How the Michigan Avenue Bridge Made Chicago What it is Today

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about Chicago’s bridges from noted author and historian Patrick McBriarty. We welcome him to the Chicago Architecture Blog as a regular contributor.

Michigan Avenue runs north and south, crossing the main branch of the Chicago River a half-mile west of the mouth of the river at Lake Michigan.  The Michigan Avenue Bridge is the most revered and celebrated bridge in Chicago. This iconic Chicago-type bascule bridge was granted landmark status in July 1991, seventy years after its construction.

NATO flags on the Michigan Avenue Bridge

Current and 1st Michigan Avenue Bridge

  • Opened: May 14, 1920
  • Bridge Type: Chicago-type double-leaf double-deck bascule
  • Designed by: Thomas Pihlfeldt, Hugh Young, Edward Bennett
  • Constructed by: Great Lakes Dredge & Dock (general contractor) American Bridge Company (steel fabrication)
  • Cost: $14,000,000
  • Status: Currently in use

The innovation of a double-deck bascule, first applied at Lake Street in 1916,was the basis for the iconic Michigan Avenue Bridge, which opened in 1920.  This new span was the world’s most unusual bridge at the time, and has become an icon synonymous with the City of Chicago.  It replaced the fourth Rush Street Bridge and owes its existence to Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago. The Michigan Avenue Bridge and the development of the boulevard to connect the city’s northern and southern sides was a centerpiece of the Plan of Chicago. The project widened Michigan Avenue from Chicago Avenue to the river south of Randolph Street.

Prior to this decade-long, multi-million dollar project to improve and widen Michigan Avenue, Rush Street was the city’s major thoroughfare. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was estimated that the Rush Street swing bridge carried fully 50 percent of all north- and south-bound Downtown traffic. Before 1920, opening this heavily used bridge created a confusion of horse-drawn wagons, automobiles, and pedestrians that defied description. This condition was aggravated by the surroundings. The South Water Street Market stood on the south bank of the river, and the railhead of the Michigan Central and Illinois Central Railroads stood to the east. Along the north bank of the river was the railroad depot of the Wisconsin Central and Chicago & Galena Union Railroads, and east of that were numerous docks and warehouses adding to the congestion.

Figure 37--Rush St-Smoke Abatement 1915 Loop crop

The need for urban and civic planning was so dire that prominent citizens and influential businessmen took matters into their own hands. By 1906, the 325-member Merchants Club of Chicago enlisted architect Daniel Burnham to create a municipal plan for Chicago. The result was Burnham and Bennett’s Plan of Chicago. The semi-public Chicago Planning Commission was created to promote the moral upbuilding and physical beautification of Chicago. This included reclaiming the lakefront for the public, improving living conditions, increasing park and public playgrounds, and rationalizing the major transportation arteries of the city.

The double-deck Michigan Avenue Bridge’s importance to the city is reflected in its design and ornamentation. It features four corner pylons that double as bridge houses, each constructed of Bedford limestone and varied metalwork in the French baroque style. Strolling past the Michigan Avenue bridge houses, one cannot help but notice their sculptural relief embellishments. The south bridge houses feature the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire. Sculpted by Henry Herring, they were a gift from the B.F. Furguson Fund. The north bridge houses feature explorers Marquette and Jolliet and the town’s early settlers Jean Baptiste Point De Sable and John Kinzie. Created by James Earl Fraser, they were donated by William Wrigley, Jr.

The design of the Michigan Avenue Bridge superstructure was the work of the city’s Bridge Design Section, under the Bureau of Engineering within the Department of Public Works. This effort was led by Thomas G. Pihlfeldt, engineer of bridges, in consultation with Hugh E. Young, the engineer in charge of bridge design. It was designed to resemble the Alexander III Bridge in France, which was built for the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and is regarded as one of the prettiest bridges in Paris.

This fixed trunnion bascule is divisible along the center, so it is actually two side-by-side double-leaf bridges. Each half can be raised individually so that half of the bridge (the northbound lanes) may be raised for maintenance or repair while the other half (the southbound lanes) can carry traffic over the river. This was the first bridge designed to carry automotive traffic on both decks; although earlier double-deck bridges were designed and built, they carried railway and automobile traffic. The bridge’s two upper deck roadways provide three lanes, each 28 feet in width, and two sidewalks, each 14 feet in width. The lower deck has two lanes going in either direction, each 18 feet in width. It was the widest bascule bridge in the world when it was built.

