Over, Under, Across: U-M’s Pioneers in Waterway Engineering - Detroit River Story Lab

Over, Under, Across

U-M’s Pioneers in Waterway Engineering

Faculty and graduates of the University of Michigan contributed to some of the Detroit River’s most iconic engineering projects, helping to make it the world’s most active shipping corridor in the early 20th century.

In 1959 Darien Pinney, Judy Robinson, and Susan Ott (left to right) became the first three women to study in UM’s Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. (Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan.)

Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan

The growing importance of Detroit River shipping inspired the University of Michigan to offer three targeted courses in the Engineering Department starting in 1893: Naval Architecture, Marine Engines, and Ship Building. By 1900, increasing enrollments in these courses prompted the University to found a separate Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (NAME). The department’s curriculum proved a success, with faculty and graduates transforming the Detroit River’s waterscape with bridge, tunnel, and ship-building projects. The University even introduced “water transportation” as a departmental concentration in 1925.

The symbiotic relationship between NAME and the Detroit River began with NAME’s first department head, Herbert Sadler. A hands-on academic, he collaborated with prominent Detroit naval architect Frank Kirby to design passenger ships for the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Co., the City of Detroit, and many other regional clients. His fellow professor Louis Baier also published notable papers on Great Lakes ship design, with titles such as “Diesel Engines on the Great Lakes and Inland Waterways” and “The Great Lakes Bulk Cargo Carrier: Design and Power.”

Students test a model of a paddle-wheel passenger vessel in the University of Michigan Tow Tank, which has served as a hydrodynamics lab for the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ever since its construction in 1904.

(David Smith Photography, “Testing a model of a paddle-wheel passenger vessel in the U-M Tow Tank,” licensed under CC-BY-4.0. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan.)

One of NAME’s most unique features in its early days was a 360-foot long, 22-foot wide, and 10-foot deep “tow tank” built into the West Engineering Building’s basement. When the tank opened in 1905, it was the first of its kind to be built and owned by an educational institution. This deep basin allowed marine engineering students to conduct experiments on ship resistance, shallow water effects, streamline flow, wave profiles, wake, and rolling using a realistic model. The tank remains in use today, with ongoing renovations and improvements.

Practical research in the tow tank coupled with the expertise of NAME’s professors led to innovations that transformed Great Lakes shipping, including improvements in propeller design, stern flow, and vibration control. Strangely, the Detroit River’s booming shipping economy was partially the product of engineering research that took place in an Ann Arbor campus basement.

The University’s Bridge and Tunnel Projects

Workers climb the skeleton of the Ambassador Bridge, under construction from 1927 to 1929. For two years after its completion it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, stretching 9,602 feet between Detroit and Windsor, Canada.

(Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan.)


The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel

Prior to the opening of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel in 1910, railcars crossed the Detroit River by ferry before traveling overland through Canada. The tunnel significantly streamlined rail transport between the two nations and between the Midwest and the East Coast–and it still carries 400,000 railcars annually. Several U-M graduates were involved in its construction under the auspices of the Detroit River Tunnel Company: Henry Dresser (BA in Civil Engineering 1907) worked on the project for three and a half years; Charles A. Handeyside (BA in Civil Engineering) was responsible for construction on the Canadian side; and George McDonald McConkey (BA in Architectural Engineering 1914 and later Professor of Architecture) was an engineering draftsman for the duration of the project.” However, Detroiters had to wait 20 years before automobiles could pass easily from one side of the Detroit River to the other via the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit Windsor Tunnel, two other river engineering projects with U-M connections (see below).


The Belle Isle Bridge

After stints at the Chicago School of Architecture and Harvard, Detroit-born architect Emil Lorch came to the University of Michigan to establish a department of Architecture under the College of Engineering in 1906. He served as the department’s first professor and its first dean while continuing to work on major architectural projects: notably designing the Belle Isle Bridge. The original wood-plank Belle Isle bridge burned down in 1915 when a cart carrying hot tar tipped over while crossing it. Lorch’s design for a replacement utilized concrete and steel to ensure the new bridge’s durability, and allowed for more headroom for passing boats (in contrast to the previous bridge’s “swing” design, in which boats could only pass when a section of the bridge swung out parallel to the river). In 1942 the bridge was officially renamed the Douglas MacArthur bridge after the WWII General: but to most Detroiters, it remains the Belle Isle Bridge.


The Ambassador Bridge

Cornelius Langston Henderson (BA in Civil Engineering 1911), the University of Michigan’s second Black engineering graduate, designed the steel structures for both the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. At the time of its construction the Ambassador Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world, and today approximately one quarter of all U.S.-Canadian trade passes across it. Henderson was remarkable not only for his engineering talent, but also for his civil rights advocacy. Henderson was particularly concerned with discrimination Black Detroiters faced from white cemetery owners who refused to bury their loved ones. In response, Henderson helped found Detroit Memorial Park in 1925 as the first Black-owned and operated cemetery; he was buried there himself in 1976.


The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel

In addition to the Ambassador Bridge (see above), Cornelius Henderson designed the steel tubes that form the main structure of this underwater tunnel linking American Detroit with Canadian Windsor. Henderson’s steel shells were welded watertight on land before being sunk into trenches created by excavating 275,000 cubic yards of riverbed. Today, the tunnel remains the only underwater tunnel between two nations.


The St. Lawrence Seaway

In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland tapped U-M President James Burrill Angell for his Deep Waterways Commission. Angell and his Canadian collaborators were directed to study the feasibility of building canals across Easter Canada that would allow large ocean-going ships to pass into the Upper Great Lakes region. The size of these ships necessitated particularly deep waterways which the Erie Canal and Canada’s Welland Canal could not provide. Angell’s project encountered opposition from railroad companies, which feared that an even faster and more efficient route from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes would render their own shipping lines obsolete. As a result, the Deep Waterways Commission stalled and neither Cleveland nor Angell ever saw its hopes realized. Sixty years later, however, the St. Lawrence Seaway finally allowed ocean vessels to pass from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie: and from there, up the Detroit River and into the Upper Great Lakes.


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 Austin, Dan. “Belle Isle Bridge (old).” Historic Detroit, 2022Access.

Burton, Clarence. The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922. The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1922.

Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Detroit-Windsor Tunnel: An American Roads Company, 2022. Access.

“Emil Lorch: Biography.” Emil Lorch Papers: 1891-2004. Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan, 2022. Access.

 “George McDonald McConkey.” Faculty History Project. The University of Michigan, 2011. Access.

 Gleit, Jonathan. “The Detroit River Tunnel Few Have Seen: The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel.” The Detroit Historical Society, April 12 2016. Access

“Herbert Charles Sadler.” Faculty History Project. The University of Michigan, 2011. Access.

Peckham, Howard H. The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817-1967. The University of Michigan Press, 1967.

“Physical Model Basin.” Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratory. The Universityof Michigan, 2022. Access.

Shaw, Wilfred B., ed. The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, Volumes I-V. The University of Michigan Press, 1942.

“U-M Detroiter Hall of Fame: Cornelius Henderson.” U-M Detroit. The University of Michigan, 2022. Access

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