smith took it on the chin when he lost the mayoral primary to John C. Lodge, president of the Detroit Common Council.

As construction of the $23.5-million bridge went ahead, strong financial incentives encouraged the contractor, McClintic-Marshall Co., to finish before Aug. 19, 1930, with penalties to be imposed for any delays. The project hit a snag early in 1929, when the builder foresaw problems with suspension cables that were made of new heat-treated steel. Substituting cables of conventional cold-drawn steel would cost $500,000. Nevertheless, the roadbed was soon hung from the 386-foot-tall towers and the bridge opened ahead of schedule on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1929. Bower turned down many names for the bridge, including Bower Bridge, and instead decided upon calling it the Ambassador Bridge.

Despite all the glories, the timing of the bridge’s opening was auspicious. First, Black Friday had occurred just three weeks earlier on Wall Street. As if the specter of diminished commerce and dwindling truck traffic weren’t bad enough, the $23-million Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened on Nov. 1, 1930, offering travelers a cheaper crossing.

Inevitably, both the bridge and the tunnel defaulted on their obligations. Bower reorganized his company, offering new shares of stock in 1939. Revenue rose during World War II, and prosperity lay ahead. By 1949, more than 50 million people had crossed the bridge.

Two years after Bower’s 1977 death, his family put the Detroit International Bridge Co. up for sale. Ever on the lookout for unrealized value in useful everyday properties, Warren Buffet threw in an offer, but Manuel “Matty” Moroun outbid him for controlling interest. Stoked by toll revenue, Moroun’s fortune grew to an estimated $1.1 billion (Forbes, 2013).

As in the 1920s, competing public and private proposals for another international crossing have advanced, stalled, and advanced again. In a joint venture between the Michigan and Canadian governments, a six-lane, $3.0-billion bridge to be located about two miles downriver from the Ambassador Bridge is scheduled for completion in 2020. Moroun says he will build his own new bridge. No matter the outcome, the inscription at both ends of the existing bridge still rings true: “The visible expression of friendship in the hearts of two peoples with like ideas and ideals.” db