Sinkhole diagram.

Sinkhole - A Bridge Too Far?

When Rick Ruelle, a middle-aged systems analyst, first laid eyes on the Kennedy farm sinkhole, he knew that it was something special. "Quite a spectacular hole," is how he described it to us -- and he would know. Ruelle had been tramping the woods of northeastern Michigan since the late 1950s, mapping sinkholes as a hobby.

This hole, however, was special: a pit over 80 feet across with sheer walls over 100 feet deep. To the north, a creek spilled over the edge, into the abyss. Another waterfall poured out of the south wall about 20 feet down, and also disappeared. Every minute an estimated 8,000 gallons of water tumbled into the hole, and no one knew where it went (As of 2007, people still don't know where the water goes). The locals called it "Mystery Hole." Ruelle renamed it Mystery Falls Sinkhole, and he bought it in 1975.

He wanted to turn it into a tourist attraction.

Rick needed financial help, so he invited the Michigan Department of Travel and Tourism out for a look. They were not helpful. "Their opinion was that if it were in a mile or two off of I-75, it would make a good sideline attraction," he told us. "But it's over 60 miles."

Next, Rick approached officials in Alpena County. They were not helpful either. "Sinkholes are things that they grew up with," Rick told us. "Their attitude was, 'We have sinkholes all over the place.' To most of them, it wasn't worth it."

But Rick didn't give up. Judging that the sinkhole needed to be more accessible, he had a road cut to it through the pine and maple woods. He blasted a steep trail down one of the Sinkhole's sheer walls, so that people could climb in and explore it. Then, realizing that the trail might kill more tourists than it helped, he decided that he needed an observation platform instead. "It's such a dangerous place around the edge," he told us. "You can't really watch the waterfalls."

Rick couldn't afford a platform, so he decided that a bridge would work just as well. He asked Michigan if it had any old bridges that it didn't need any more. It turns out that Michigan had a lot of them. Rick and his wife drove around the state for a summer, looking at bridges. He finally found one that he liked: east of Grand Rapids, 94 feet long, the oldest wrought iron bridge in the state. Rick paid Michigan a dollar for it, then he and some friends and family took it apart and trucked it 225 miles to the Sinkhole. By the fall of 2003 they had reassembled it, restored it, and installed it across the hole, renaming it Ruelle's Bridge in Rick's honor.

After all of this work, you'd think that the Mystery Falls Sinkhole would finally be open for business. But Rick, who is 80 now, still isn't satisfied. "I have a lot of energy for an old fart," he told us. He wants to install lights in the hole so that people can see the waterfalls better. He wants to see how sales go of his new book, Mystery Falls Bridge, whose profits will be poured into Sinkhole improvements. He wants to wait until the economy improves in Michigan.

The hole and the bridge are currently off-limits behind a fence, and Rick frankly discourages visitors. After all, a ten-story office building could be dropped into the sinkhole, and it wouldn't reach as high as the bridge. The hole is spectacular, but if you fall into it, you're dead.

"The idea is eventually to open it up -- if I live long enough," Rick told us. "Until then, it doesn't hurt to do a lot of talking."

[10/14/2007]
Address:
Maple Ridge Township, MI
Hours:
Private Property! No Trespassing.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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