Is Chicago About To Lose Its Title of The Drawbridge Capital Of The World?

The North Branch of the Chicago River looking north at the Grand Avenue and Ohio Street Bridges.

The North Branch of the Chicago River looking north at the Grand Avenue and Ohio Street Bridges.

Chicago has many drawbridges; the most of any city in North America. And in classic Second City form, is surpassed only by Amsterdam as the city with the most drawbridges in the world.

Chicago has the greatest variety of drawbridge designs of any city on earth. Chicago’s historic bridges embody significant engineering and cultural heritage. It is the world’s greatest working drawbridge museum. Yet, the last drawbridge to be constructed in Chicago is now 30 years old, and many of our bridges are approaching or have surpassed 100 years of age. Replacing or refurbishing these bridges is expensive; although it may be argued from a industrial heritage, engineering, and architectural standpoint this collection of drawbridges is irreplaceable, while the oldest bridges are increasingly threatened by removal.

Division Street Bridge

Division Street Bridge

The Division Street Bridge on the east side of Goose Island is next in line for replacement and is also the most threatened drawbridge in Chicago. The Chicago River’s North Branch just thirty years ago still hosted numerous commercial ships and sailboat traffic, and was considered navigable up to Belmont Avenue.

Although this 100-year-old bridge and its companion, the Chicago-type double-leaf bascule on the west side of Goose Island, have not opened in more than a decade, imagine the busy river of 1907 when the West Division Street Bridge opened 1,774 times and the East Division Street Bridge (over the canal) opened 1,236 times. Fast-forward to 1995 when all drawbridges above North Halsted Avenue on the North Branch were no longer required to open on demand.
As of this writing, six new fixed bridges have replaced drawbridges on the North Branch since 1961. With the cost of a drawbridge at three to four times that of a fixed bridge, plus additional maintenance, these replacements make financial sense for the city.

Chicago has just over 60 drawbridges, of which 43 are operational. The others are treated like fixed spans and no longer open. These facts beg the question, will Chicago loose its position as the drawbridge capital of the world before most Chicagoans even realize what has been lost? Time will tell.

Division Street East Bridge under construction in December 1902 with a temporary pedestrian bridge in the foreground

Division Street East Bridge under construction in December 1902 with a temporary pedestrian bridge in the foreground

The East Division Street Bridge constructed by the firm of Roemheld and Gallery was the second Chicago-type bascule bridge completed in 1903. The West Division Street Bridge constructed by J.E. Roemheld was the fourth completed in 1904. During this time swing bridges were being removed and replaced to offer a wider channel for ship traffic and city engineers, disappointed by a decade of private inventor and engineering designs, had just developed the Chicago-type bascule bridge to better serve their needs.

Led by City Engineer John Ericson, Chicago’s bridge department proposed three variations of the trunnion bascule design modeled on the Tower Bridge in London, the world’s most famous bascule bridge. Bids of various designs were taken for construction and contracts awarded for the 95th Street and East Division Street Bridges based on a city engineering design.

A Board of Consulting Engineers (Lyman E. Cooley, Bryon B. Carter, and Ralph Modjeski) approved the city designs and suggested specific refinements to the substructure, flooring system, and operating equipment. Plans for the Cortland Street Bridge, which was also put out for bid, incorporated most of these refinements.

With the 95th Street and the East Division Street Bridges the counterweight pits are split in-line with the center truss creating two side-by-side pits and the abutment was slightly elevated compared to the river pier. At Cortland Street and subsequent first-generation Chicago-type bridges, the abutments were lowered to match the height of the river pier and a single large counterweight pit was used with the added advantage of allowing the ends of the trusses to be tied together for greater rigidity.

95th Street Bridge under construction in December 1902

95th Street Bridge under construction in December 1902

During construction, the East Division Street and 95th Street Bridges ran into unexpected site problems. Subsequent changes and cost overruns resulted in both bridges running about 50 percent over bid. A public outcry prompted officials to investigate these projects for fraud, but they were unable to find any clear wrongdoing.

