The Day the Bridge Broke

During this time of year, motorists look forward to the end of the road construction projects that have plagued them all summer long. On October 20, 1990, the Rochester community celebrated the conclusion of a project that profoundly affected the downtown business district and the flow of traffic through town.

Old cars cross the new bridge

Bridge Bash 1990 – photo by Harold L. Mowat

The event was called the “Bridge Bash,” and it celebrated the re-opening of the South Hill Bridge after a yearlong closure and complete overhaul of the structure. State and local dignitaries and then-governor James Blanchard gathered on the deck of the bridge for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a parade of historic vehicles. Festivities continued with food and music under a tent on Fourth Street, and businesses offered a variety of special sales events. The Rochester Hills Public Library even joined in the fun by offering a special screening of the classic movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Large crains work on the bridge

Bridge Work 1990 – photo by Harold L. Mowat

Problems with the South Hill Bridge had been revealed seven years earlier, on November 1, 1983. At 7:42 that morning, a motorist crossing the bridge in one of the southbound lanes felt a joint in the concrete deck give way beneath her car. A gap in traffic behind her allowed the other southbound vehicles to stop safely before hitting the broken section. The shaken motorist called for help at the gas station at the south end of the bridge and police immediately closed the span to traffic. Fortunately, for everyone who was traveling across the bridge that morning, the collapsed portion of the deck was encountered by only one vehicle directly; and nobody on or below the bridge was injured.

Inspection revealed that a rusty saddle strap had failed; causing the I-beam and the road deck it supported to sag. At first, the affected section fell about six inches, but by 9:00 a.m. that morning it had dropped three-and-a-half feet. State inspectors had previously flagged the bridge for repair, but the collapse of the road deck made the project a priority. Eleven supports showed some degree of failure. Emergency crews installed a girder so that the bridge could safely re-open while plans for an extensive rebuild were made.

Bridge construction coninues

Bridge Construction 1990 – photo by Harold L. Mowat

At the time, the South Hill Bridge was 56 years old and it was carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day. When it was built in 1927, it was briefly the longest concrete span in the State of Michigan. It was expanded to four lanes in 1959 in response to the area’s post-war population boom. The saddle strap that failed and caused the deck collapse was part of the original 1927 construction.

The partial collapse of 1983 was no small problem for Rochester’s downtown merchants. It meant that traffic approaching or leaving Main Street from the south had to be detoured along Walnut and Diversion streets. The Grand Trunk Railway track that crossed beneath the bridge was still active at the time, and the railroad had to re-route train traffic on its line until the bridge could be made safe. Some business owners made the best of a difficult situation by offering a “Broken Bridge Sale.”

illustration of the cracked bridge

This design, by Mike Gendich and John Murphy, was printed on t-shirts and could be seen around town – Image provided by Tom Gendich

The long-awaited reconstruction of the bridge deck and supports began in 1989, and once again presented a challenge for Main Street’s businesses. There was cause for celebration when the project wrapped up about a month ahead of projections in the fall of 1990, allowing traffic to be restored in time to save the holiday shopping season for downtown merchants.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Floyd Lampinen says

    I grew up in Rochester,and I remember the South Hill Bridge expansion to four lanes in 1959.That was a big improvement for traffic flow.

  2. Sue Ann Douglas says

    Oh, I remember that morning well. It was the Morning of November 2. My second City Council race was the day before and I came in first. Not bad, since I came in 4th the first time I ran. I spent the night after a small get together at my house ended taking my political signs down. It’s so much easier in the middle of the night to get them down quickly since there is no traffic.
    I got home at about 4 a.m. and crashed. Shortly after the bridge broke, the Rochester Clarion’s Editor, Ridge Anderson, called me and asked what I intended to do about the broken bridge over the Clinton River?
    “You mean the little bridge under the big bridge”, I asked still half asleep?
    “No, the big bridge over the Clinton River,” he said.
    That sure woke me up. The first thing that I asked was if anyone was injured and was very relieve to find out that no one was hurt.
    Fortunately for the City, the State was able to make some short term improvements and shore up the bridge not long after the collapse of the one section. I can’t remember how long it took maybe a few weeks but it might have been a bit longer.
    Keith Kennedy had “I survived the 1983 Bridge Collapse” t-shirts made and sold them for the Lions Club. I still have mine.
    We did know that the Bridge would be replaced and it took 7 years for the State to have the revenue for its complete replacement. The reconstruction was a long haul for both the businesses in downtown Rochester and those between Avon Road and the Rochester City limit. Hopefully, it will be a long time before that bridge has to be replaced again.

  3. June Hopaluk says

    Sue, I remember that morning well. I was working at the Clarion and it was a loud scary boom. I still have my t-shirt. Didn’t know that Keith had them made up.

  4. Melanie Swords says

    Sue and June, yes, I sure remember the morning! Interrupted my normal coffee run across from the Clarion to the Home Bakery before 8 am. Quick backtrack to the newspaper office for sure! Crazy day.

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