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LOOKING BACK: Freeway marvel of 1955

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LOOKING BACK: Freeway marvel of 1955

The Ford-Lodge interchange was a new puzzle for Detroit's drivers

September 24, 2004



From the vantage point of the 21st Century, the intersection of I-94 and the Lodge Freeway is kind of ho-hum. It's little more than interconnected slabs of steel and concrete. And the thing is falling apart.

But when the first parts of it opened Jan. 18, 1955, Detroiters heralded the interchange as an engineering marvel right out of the 21st Century. One writer even compared it to a woman, describing the junction as "a gracious queen" with "graceful curves."

As impressed as they were, though, Detroiters quickly became confused when they tried to drive on what was one of the first multilevel highway interchanges in the state. Result: major traffic jams, fender benders and instructions and maps in the newspapers on how to navigate it.

Fast-forward to the 21st Century: The media are filled with stories about how to live without the interchange as it closes today for at least two months while workers rebuild the bridges that take the John C. Lodge over I-94, a.k.a. the Edsel Ford Freeway.

"Back when the freeways were first being constructed, the novelty of the uninterrupted mobility was something that was embraced," said MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi. "Today, they're not as appreciated. We grew up with them. For previous generations, they were new. Today, the non-mobility of a freeway tends to raise the ire of our citizens and leads to numerous complaints of commuters."

In 1955, the Ford-Lodge interchange was the linchpin of Detroit's ever-growing freeway system, which was the pride of city and state officials, planners and auto industry executives. The interchange, which cost $15 million (about $103 million in today's dollars), actually opened in phases over a several-week period.

Covering the opening, Free Press reporter Louis Cook wrote: "For the first time in half a century, the sky is open on all sides to people on their way to work."

He marveled over the view of downtown from the rise of the southbound Lodge as one drives over the Ford Freeway and wrote: "It's a lovely ride, especially to people accustomed to years of jockeying through heavy traffic and stoplights on their way downtown."

At the time, the Ford and Lodge were Detroit's only freeways, and they extended for only a portion of their current routes.

The freeways opened in stages, and VIPs usually would hold a ceremony on the first morning, then repair to a hotel for lunch and to make announcements about plans for new and better freeways.

The Ford-Lodge interchange was no different. Right after its opening festivities, officials unveiled an even more grandiose project -- an elevated skyway for the Lodge through northwest Detroit. It never was built.

Two years later, when the Davison-Lodge interchange opened a couple of miles north of the Ford-Lodge interchange, state Highway Commissioner John Mackie announced a 10-year plan to build enough expressways to make metro Detroit what he called "the most accessible city in America." What officials didn't realize is that the freeways also opened up suburbia to Detroiters, who used the new roads to leave the city. Between 1950 and 1960, Detroit's white population fell by 362,877 people.

The Ford-Lodge interchange "was a huge deal," said Neal Shine, retired Free Press publisher. "I think the planners really believed this would solve every traffic problem the city ever had. Really, all it did was give us new traffic problems."

The Free Press reported a disastrous morning commute the day after the Ford-Lodge opened: "Thousands of work-bound motorists boiled the alcohol out of their radiators and nudged fenders as they crept through the bottleneck."

One of the early problems was a lack of guardrails on the Lodge Freeway. The two sides of speeding autos were separated by only a curb, and head-on collisions tended to result. Planners also didn't realize that drivers couldn't exit immediately by crossing over several lanes of traffic after they had entered, say, the Lodge from the Ford. Signs prohibit such kamikaze moves today, but such driving caused chaos 49 years ago.

"Too many drivers have not learned to use the expressways properly," Ernest Davis, safety and traffic director of AAA Michigan, said at the time.

Despite the problems nearly 50 years ago, many drivers appreciated the new mobility the concrete ribbons brought.

Ed Hustoles, former head of the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, recalled the joy of zipping across town.

"We had an office at the time in Southfield and the Lodge gave us great access to downtown," he said "It was a snap."

Contact BEN SCHMITT at 313-223-4296 or [email protected]

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