In the meantime the Cortland Street Bridge opened to traffic on May 24, 1902, and the East Division Street Bridge opened to traffic on February 1, 1903 becoming the second Chicago-type bascule ever built. The 95th Street Bridge, which opened to wagon teams on April 1, 1903, was the third ever built. In 1958 it was replaced by a new Chicago-type bascule bridge.

This East Division Street Bridge is unique as the best remaining example of the city engineers’ initial Chicago-type bridge design. Yet no one remembers second place, and it is the Cortland Street Bridge that received Chicago Landmark status in 1991. The East Division Street Bridge, despite its significance, has received no such consideration.

Cortland Street Bridge in June 1902

Cortland Street Bridge in June 1902

On April 10, 2014 a Chicago Department of Transportation announced plans to demolish and replace the East Division Street Bridge. Characterized by CDOT as, “nearing the end if its useful life,” the six-month project will remove this centurion for new fixed bridge similar to what was done with two other first-generation Chicago-type bridges at North Avenue in 2006 and North Halsted Street (over the North Branch Canal) in 2010. As of this writing, the bridge remains in use and is still open to traffic and CDOT has not released any additional information on the project’s status.

Chicagoans numb to the consistent lack of City of Chicago transparency on so many fronts have come to tolerate such short notice and mixed messages on significant projects as frustration long ago supplanted outrage. Is it any wonder Chicagoans have little awareness of City plans or the historic nature of our bridges?

The new fixed bridges across the North Branch at North Avenue and North Halsted Street are attractive and unique designs, but lack the same appeal and magic of a drawbridge. Safe, practical, and cost-effective, the new bridges improve traffic flow on these busy urban thoroughfares. The new bridges are a pragmatic substitution, delivering four lanes of traffic instead of two; but to bridge fans it is like substituting costume jewelry for true gems.

Simple preservation of these two 100-year-old Division Street Bridges seems a moot argument. Looking at traffic patterns, urban demands, congestion and the fact the waterway no longer requires the bridges to open for water traffic, a drawbridge is untenable. As a stop-gap measure, both bridges received new life with the installation of new steel-grid decks in 2010. However, their expected demolition is anticipated by their continued neglect and their tawdry, worn, and rusted appearance. One wonders from a general maintenance perspective if consistent painting of the bridges would be more cost-effective than cycles of neglect and extensive rehabilitation or emergency repairs.

Preservation or replacement are not the only options; though sadly in the United States that is usual the line of thought. We have a penchant for tearing down the “old” and building new, rather than saving, repurposing, or remodeling structures. New and fresh is great, but it does not last, and the result is a loss of cultural heritage through the obliteration of historic engineering and architectural achievements. Chicago as a city of practicality, innovation, and politics can occasionally find compromise. For instance, the rehabilitation of the Wells Street Bridge in 2013 instead of replacement.

The East Division Street Bridges could combine new and old – through construction of a new wider bridge deck and the rehabilitation and incorporation of the existing three truss superstructures. This is not unprecedented. In 2002, the Lake Shore Drive Bridge at Jackson Harbor near 56th Street underwent just such a reconstruction. This was done so a pedestrian underpass could be added as part of a $162 million South Lake Shore Drive rehabilitation project.

The outer masonry was disassembled, saved, and then reassembled to complete the construction and transfer of the bridge to a site 20 feet north of its current location. Effectively, the beautiful Neptune, water animal, and ship prow reliefs of the Animal Bridge in Jackson Park was preserved and updated. Today the bridge looks much as it did when built in 1904. But it’s wider, accommodating six lanes of traffic versus the original four.

The question is whether a hybrid approach for Division Street is cost effective; and if not, whether the additional cost might be justified for historic, aesthetic, and cultural heritage reasons. Most likely it is not, but at what point will we draw the line and preserve our fantastic bridge heritage?

