Fire Devours Michigan Landmark

A popular Mackinaw City pizzeria and an upstairs history museum filled with one-of-a-kind Mackinac Bridge artifacts were destroyed by fire Sunday, wiping out a landmark in this tourist town.

Investigators were trying to figure out Monday what started the fire at Mama Mia's pizzeria and the Mackinac Bridge Museum on Main Street.

Tourists about to board ferries to Mackinac Island often made the restaurant and museum a last stop. The pizzeria, one of the oldest establishments in the city, was the brainchild of owner J.C. Stillwell. Upstairs, the museum was his passion.

As a worker on the Mackinac Bridge, which opened in 1957 and spans the Straits of Mackinac, Stillwell started the museum with several objects he kept from his work. Bridge workers and their families also have donated items to the collection.

"It's an icon in this community. The family has been here a long time. The pizzeria and the museum have been here a long time," Fire Chief Fred Thompson Jr. said Monday.

He said there were many irreplaceable items, such as the original scuba diving suit used by ironworkers while planting the footings for the bridge.

In addition, helmets, hard hats, photographs and newspaper articles written during the building of the 55-story suspension bridge were lost in the fire. The 5-mile-long engineering feat is heralded as the longest suspension bridge in the world, according to the Mackinac Bridge Authority. It took 42 months to build and claimed five workers' lives by drowning.

The engineering and the history behind the bridge are a point of pride for people such as Stillwell.

Neither Stillwell nor family members who worked with him could be reached for comment. But a Web site dedicated to ironworkers details the bridge and Stillwell's passion for his museum project, which started in 1980. The same Web site described parts of the collection, which was begun when Stillwell bought construction memorabilia from a St. Ignace tavern favored by bridge workers.

U.S. Steele Corp.'s American Bridge Division lent Stillwell a copy of its official bridge movie. There also were union workbooks, work belts, construction notes and work badges in the collection. Stillwell hoped to hire museum consultants and make the museum "a real local showcase."

He "put a lot of time and effort into that museum," Thompson said.

One historic object survived.

An iron bell, which topped the building, was saved by firefighters who worried it could injure someone if it fell.

Dan Hoeft, 32, of Redford has been an annual visitor to the restaurant and museum nearly all of his life. He took his own family there.

"We always sit down there and have their wonderful pizza and breadsticks and then go upstairs to the museum and watch the video they have playing and look at all the cool old things they have," Hoeft wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press.

The fire started about 10 a.m. Sunday and wasn't put out until about 2 p.m., once 80 firefighters from Mackinaw and nearby cities were involved, Thompson said. Pizzeria employees reported the fire after seeing smoke coming from an upstairs storage room, he said.

One firefighter was taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation and later released, Thompson said.

Foul play is not suspected, Thompson said.

Contact KIM NORTH SHINE at 313-223-4557.

Distributed by the Associated Press