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There’s nothing more spectacular than standing somewhere along the Chicago River on a beautiful day while the bridges are raised to let the boats with tall masts pass by. Well, except if you are driving, walking, or on the ‘L’ train & late for an appointment maybe. Good thing there is a schedule that you can keep in mind. Usually, it’s Spring & Fall on Wednesdays & Saturdays. Not sure about the current state of things, but I believe that even if one boat calls to schedule, the bridge lifts are happening.
Why would you want to drive in Chicago? No need, really if you are visiting. Especially during a pandemic, you can experience way more by walking, biking, or taking public transportation. If you are driving here, I recommend that you leave your car parked while exploring.
I am a native Chicagoan and have been carless for a very long time. I am also an independent private tour guide (specializing in walking, architectural, and history tours) for the past ten years. Currently, I offer a couple of routes that are all given safely outside. They are my Loop Highlights & North Michigan Ave, Gold Coast & Old Town neighborhood routes. This route happens to start here on the river and ends up in a great neighborhood to explore on your own. Go to toursbycitygirl.com and book a private, walking tour with me today.
Back to the bridges and time to embrace your inner nerd. There’s a total of 52 movable bridges within the city limits, and 43 are still operable. More than any other city in North America! There are five different types of movable bridges; drawbridge, swing, floating, jackknife, and two versions of a lift bridge. Most of our current working bridges are trunnion bascule bridges. Here is a great explanation of these different types of bridges and their history from the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) website.
The earliest movable bridge in Chicago was a drawbridge at Dearborn Street, built in 1834. Constructed of timber, it was similar to bridges found over moats at medieval castles, with large chains lifting it. In the years that followed, there was much trial and error as new styles were designed. A flood in 1849 swept away a number of floating bridges, and drawbridges proved to be too narrow to accommodate the influx of people traveling through the rapidly growing city.
The first swing bridge completed in 1856 at Rush Street was an improvement, but the narrowness was still an issue. Swing bridges were set up like a spinner in a board game, which resulted in ships crashing into them, and vehicle collisions on them were common. In 1863, the Rush Street bridge collapsed under the weight of a herd of cattle being driven over it, proving that the bridges were unstable and impractical. One of the few remaining swing bridges can be found east of Cicero Avenue across the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
A jackknife bridge was introduced in the early 1890s, but the style was not embraced by the city. Two other styles, the vertical lift bridge, and the Scherzer rolling lift bridge, were developed in the mid-1890s. Both can still be found in the city. A vertical lift bridge is pulled up and down from counterweights in two tall towers on either side of it. The Scherzer rolling lift bridge is similar to a rocking chair, with large counterweights above the road level to help balance the bridge as it opens and closes.
Ultimately, though, the trunnion bascule bridge became a Chicago staple.
chicago style bascule
The first trunnion bascule bridge in the country opened in 1902 over the north branch of the Chicago River at Cortland Street. Translated from French, “trunnion” means “pivot point” and “bascule” means “seesaw.” Also known as the “Chicago Style,” the bridge’s leaves are suspended on axles (trunnions), with massive concrete counterweights located below the bridge, in the riverbank pit. There are single-leaf bascule bridges, which were constructed where the river was not very wide and often used for trains, and double-leaf bascule bridges, which could be compared to two seesaws across from each other.
What is it that made these bridges so unique to Chicago and so necessary to perfect? In 1830, right around the time of the first movable bridge design, the city’s population was about 4,000. By 1857, when the swing bridge was being introduced, the population had grown to 90,000. Bascule bridges were the most practical for these large and growing numbers of people and remain common today.
After 1910, involvement from the Chicago Plan Commission and architect Edward Bennett improved the bridges’ architectural elements, including bridge houses. These houses represent many major architectural styles, including Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, and Modernism.
Some bridges still utilized in the downtown area are double decker, with vehicle traffic on the bottom level and L trains passing through on the upper level. In 2016, two downtown bridges—at Jackson Boulevard and Lake Street—turned 100 years old!
The DuSable Bridge, formerly the Michigan Avenue Bridge, turned 100 this year. Renamed for John Baptiste Point du Sable, our first non-Native American settler, a free black man born in Haiti. He resided a little bit further west at the confluence of the Chicago River (where the main, south & north branches meet) at Wolf Point. Two important & interesting aspects (among many) about the bridge are the fact that it was constructed (1918-1920) during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and it was the gateway to the north side from the loop & south sides of the city. Today is known as the beginning of the Magnificent Mile.
McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum
Here are a couple more resources. The McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum (currently closed but possibly reopening mid-August) is a unique space where you can learn all about our magnificent bridges & the Chicago River. It’s located at Michigan Avenue & Wacker Drive on the south bank of the Riverwalk in an actual bridgehouse. The museum is five levels of interesting information, and they also offer a bridge lift tour where you can experience the massive gears in action during the raising of the DuSable (Michigan Ave) bridge.
The pictures in this post are from the tour I attended last Fall. That day, the bridge lift was delayed and I couldn’t stick around. Later I found out that it did not take place after all because of the CPS (Chicago Public School) Teacher’s Strike. The strike lasted 11 days. Seems so long ago, back in normal (?) times.
Another resource is Patrick McBriarty a local bridge historian. My CTPA (Chicago Tour Guides Association) newsletter taught me about him. A self-proclaimed bridge enthusiast, McBriarty is also a writer, author, and podcaster as well. He co-hosts an informative & entertaining podcast called Windy City Historians.
His documentary Chicago Drawbridges tells the story of the city and its bridges. McBriarty narrates this 56-minute documentary and conveys the story of Chicago’s development through the lens of its bridges and how Chicago became the Drawbridge Capital of the World! It is the companion to the three-time award-winning book Chicago River Bridges. The documentary is currently being offered to view for free during the pandemic, and you can share this with friends, family & colleagues. They only ask that you please join their mailing list before enjoying free online access.
Another great resource about the early history of the Chicago River is the Chicago Maritime Museum (currently closed), located in the Bridgeport Art Center. A small museum brimming with interesting information & cool artifacts. And it just so happens to butt up against the ‘bubbly creek’ portion of the river.
While you are there, you should explore the art galleries in the building, specifically Project Onward, an amazing gallery space that houses the artists & displays their art. What’s special about this place is the artists have developmental disabilities. They used to be located in the Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue, across from Millennium Park. I miss bringing my tours through there. Another post for another day.
When you leave the museum/riverwalk, make sure you head up the stairs to view the sculpture on the DuSable (Michigan Ave) bridgehouse. It depicts a scene from the Fort Dearborn Massacre of 1812. The fort stood right here at the intersection of Michigan Avenue & Wacker Drive. Look for the markers on the sidewalk.
While you are here, I suggest you stroll along the 1.25-mile Riverwalk. From the museum, you can follow it west to Lake Street (towards Wolf Point) or head east all the way to Lake Michigan. As part of the Wacker Drive Reconstruction project, the Riverwalk was the last phase of the project. The entire project cost $600 million and finished in 2016.
Along the way, you’ll see it’s made up of 6 different sections with different functions. The Marina (State to Dearborn) has public seating, vendor space, and recreational boat docking. The Cove (Dearborn to Clark) is lower to the water for easy kayak access. Plantings in this block can tolerate being submerged by river water during rain events. The River Theater (Clark to LaSalle) includes a sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker, and the Riverwalk offers pedestrian connectivity to the water’s edge and seating, while trees provide greenery and shade. The Water Plaza (LaSalle to Wells) features a fountain offering an opportunity for children and families to engage with water at the river’s edge. The Jetty (Wells to Franklin) showcases a series of piers and floating wetland gardens as an interactive learning environment about the ecology of the river, including opportunities for fishing and identifying native plants. And finally, The Confluence (Franklin to Lake) is an accessible walkway, and a new marine edge creates continuous access to Lake Street, and a great lawn provides a space for the public to sit and watch the river flow by.
The Riverwalk has opened back up, but of course, with safety rules put in place. Click here for more details.
Art on theMART is the world’s largest permanent digital art projection, projecting contemporary artwork across the 2.5 acre river-façade of theMART. Projections are visible to the public from Wacker Dr. and along the Chicago Riverwalk for two hours beginning approximately 30 minutes after sundown, five nights a week (Wednesday–Sunday), for ten months of the year (March–December).
I talk about the history of the Chicago River & Riverwalk on my North Michigan Ave, Gold Coast & Old Town neighborhood route. Go to toursbycitygirl.com to book a private walking tour with me today.
I remain hopeful as things open up that, we will be able to visit the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum again soon. I will definitely be going back to see the bridge lift in action!
Until the next adventure, my friends. Be well & stay safe.