Except from Blanchard Map of Chicago in 1888 showing Goose Island

Except from Blanchard Map of Chicago in 1888 showing Goose Island

The East and West Division Street Bridges represent Chicago’s early north side development. William Ogden, the city’s first mayor, led a group of real estate investors who in the 1850’s developed the area and created Goose Island. By digging a canal across a westerly bend in the river they expected to raise property values, raise the grade in this swampy area, and provide additional shipping and water access.

The clay tailings from digging the canal in the 1860’s were used for brick making, and one imagines whether any of these bricks through reuse might still exist in some of today’s buildings. The North Branch Corridor became a strong manufacturing and industrial area, and indeed development of the area began soon after the canal was completed in 1868 for distilleries, tanning, lumber, and shipbuilding companies as Chicago became a major commercial and industrial center for the region and the nation.

Old Swing Bridge at West Division Street on April 30, 1902 just before its removal

Old Swing Bridge at West Division Street on April 30, 1902 just before its removal

Each of the two Division Street Bridges (the second at each location) replaced wood and iron swing bridges over the canal (East) and the river (West). The East Division Street Bridge at 146 feet between the trunnions is the smaller of the two double-leaf trunnion bascule bridges. It used approximately 700 tons of structural steel and 500 tons of counterweight material.

The West Division Street Bridge is 172 feet between the trunnions and, like its sister, features a three truss superstructure supporting two 18-foot-wide roadways and two eight-foot-wide sidewalks that are cantilevered off each side of the bridge.

Both Division Street Bridges originally carried streetcar tracks and received early danger signal systems to halt traffic. In the 1930’s, the East Division Street bridge houses were rebuilt. The West bridge received new center locks and machinery renewal, and both bridges received a new bridge deck. In 1942, the bridges were again re-decked and received a number of structural steel repairs. The rear end of each bridge leaf received seven-foot concrete slabs, allowing the removal of approximately twelve tons from the counterweights.

In the mid-1950’s, the West Division Street Bridge plank roadway was replaced with an steel open grid deck. In the late 1960’s, the original operator houses were replaced with Modernist structures sporting flat roofs, overhanging eaves, and vertical wood siding.

In the 1980’s, the Department of Public Works considered replacing the West Division Street Bridge with a new double-leaf bascule. Though plans were prepared, construction was never funded. Instead, it was almost completely rebuilt with new structural steel in 1993. The span’s general appearance was preserved, although the new trusses differ slightly from the original pattern and the steelwork was bolted together rather than being riveted. The project also converted the bridge to a fixed span. The bridge houses were cleared of all control equipment and the upper buffers were removed, while the trunnions, racks, and drive trains remained. The lower buffers were locked in place, and the movable leaves were bolted together.

The East Division Street Bridge received a second major overhaul in 1969, and extensive rehabilitation of the superstructure was again carried out in the early 1980’s. The East Division Street Bridge was converted to a fixed span in the early 1990’s.

Long neglected, it is hoped both bridges at Division Street will receive the attention and rehabilitation they deserve. These early designs were refined over the decades and the Chicago type is now the dominant drawbridge on the Chicago River. Today only four of the original ten first-generation bridges remain in Chicago, and the world. And the two Division Street Bridges are some of the first representations of this important and versatile bridge design.

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Patrick McBriarty

Author: Patrick McBriarty

Patrick McBriarty, a former business person and consultant, over a decade ago discovered a new focus and fascination for Chicago bridges. His first book Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for original Great Lakes Maritime History and presents the untold history and development of Chicago’s iconic bridges. Published by the University of Illinois Press in October 2013. Concurrently in 2011-12 with filmmaker Stephen Hatch, they co-produced the documentary Chicago Drawbridges, which was first broadcast on Chicago public television in April 2013. Patrick is currently working on a forthcoming series of children’s books sharing his excitement and appreciation for bridges with a smaller audience. The first children’s book Bridges of All Kinds is available now and the second picture book Drawbridges Open and Close illustrated by Johanna Kim is currently under review with several publishers. Patrick holds a bachelors in business administration and a masters in economics from Miami University.

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1 Comment

  1. If a few of the drawbridges were replaced with fixed bridges, to what city would we lose the title “Drawbridge Capital Of The World”?

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