MARQUETTE - In late November 1963, a local lapidary was crafting a pair of red jasper cuff links for a prominent dignitary.
The stones for the jewelry were chipped from a vein of some of the highest quality jasper in the world, exposed again after a decade near South Front Street with construction of the U.S. 41 bypass around downtown Marquette.
Work on the $1.7 million project to reroute U.S. 41 away from Washington and Front streets had begun in late 1962, after locals had been lobbying the state highway department to build the route since just after the end of World War II.
The U.S. 41 bypass is just over 50 years old. The 1.9-mile route, overpasses at Champion and Altamont streets and a former railroad overpass for the Soo Line Railroad Co. were all built and opened in 1963. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Now, just over a year later, the more than 200 men who had worked on the 1.9-mile length of four-lane divided highway were getting ready to celebrate its commemorative opening.
"It is an event for which many area persons, particularly those interested in traffic safety and in the modernization of highway travel, have waited a long time," wrote the editors of The Mining Journal.
One of the chief problems the bypass was expected to alleviate was a 90-degree turn for trucks and other traffic in Marquette's downtown.
"Agitation for the road relocation began to pick up momentum here as it became more and more evident that 'something had to be done' about the city's busiest intersection at Front and Washington streets, which has been perhaps the most hazardous one in the Upper Peninsula and one of the most dangerous in Michigan," the editors wrote. "Poor visibility from some approaches, hazardous driving during adverse weather conditions and the snail's pace traffic during the noon and other rush hours accentuated the problem."
The new bypass route was expected to cut travel time by up to 20 minutes.
The project not only included construction of the highway - which required 103,000 sacks of cement to pave 64,000 square yards of concrete nine inches thick - but also the overpasses at Champion and Altamont streets and the Soo Line Railroad Co. crossing near the west end of the route.
Another overpass at Grove Street was proposed, studied and eventually scrapped.
In addition to the highway paving, 3,200 cubic yards of concrete were used to build the street overpasses with more needed for the railroad bridge.
"Besides the two and a half million pounds of steel used in the structures, 65,872 square yards of steel reinforcements went into the pavement," the newspaper reported.
The Bacco Construction Co. of Iron Mountain submitted the low bid to build the highway and the two street overpasses. Four Detroit contractors were jointly awarded the contract to build the railroad bridge.
Today, the bypass project would cost $13 million.
Roughly 1,000 feet of Whetstone Creek was relocated under the median centerline at the South Front Street intersection. There were 67 structures including catch basins and manholes built. More than 3,500 lineal feet of culverts were placed under the route and 5,000 lineal feet of curb and gutter was installed.
Blasting for the project would present significant concerns for contractors and representatives from the Michigan Mutual Liability Insurance Co. were registering the explosions with a seismograph.
Darryl Boren of Illinois was Bacco's blasting superintendent.
"Boren virtually had to blast underneath houses," Bacco superintendent Jack Fortier told the newspaper. "The rocky areas near homes and St. Mary's Hospital were as extreme conditions as you can get for blasting,"
The blasting crews used more explosives on the bypass project than all other Michigan State Highway Department projects over the previous two years.
Roughly 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and dynamite were used to blast about 14,000 cubic yards of quartz into pieces. The blasting did produce small cracks in the plaster of a few homes.
Earl Numinen of Michigamme was the road project engineer on the project, a man who'd worked on tough U.P. road blasting projects before, including the divided highway between Marquette and Negaunee that was built in 1955.
Blasting for the bypass during the summer of 1963 exposed more of the valuable jasper, which had first been found when the four-lane highway at South Front Street was built in 1953. Rock hounds from several states came to chip away pieces of the east-west vein, including the local lapidary.
The Marquette Chamber of Commerce had been in the habit of gifting "Marquette jasper" jewelry to visiting dignitaries, including a bolo tie, which was presented to Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Despite all the blasting on the project, there was only one lost-time accident. A concrete crewman lost two days of work after cutting a finger during the last week of paving.
At the dedication ceremony for the new bypass, an assistant chief highway department engineer cut a ribbon held by then reigning Miss Marquette, Marcia Williams, and Miss Cliffs Ridge, Mary Ellen McGuire.
Marquette Mayor C. Fred Rydholm lauded the "wonderful cooperation between the city and the state highway department on this project."
State Rep. Dominic Jacobetti, D-Negaunee, said the new bypass "is going to be quite an addition to the economy of Marquette, the county and the Upper Peninsula."
After a test drive over only about half of the new route, the officials in the procession turned their cars around and headed for a luncheon at the Northland Hotel. Last minute shoulder work needed to be done and signs erected before the route could safely be opened to the public the following day.
However, unlike the completed bypass project The Mining Journal editors said heralded in a "new era," the lapidary's work on the red jasper cuff links would never come to full fruition.
Ninety minutes after the bypass was opened and traffic first began moving along the new U.S. 41 route, the intended recipient of the jewelry maker's gift - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy - was assassinated in Dallas.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.