Two icons: McDonald's "Big Mac" sandwich and the Daniel Carter Beard "Big Mac" bridge. The pair seem like a perfect match for a corporate fast food marketing gimmick. They almost were.
|- The Daniel Carter Beard "Big Mac" Bridge as viewed from the Kentucky shore towards Ohio.|
Then there's the yellow one, on the East side, above the park. Everyone here, they call it the "Big Mac." It's official name is the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge, but you'd be hard pressed to find a traffic reporter or local who'd use the official name in casual vernacular.
|- The bridge as viewed from Cincinnati's Mt. Adams looking towards Kentucky in 2010.|
|- Before disappearing in 2003, McCheese ran unopposed in every election despite never delivering on his promise to stop the Hamburglar.|
The nickname makes sense and it stuck, but just how did it get started? What made everyone start referring to the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge as the "Big Mac Bridge?"
The name's history is a bit of an urban legend. When you ask around, some remember the nickname first being coined by a Cincinnati traffic reporter, but no one can seem to remember exactly which reporter it was. Maybe it just happened naturally - people putting two and two together until the nickname became part of the Losantiville Lexicon. Some thought though, that the name came about because McDonald's wanted to build a floating restaurant on the Kentucky shore.
So what came first: the chicken or the egg? Or in this case: The nickname or the restaurant?
|- The "Big Mac" bridge as seen from a helicopter ride in 2012. The Hooters and Beer Sellar floating restaurants can be seen at the top right of the photograph.|
I know what you're thinking and you're right - there's no McDonald's boat on the Ohio and there never was. A few weeks ago I wrote about the eateries you can currently find floating on the river and a McDonald's wasn't one of them. Apparently though, there was supposed to be one. The first reference I ever saw to the "boatraunt" that never came to be was on Cincinnati-Transit.net, an excellent guide to the Queen City's highways, roadways and infrastructure by photographer and good friend Jake Mecklenborg. In Jake's article on the bridge he wrote:
"The nickname stems from an early 1980's attempt by McDonald's to open a floating restaurant on the Newport Riverfront, where Hooters is today."But what I wanted to know was: Did the nickname develop from McDonald's attempt to build a restaurant or did McDonald's want to build a restaurant because of the bridge's nickname?
Or quite simply, was there ever really a plan for McDonald's to build a floating restaurant?
|- The Cincinnati skyline as seen through the "Golden Arches" of the bridge.|
All across the world there's doctors searching for cures to Cancer, Aids, disease and reasons why people find Robin Williams funny. Graduate students spend endless hours in libraries researching their dissertations. Lawyers comb through page after page of court decisions to help their clients.
Me. I'm in a parking lot photographing the iconic McDonald's menu item known as the Big Mac. When I'm done, I'm going to enjoy that delicious concoction of two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun before I comb the internet trying to figure out what happened to the floating McDonald's we never got.
I can't find anything though. Jake's article seems to be the only record indicating that McDonald's had once hoped to sail a fast food ship on the River Ohio. Other websites mention the notion, but rip off Jake's article verbatim. A few old Cincinnati Magazine's archived on Google Books reference the fast food company's plans, but don't elaborate. There's nothing official, no articles, no plans, no quotes. Nothing. Had Cincinnatians invented the idea of a floating McDonald's just as they had invented the nickname "Big Mac Bridge?"
The idea wasn't too crazy. In the 80's McDonalds was constructing a fleet of floating restaurants and had built one on the shores of one of Cincinnati's great rivals: St. Louis.
|- The St. Louis floating McDonald's. Photograph by David Wilson.|
The first McDonald's opened in California in 1940. Today there are 33,000+ McDonald's locations spread out among 118 nations, 14,000 of them in the United States alone. You can't pull off a freeway exit in this country without finding one or eight of them. Despite being everywhere, McDonald's has created some pretty unique locations. They've built restaurants out of old airplanes, above highways, in colonial mansions and in nearly every tourist spot across the globe. In 1980, they constructed a fake steamboat on top of a barge and plopped it right in front of the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River. The floating McDonald's concept was continued with a second location that opened at Expo86 in Vancouver, Canada.
|- Vancouver's floating Mcdonald's at Expo86. Photo by Miss604.|
Ann Senefeld of Digging Cincinnati History came up with the truth and pointed me in the right direction. With the help of her and the Public Library of Cincinnati, the true story of the floating restaurant we never had was revealed:
Published on May 22nd, 1982 in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the above article points out that McDonald's was planning to build a ship in Newport, KY that would've cost nearly $2 Million. The fast food giant was going to acquire the Tri-City Yacht club and use its spot on the river. There were a few concerns though: the city of Newport's image and the fact that the restaurant could be cut off by the construction for entrance/exit ramps to the bridge. A year later, the restaurant plans were scuttled;
Despite the fact that I-471 and the bridge were open, on/off ramps weren't in place to connect the highway to KY-8, the main thoroughfare along Newport's riverfront. Local residents had opposed the ramp construction. Eventually the ramps were built though, but McDonald's never seemed to revisit their floating restaurant concept in Newport.
|- KY-8 passing underneath an overpass of the Big Mac bridge with signs indicating the entrance and exit ramps for I-471.|
Had the restaurant been built, it would've existed at the foot of Beech St. in Newport. Today, Beech St. dead ends with no connection to the riverfront.
|- Newport's Beech St. dead ends with a barrier and sidewalk preventing its connection to KY-8.|
The restaurant's approximate location would've put it on the Eastern side of the bridge creating a photogenic setting with a "Big Mac Bridge" and Cincinnati skyline backdrop.
Today the approximate location is served by a riverfront restaurant, albeit it not a floating one though, in the form of a Don Pablo's:
So the legend and rumors were true. McDonald's had tried to build a waterfront restaurant to capitalize on the "Big Mac Bridge." The circumstances at the time though prevented it from happening and the idea never seemed to return. What would it have been like? A tourist attraction? Decorated as a steamboat like the one in rival river city St. Louis? Futuristic like the Vancouver boat from Expo 86? Would Cincy's floating "Big Mac" boat still be around today?
We'll likely never know what it would've been like to have our floating fast food tourist attraction, but what ever happened to the other two locations in the McDonald's fleet?
|- The "McBarge" as it can be seen today. Image via Wikipedia.|
The "McBarge" that debuted at Expo86 in Vancouver operated throughout the festival's spring-fall season. At the close of the expo though, the location never reopened and sat abandoned until 1991 when it was towed away. Since then, owners have changed and the corporate branding has been stripped from the vessel. Its been floating and rotting away in a Vancouver inlet ever since. Multiple ideas for restaurants and even a homeless shelter have been proposed, but nothing has ever come of the plans.
|- The St. Louis floating McDonald's is now the "Arch View Cafe." Image via: gatewayarch.com|
|- The closest McDonald's ever got to the riverfront in KY.|
Although the floating McDonald's never materialized here, a McDonald's did sprout up in nearby Bellevue, KY. You can always swing by and then walk down to the riverfront to enjoy a Big Mac by the Big Mac while reminiscing on the tourist attraction that never was.