It’s been a good couple of weeks for celebrations in Chicago. And if you have any ice cream cake left over from the Cubs big victory, bung a candle in it and prepare to toast that iron horse of aerobatics and commerce: The Lake Street Bridge.
Today’s Lake Street Bridge opened on November 6, 1916 and was the world’s very first double-decker, double-leaf bascule bridge. This second generation Chicago-type bascule is the fifth bridge at this location, and was the prototype for subsequent double-decker bridges at Michigan Avenue (1920) and Wells Street (1922). This Lake Street crossing is also the site of Chicago’s first pivot (or swing) bridge built by City Superintendent Derastus Harper in 1852.
Influenced by Edward Bennett, who was the architect for the Chicago Planning Commission, today’s Lake Street bridge bridgehouses and approaches feature Beaux-Arts architectural style, ornamental details, and mansard roofs. Coincidentally, the newest section of the Riverwalk, which opened in October, now reaches west from the lakefront to end at the northeast bridge house of the Lake Street Bridge, and in a separate project the City of Chicago is currently giving the masonry on the exterior of the Lake Street Bridge houses a face-lift.
The fourth Lake Street Bridge (today’s predecessor) was built in 1885 of iron and initially steam powered. The West Division Railway Company contributed half of the cost of the bridge to ensure that it would carry its streetcars across the river. This 700-ton Pratt truss bridge was 220 feet long and 59 feet wide, with two 21 foot roadways with sidewalks off to each side.
The bridge was converted to electric power in 1893 after “extensive and rather remarkable alterations.”1 The Lake Street Elevated Railroad, a competitor to the West Division streetcar company, paid to reinforce the structure with a Warren truss configuration to add an upper deck for carrying elevated trains. The project gave the company an all-important connection into and out of Chicago’s Loop. Charles L. Yerkes, the financier and Chicago traction baron, would acquire both companies in 1894, ending the rivalry.
In 1909 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the bridge “an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of the Chicago river on account of the center pier, narrow draw openings and faulty location.”2 The secretary of war, who was responsible for federal oversight of national waterways, ordered its removal and replacement with a vertical-lift or bascule bridge. This gave birth to today’s 100-year old Lake Street Bridge, which was built in the upright position while the old bridge maintained L traffic. Then on a Friday all train traffic was halted, the old swing bridge turned in line with the waterway and its structure was cut down to allow the new bridge leaves to close for the first time. The upper deck was completed and rail tracks were laid so that normal commuting on the L could be restored within two weeks.
1. City of Chicago, Department of Public Works, Eighteenth Annual Report of the Department of Public Works; fiscal year ending December 31, 1893 (Chicago: Cameron, Amberg & Co., 1894), 43.
2. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Federal Government Wants Two River Bridges Removed,” April 16, 1909, 1.