Connecting Streeterville to the Loop for 30 Years

Chicago River

One of Chicago’s most traveled bridges celebrates its birthday today.  The Columbus Drive Bridge, spanning the main channel of the Chicago River, was opened on this day — Halloween — in 1982.

It’s hard to imagine having to jog all the way over to Michigan Avenue or Lower Lake Shore drive just to go from Streeterville to Grant Park, but that was the situation until this span was built.  And for those of us who didn’t live in Chicago in the 1980’s, it’s hard to believe that so recently the bustling skyscraper forest of Streeterville was mostly industrial buildings and railroad tracks.

Forty-second Ward alderman Brendan Reilly’s describes it this way:

This modern bridge used the basic concepts of the Chicago-type fixed trunnion bascule bridge with up-to-date features of the era. This is the first of the downtown bascules to use box girders instead of trusses to support the leaves. Technological advances in steel and its fabrication allowed bridge designers to keep all structural support below the bridge deck – an aesthetic goal for downtown bridges dating back to the 1909 Plan of Chicago.

Like most Chicago bridges, this one has an alternate name.  It’s the “William Peter Fahey Bridge,” named after a slain Chicago police officer. His family was in the first car allowed to drive across the new span when it opened.

The bridge was necessary not only for regular surface street traffic, but also as an alternate route for cars while the city smoothed out the notorious Lake Shore Drive S-curve.  That engineering feat (at the time, a construction nightmare) allowed the city to open up development of the heart of Chicago’s lakefront, making it the showcase it is today.  To see a photograph of the crazy curve and the industrial wasteland that is now the glittering Streeterville and Lakeshore East neighborhoods, click here.

In recent years, CDOT has embarked on a number of bridge building projects around the city.  There’s the elegant North Avenue Bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River; the Torrance Avenue Bridge, which was built next to its current location and then rolled into place as a single piece; and the innovative hybrid rail/bike/pedestrian Cherry Avenue Bridge linking Lincoln Park with Goose Island.

The Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River

The Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River

The city’s next big project is a rehab of the double-decker Wells Street Bridge over the Main Branch of the Chicago River.  It’s been 57 years since this bridge’s last renovation.  The previous interval was just 33 years.  Construction starts in December of this year and is expected to last until December of 2013.  No pedestrians or road vehicles will be allowed to cross the bridge, and while the CTA’s Brown and Purple lines will be able to use the upper deck, there will be delays.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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