On May 14, 1920, the Michigan Avenue Bridge’s opening ceremony was nearly the scene of an accident after the lumber steamer, Herman H. Hettler, whistled to pass during the dedication. Navigation having the right-of-way, the bridge-tender, not seeing four occupied cars still on the bridge, began to open the southern leaves. Tragedy was averted only after police officers fired their pistols over the din of the crowds and marching bands to get the bridge-tender’s attention.

The bridge provided a dramatic boon to the city during the 20th century. More than just relieving congestion and beautifying the city, the bridge spurred real estate development and economic growth all along Michigan Avenue. Before the bridge, Pine Street (later renamed North Michigan Avenue) was a quiet, tree-lined residential street; the bridge and boulevard brought dramatic changes to create the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast neighborhood on the North Side. In the decades that followed, Chicago’s “main street” shifted from State Street to Michigan Avenue.

View of Pine Street (now North Michigan Avenue) in the 1880's

View of Pine Street (now North Michigan Avenue) in the 1880’s

 Possibly one of the most fantastic incidents in the history of bridges occurred at the Michigan Avenue Bridge on August 31, 1922. Vincent “the Schemer” Drucci, a known safecracker and member of the Dion O’Bannion gang, noticed two undercover detectives tailing him. Approaching the Michigan Avenue Bridge just as it was being raised, Drucci drove through the warning gates, accelerated up the rising bridge deck, and jumped the gap fifty feet above the river. Police detectives Touhy and Klatzko, not so easily eluded, followed. Racing up the still rising bridge deck, they jumped an even greater gap. Drucci was soon stuck in traffic on the other side of the bridge, and fled on foot. Touhy and Klatzko gave chase and made the arrest. To date, this is only one of two bona fide jumps of a Chicago River bridge not staged for a movie. Five years later, Drucci, was arrested again; while in custody, en route to the Criminal Court Building, he was shot four times and died during after a scuffle with Police Officer Daniel Healy.

On Sunday, September 20th, 1992, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, while under repair to install a new roadway, became a gargantuan catapult hurling equipment and debris hundreds of feet across Wacker Drive. The bridge suddenly sprung upward, sending a forty-ton-capacity crane parked on the end of the southeast bridge leaf tumbling into the counterweight pit. The crane then crashed into lower Wacker Drive and was crushed between the bridge deck and the roadway. The rotating bridge leaf was ripped from its trunnion bearings and plunged to the bottom of the counterweight pit. Vibrations from the closing of the north bridge leaf after the passing of several sailboats may have triggered the incident; however, it was also determined that the heel locks on the south leaf may not have been fully engaged. Several vehicles were damaged and, most frighteningly, the crane’s 285-pound iron ball bounced off Wacker Drive and landed in the back seat of Jesus Lopez’s Ford Escort. Lopez, sitting in the front seat at the time, was shaken up, but emerged from the car unscratched. Through the extraordinary efforts of the 65-member construction crew, traffic was resumed across half of the bridge within two weeks, and the full bridge repair was completed a few weeks before Christmas.

Just as the Wabash Street Bridge Houses were briefly used for advertising in November, 2011, Chicago’s bridges have occasionally been used for alternative purposes. During World War II, the southeast bridge house at Michigan Avenue was converted into a recruiting office for the U.S. Maritime Service, and processed as many as 200 volunteer merchant marines per week. More recently, in 2006, the southwest bridge house became home to the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum. A project of Friends of the Chicago River, the Bridgehouse Museum reveals the river’s role in the development of the region, highlighting its ongoing transformation from industrial waterway to a natural and recreational asset, and celebrates Chicago’s moveable bridges.

Visitors can view the bridge’s operating gears and counterweights on the lowest level of the museum, and, during the spring and fall bridge lifts, watch the machinery in action.

Editor’s Note: Patrick McBriarty is giving a lecture about the evolution of Chicago’s bridges at the Harold Washington Library’s Pritzker Auditorium at 6:00pm on Tuesday, February 18th.  It will be followed by a book signing.


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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