Infrastructure: 3 Minutes from the US to Canada

On this day in 1930, at 12:05 am, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel between the United States and Canada is officially opened to car traffic. As Windsor Mayor Frederick Jackson had bragged at the tunnel’s elaborate dedication ceremony two days before, the structure–the only international subaqueous tunnel in the world at the time–made it possible to “pass from one great country to the other in the short space of three minutes.”

For his part, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy cheered that the project signified “a new appreciation of our desire to preserve peace, friendship, and the brotherhood of man.” The first passenger car through the tunnel was a 1929 Studebaker. As a function of Murphy’s own steady stewardship, he would go on to serve as Governor of Michigan, U.S. Attorney General and Justice of the Supreme Court.

Digging a bit deeper, this project was born from fits and starts, and may never have happened but for perseverance. In 1871, ground was broken near the foot of St. Antoine Street for a tunnel under the Detroit River, which would have a 15-foot bore, surrounded by masonry. However, a pocket of sumptuous gas ended the effort when workers were 135 feet out under the river. This gas made the workers so ill that none of them could be induced to resume work on the following day; the project was abandoned.

Detroit’s second tunnel venture took place in 1878, when a tube was proposed to connect Grosse Ile, Michigan with the Canadian mainland. No gas was encountered, yet this undertaking had to be abandoned because certain limestone formations made the cost of excavation prohibitive. In 1874, the Detroit Board of Trade then made a determined effort to promote a bridge, despite the opposition of shipping interests; nothing came of this project either.

When the Grand Trunk Railway Tunnel under the St. Clair River at Port Huron opened in 1891, this caused another flurry of activity toward additional tunnel construction. This blue-water railway tunnel was 6,000 feet in length and at the time was the longest, sub aqueous tunnel in the world. Detroit business interests, fearful of a diversion of shipping to Port Huron, made a desperate effort to generate public support for a tunnel in Detroit.

In 1906, construction began on the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel in Detroit, and was completed four years later. It had a total length of two and one-half miles, a cost $8,500,000, and is still in use today by the Canadian Pacific Railway. On the Detroit side, the area around the tunnel is off limits to the general public and is routinely patrolled by officers and agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Canadian Pacific Police Service, CN Police, Detroit Police Department, and the security elements of the bridge company.

Despite this rail passage, the opening did not lessen the agitation for vehicular transportation facilities across the Detroit River, especially after the phenomenal growth of the automobile industry. Bridge and tunnel advocates remained active in support of their respective undertakings, culminating several years later in an announcement that Detroit would have both projects.

In June 1919, Windsor’s Mayor Edward Blake Winter requested Ottawa to construct a tunnel as a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I. Winter’s argument was that a tunnel between England and France had been proposed as a war memorial, and if England and France could be united by a tunnel, so should Canada and the United States.

Despite the opinion of scientific experts that anyone using the tunnel would die of carbon monoxide poisoning, a Windsor Salvation Army Captain, Fred W. Martin, pursued the dream of a Detroit-Windsor tunnel. It was not until 1926, when a prestigious, New York architecture firm predicted that a tunnel would not only be feasible but profitable, that Martin found enough backing to get the project underway. A group of Detroit bankers agreed to back the project provided that the New York architects would design the tunnel and guarantee its construction costs.

Construction operations began in the summer of 1928 at approximately the same time on both sides of the river. The completion of the tunnel was an engineering feat unparalleled at the time, which combined three different tunneling methods.

On each side of the river, a cut and cover method was used on the sections from where the open cut trenches end to the harbor line. Earth was dug away by muckers or sandhogs that used manually operated knives to cut a path for the giant, shield wall.

As the shield moved forward, foot by foot, electrically welded steel plates were put in place behind it to form the tunnel tube. Construction of the river section of the tunnel was the most spectacular of the operations, as it involved sinking nine steel tubes into a trench dug across the bottom of the river. Frankly, it boggles the mind that such a massive and complicated project could have been achieved ahead of schedule and on budget; this seems well nigh impossible in today’s chaotic political climate.

The tunnel is the second busiest crossing between the United States and Canada after the nearby Ambassador Bridge. A 2004 Border Transportation Partnership study showed that 150,000 jobs in the region and $13 billion (USD) in annual production depend on the Windsor-Detroit international border crossing. Between 2001 and 2005, profits from the tunnel peaked, with the cities receiving over $6 million annually. A steep decline in traffic eliminated tunnel profits from from 2008 until 2012, with a growing recovery in the years since. As for current usage, approximately 12,000 vehicles pass through the Tunnel on a daily basis, handling over four million vehicles per year, of which 98% are cars, and 2% are trucks and buses.

In October of 2018, dignitaries including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were on hand in Windsor to mark the official start of construction on the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Once completed in six years, this second span, and fourth Detroit passage between the formerly friendly neighbors will cost $5.7 billion, rise to the height of the Ren Cen, and feature a biking/walking path.

And here your lengthy, subaqueous story endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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