The Blue Water Bridge and Port Huron’s colorful past

Blue Water Bridge

Closing the toll on the Blue Water Bridge in 1938 led to some family troubles for the Swainson family. (photo: Michael Eckert/The Port Huron Times Herald)

DealChicken spends a lot of time hunting and pecking around the Port Huron area in search of great deals. During that time, he’s managed to unearth some fascinating facts about this town. Find out about the Blue Water Bridge toll family troubles and the hotel that once attracted movie stars and captains of industry. 

The twin spans of the Blue Water Bridge are the second-busiest crossing between the United States and Canada. The first span was opened to traffic in 1938. When the bonds sold to build the bridge were paid off in the early 1960s, Governor Swainson issued an executive order to cancel the $.25 toll. By eliminating the toll, the governor also eliminated the toll collecting jobs, one of which had been held by the governor’s father since 1957.

For the Grand Trunk Railway, moving freight cars on ferries across the St. Clair River between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario was a costly and inefficient way to carry freight. In the early 1870s, the railway began looking for ways to tunnel under the St. Clair. After a failed attempt to build a tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, engineer Joseph Hobson performed multiple tests before moving forward with a plan that incorporated three different tunneling techniques. When the St. Clair Tunnel opened in 1891, it was a marvel of engineering and the first tunnel built in North America through which a full-size train could travel under a body of water. 

The original St. Clair Tunnel between Port Huron and Sarnia operated for 104 years before it was retired. During that time, it faced and overcame a number of challenges. Due to the imminent threat of suffocation, electric locomotives replaced steam in 1908. In both World War I and World War II, enemy sympathizers attempted to set off explosions in the tunnel. Both attempts failed. In 1949, the tracks were lowered to accommodate taller freight cars. The tunnel was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1993, two years before a new tunnel began operation.

Charles Harrington, son of Port Huron founder Daniel Brown Harrington, built the Harrington Hotel in 1896. The ornate hotel offered a level of luxury never before seen in the Blue Water Area. Given Harrington’s friendship with Thomas Edison, it should be no surprise that the Harrington Hotel was the first building in Port Huron with electricity. The hotel attracted movie stars, giants of industry, and presidential candidates. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Harrington Hotel was saved from the wrecking ball in 1986, when a development group invested over $4 million to turn it into an assisted living community now known as the Harrington Inn.

Port Huron was the perfect boyhood home for young Thomas Edison, who was as much an entrepreneur as he was an inventor. In 1859, 12-year old Edison convinced the Grand Trunk Railway to allow him to sell newspapers, candy, and produce on their new Port Huron-Detroit operation. The business took off, and Edison soon hired two newsboys to work the train. Edison went on to start 14 businesses as an adult, including General Electric. The depot from which his daily run began is now part of the Port Huron Museum, and has been re-named named the Thomas Edison Depot.

The easternmost city in Michigan, Port Huron stretches along the shore of the St. Claire River and the base of Lake Huron for seven miles. Known as the Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes, it offers opportunities to see working Great Lakes freighters up close, as well as numerous historic waterfront sites to explore, including the Lightship Huron, which served as a beacon on the seas from 1935 to 1970. The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, built in 1829 and automated in 1933, was the first lighthouse established by the State of Michigan. With numerous attractions, parks, and expansive waterfront, Port Huron is a year round destination.

From 1886 to 1919, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to pay for 1,679 new libraries in communities large and small across America. In 1902, one of his donations built the Beaux-Arts style Port Huron Public Library at a cost of more than $40,000. Today, it is the Carnegie Center, the main building of the Port Huron Museum.

In the 1998 movie The Big LeBowski, Jeff Bridges plays “Dude” Lebowski. Among his many notable attributes, the Dude is one of the writers of The Port Huron Statement. In real life, the Port Huron Statement was the manifesto of the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The manifesto was primarily written by the then Field Secretary of SDS, Tom Hayden. In 2012, Hayden returned to Port Huron to discuss The Port Huron Statement with about 500 students and teachers.

Did you already know all these details about the Blue Water Bridge and Port Huron? Then check out our round up of details about Detroit.