Randolph Street Bridge Turns 30

Randolph Street Bridge

Editor’s Note: The Randolph Street Bridge turns 30-years-old this week.  To mark the occasion, Chicago Architecture Blog bridge specialist Patrick McBriarty shared this excerpt from his book “Chicago River Bridges.”  You can learn more about his book and buy it here, in print or Kindle format.



The current Randolph Street Bridge is the newest drawbridge built in Chicago, which is now thirty-years old and Randolph along with Clark and Wells Street have eight different bridges at their respective locations.

Current (8th) Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: December 18, 1984
  • Type: Chicago-type, double-leaf bascule
  • Designed by: City Bureau of Engineering and Hazelet & Erdal of Chicago
  • Constructed by: Kenny Construction Co.
  • Cost: $18,000,000
  • Status: Currently in use

The eighth Randolph Street Bridge, a modern Chicago-type bascule, took three years to complete, and used the steel box girder construction introduced in 1978 at the Loomis Street Bridge. The welded-steel construction and single bridge house give it a sleek, clean look. With a twenty-one foot clearance, this bridge provides an additional five feet over the river and less “low steel” than the old Scherzer rolling lift span it replaced. As a result, it opens fewer than 100 times per year, compared to 1,450 openings for the old bridge. State and federal funds paid for this bridge, which was designed by the City’s Public Works Department and Hazelet & Erdal. Ironically, this Chicago engineering and consulting firm, established in 1936, is the direct successor to the Scherzer Rolling Lift Company that designed the previous Randolph Street Bridge.

1st Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: May 1839
  • Bridge Type: Pontoon swing, wooden, hand-operated
  • Designed By: John Van Osdel
  • Constructed By: Charles Grog, City Street Commissioner
  • Cost: $1,400
  • Status: Removed in 1847

2nd Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: 1847
  • Bridge Type: Pontoon swing, wooden, hand-operated
  • Designed By: Unknown
  • Constructed By: Unknown
  • Cost: $5,000
  • Status: Destroyed by flood on March 12, 1849

The first Randolph Street Bridge was Chicago’s first pontoon float swing bridge based on plans by John Van Osdel and completed on May 6, 1839. A bridge tender was appointed at a pay rate of $0.75 per day and it was suggested to the City Council that a sign be installed warning persons not to drive over the bridge faster than at a walking pace. The second Randolph Street Bridge was the same design as its predecessor and replaced the original in 1847 with the improvement of stone approaches on the river banks. However it came to an untimely end in the Flood of March 1849, that destroyed this and five other bridges on the Chicago River.

3rd Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: August 1849
  • Bridge Type: Pontoon float swing, wooden, hand-operated
  • Designed By:  Bridge Committee, City of Chicago
  • Constructed By:  Bridge Committee, City of Chicago
  • Cost: $924
  • Status: Moved to North Avenue in 1856

The third Randolph Street Bridge was built quickly using salvaged timbers from the original, and opened five months later. Its lower river clearance required it open to allow passage of almost every size craft. In January 1850, this bridge was improved by adding a turntable and semi-floating apron to allow for the changing water levels at a cost of $1,400. The bridge with two eight-foot tracks could carry east and west bound teams at the same time, and featured raised sidewalks with railings on each side. It was furnished with operating wheels and chains, and like its predecessors, opened up or down river as the occasion required, and was considered “the best and most durable bridge there is or ever had been built in the city.”1

Randolph Street Bridge

4th Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: July 1856
  • Bridge Type: Swing, wooden, hand-operated
  • Designed By:  William Boomer
  • Constructed By:  Stone, Boomer & Bouton
  • Cost: $20,811
  • Status: Broken beyond repair May 11, 1864

The fourth Randolph Street Bridge was a pivot or swing bridge and offered two eighteen-foot-wide roadways, including seven-foot-wide raised sidewalks on each side. The arched three-truss superstructure was fourteen-feet high at the middle and curved down at the ends to four and a half feet with top and bottom 5” x 12” wooden beams, between were wooden cross-beams and vertical iron compression rods, and overhead cross-bracing at the center of the trusses for strength. The three-truss bridge superstructure was manually operated with the aid of turntable gears and received three coats of white lead and linseed oil paint. This Randolph Street Bridge lasted eight years until one day in 1864 when the roadbed parted in the middle. An uneven rent, half an inch wide, appeared, and the “manly” bridge-tenders were praised for continuing to perform the “rather dangerous task” of swinging the bridge that afternoon. At about 4:30 p.m., the streetcar company halted its cars and the bridge was swung open one last time to allow the free passage of ships. This allowed the bridge to be pulled down before it fell into the river. As the paper reported, this bridge was like an overly fat hog, “killed to save his life.”2

5th Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: July 1864
  • Bridge Type: Swing, wooden, hand-operated
  • Designed By: L.B. Boomer
  • Constructed By: L.B. Boomer
  • Cost: $5,000
  • Status: Removed in 1874

6th Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: 1874
  • Bridge Type: Swing, iron, steam powered
  • Designed By: Keystone Bridge Co.
  • Constructed By: Keystone Bridge Co.
  • Cost: $10,850
  • Status: Removed in 1903

7th Randolph Street Bridge

  • Opened: April 15, 1903
  • Bridge Type: Scherzer rolling lift, steel, electirc powered
  • Designed By: Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Co.
  • Constructed By: American Bridge Co. (superstructure) Jackson & Corbett (substructure)
  • Cost: $5,000
  • Status: Destroyed by flood on March 12, 1849

Randolph Street BridgeIn the meantime, a fifth bridge at Randolph Street was being constructed off-site over a five–week period. The new bridge was installed using the old foundation and was opened to travel in about two weeks’ time. This bridge was 153 feet long and 32½ feet wide, and the double truss structure and proved a godsend, carrying thousands of citizens across the river to escape the flames of the Great Fire of 1871 (as shown in the image above). By 1874, this bridge was torn down to allow for construction of the sixth Randolph Street Bridge. All-iron, it weighed 134 tons and was 157 feet long by 34 feet wide and reused the existing foundation after a few repairs. This was the very first steam-powered bridge in Chicago. In 1897 it was converted to electric power by the City Bridge Department. The iron bridge superstructure served for twenty-nine years before it was removed for the seventh Randolph Street Bridge the built by Chicago Sanitary District. In May 1955, the bridge was converted to one-person operation. After nearly eighty years, in July 1981, “the old lift bridge built for horse and buggy traffic” was demolished, and the Randolph Street crossing was closed for over three years while the current bridge was being constructed and opened on December 18, 1984.3

Figure 85 - Randolph St (7th) Scherzer - SanDist

Location: Randolph Street at the Chicago River, The Loop


  1. City of Chicago, “Report of Special Committee on the Randolph St. Bridge Announcing Its Completion,”
  2. “The Bridges,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1864, 4.
  3. “Photo Standalone 4–Untitled,” Chicago Tribune, October 25, 1984, B3.


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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