Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Big Macs by the Big Mac

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.

Cincinnati is known for its bridges that span the Ohio River, connecting to Kentucky. The Roebling was a prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brent Spence served as the backdrop for a presidential speech, the Purple People carries pedestrians through its oddly colored structure while the Taylor-Southgate, Clay Wade Bailey, C&O and Southern bridges provide an industrial artery for automobiles and freight trains on blandly colored, toughly weathered steel.

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.

The bridge opened in 1981 to serve as the river crossing for Kentucky's then new Interstate 471. It was named after Daniel Carter Beard, the founder of the Sons of Daniel Boone, who later merged to become the Boy Scouts of America. However, "Uncle Dan" doesn't get much recognition even though the river crossing is named after him. The bridge's superstructure features two yellow painted arches and resembles the yellow arches in the logo of fast food giant McDonalds.

Not that you need to see an image of what the McDonald's logo looks like, it's one of the most recognized symbols on this planet. Given their visual similarity, you'd almost think that the bridge was a civic project pushed forth by Mayor McCheese, the former politically themed mascot of the fast food giant.

- 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, 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

So why not a floating restaurant in Cincinnati? The marketing writes itself: "Big Macs by the Big Mac!" Was the idea just an urban legend or had McDonald's really wanted to add to its fleet with a location on the Ohio River? After I couldn't find the answer, I did what any great researcher would do - I posed the question to Facebook.

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:

The St. Louis location appears to have ceased being a McDonald's in 2005 or so. It has since been repurposed as the "Arch View Cafe," which operates from April-October and seems to serve somewhat standard fast food type fare, but the golden arches are long gone.

- 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.


  1. I just want to make a correction.The McDonald's is in Bellevue, not Dayton.

    1. Whoops! My bad, thanks! I've noted it.

    2. Haha, I didn't. I totally wrote that out with the intention to go in and change it then forgot. It's changed now.

      ...for real.

  2. Reminds me of The Norwood Lateral in that even though I spent my 1st 18 years in Cincy, I still have no idea what that exit is REALLY called (st. Rt. something or other).

  3. It may be hard to imagine now but, at the time, Riverboat Row was little more than an unnamed bumpy narrow roadway accessed from Bellevue that, in part, once served a half-sinking bordello which had to be cleared to allow anything to be built (or floated, for that matter). It may also worthy of note that the notion of a Chuck E. Cheese franchise was floated as well before the non-franchised pink "Islands" was docked there. In any case, access to the riverfront from I-475 was indeed a problem for several years because of neighborhood opposition to ramps that would have funneled onto Fourth St. and Nelson Pl./Fifth St. Neighbors, especially in Newport's Mansion Hill neighborhood, foresaw Newport's rebirth, not in a kind of urban removal but rather, on its riverfront. At the time Newport was still dealing with some 17 strip joints on and around Monmouth St. How times have changed and how quickly we forget! I know. I was there. Thank you, QCD.

    1. Wow. Thanks for sharing all that! I moved to KY in 2009 and originally lived in Highland Heights before moving to Fort Thomas. I'm right up the road from Newport so I spend a lot of time down in Bellevue and Dayton. It's hard to imagine what the riverfront there was like before 471 and the Big Mac. I have never heard about the floating Chuck E Cheese, I wonder what ever happened to it?

  4. Rereading Jeff Gutsell's Enquirer-bylined clipping triggered more that you might be interested in. The Chuck E. Cheese franchise, proposed by the Bernsteins, wound up, where it is today, in Florence. This all happened around the same time as Mansion Hill's legal action against the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet regarding the proposed intrusion of the I-471 ramps into the neighborhood. Environment impact statements - written by Congress not long before - were used in countering Kentucky's designs. [In a larger context, the whole experience can be viewed as another of the freeway revolts that prevented the Colerain Expressway or the long-cancelled, and stubbed-off, ramps for I-71 at Victory Parkway. By the way, on SB 471, just south of the bridge, you can still see the stub of the unbuilt on-ramp from Nelson Pl./Fifth St. (The corresponding stub for the NB off-ramp, then proposed for Fourth St., was incorporated into the current ramp to Dave Cowens Drive.)] I leave it to you to decide if this was just happenstance that this occurred because of the Mansion Hill neighborhood's ramp actions.

    In any case try to remember what Newport's riverfront looked like. Besides the long abandoned bordello, there was one occupied mobile home just east of the DCB brdige. West of the then-active railroad L&N Bridge (Purple People Bridge) there was the Newport Yacht Club (LKA Barleycorns) and west of the old Central Bridge was WNOP and the "Captain's Table" with another boat dock.

    South of the flood wall were: four bars, one liquor store, two car dealers, one Cabooze, one swimming pool dealer, an abandoned Gulf station, one palmist and even a number of rundown residences scattered around. Not only that but, at the "Port of Entry," Cowens Drive also hosted a 20-30 home trailer park on the site of the current office building.

    A lot has changed. Readers are encouraged to challenge my memory, fill the the blanks, and correct the record. I'll check in again tomorrow. There's certainly a lot more involved. But that's the way I prefer to remember it.

  5. I remember as a Miami(Ohio) University student in the mid seventies venturing south to get away from the staid, Oxford "Mother Miami atmosphere to enjoy an evening of Newports wild and crazy riverfront night life scene. It was great with a couple of converted barges masquerading as floating "yacht clubs". The New Tri City and Newport Yacht clubs were more bar-like than clubs, but both stayed open late and had lots of cheap Wiedemann beer featuring music and dancing with accomodating women and corn fed girls. Those were the nights I remember