Recent Articles and Videos by Patrick McBriarty on Chicago bridges:

Contributions to the Chicago Architecture Blog:
Is Chicago About to Lose Its Title of The Drawbridge Capital of the World?  - May 19, 2014
Discusses decline in the number of drawbridges on Chicago focusing on the North Branch replacement of moveable bridges to fixed spans highlighting the Division Street Bridges expected removal and preservation ideas for their replacement. 

For Bridge Lovers, Chicago is the Greatest Show on Earth
  - March 31, 2014
Details the more than a dozen different moveable bridge designs in Chicago from swing to bascule invented by Page, Strauss, Scherzer, Waddell-Harrington, and others embodying unique innovations that still exist along Chicago's waterways.

A Chicago Favorite Remains Open For All To See
  - February 4, 2014
Details of the how and why the railroad bridge next to Kinzie Street still stands open near Wolf Point, its origins and purpose of this 1908 heel trunnion bascule bridge invented by a Chicago resident who later became the Chief Engineer for the construction of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

How the Michigan Avenue Bridge Made Chicago What it is Today  - January 15, 2014
Details the impact of this iconic Chicago bridge connecting the north and south sides of the city.  Chicago's most famous and landmarked bridge at Michigan Avenue spurred significant development for city, region, and nation while also opening more than 2,000 time a year for the ship traffic when it was first completed in 1920. 

Contributions to Forgotten
The 12th Street Bridge That Never Was - February 5, 2014
Uncovers a never used patented design by a Chicago engineer that the City of Chicago approved, put out to bid and almost constructed near the turn of the last century at Roosevelt Road.  The article includes rarely see renderings of the proposed bridge from the CDOT Archives.

Railroads and Chicago Swing Bridges - September 3, 2013
This article explores a succession of Chicago railroad depots and the bridges that served them, and provides an inventory of the last remaining swing bridges in Chicago built by or for various railroads operating in and out of the Windy City.

Videos on YouTube:
Chicago Drawbridge soon to be demolished at East Division Street (length 4:17) - May 24, 2014  Captures this second ever built Chicago-type bascule bridge less than a month before it was dismantled and sold for scrap.  This 111 year-old bridge was in sore need of attention and its narrow two lane roadway no longer met the traffic demands of the area.

West Division Street Bridge in Chicago
(length 4:28) - May 11, 2014
A look at the last remaining Division Street bascule bridge that connects Goose Island to the west side of the city over the North Branch of the Chicago River.  This bridge was the fourth Chicago-type bascule ever built and is expected to be removed in the next year or so and replaced by a new bridge.

Chicago's Rall Bascule Bridge (length 3:23) - March 30, 2014
The only of Chicagoan Theodor Rall's bridges ever to be built in Chicago, this little known bridge over 100-year old bridge still stands hidden amongst the industrial and commercial area on the south side just off the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

For more information also check out McBriarty's author website --

There are a lot of good websites about bridges in and around Chicago and beyond that are worth checking out.  Below are just a few.  Enjoy.
The Man Living in Lake Shore Drive Bridge
Many people love to hear about the story of the man living in the Lake Shore Drive Bridge.  I tell this story in my book Chicago River Bridges and there is also a great interview by Ira Glass at the beginning of a This American Life segment called The Bridge from May 7, 2010.  The link to listen is below:
Below are a few links to artist who we have come in contact with that are also fascinated by bridges and created artworks that feature bridges.
Excerpts from Chicago River Bridges by Patrick McBriarty
published by the University of Illinois Press in October 2013.

In less than 200 years Chicago rose from a swampy French and Indian trading post into a world class city.  Chicago is here because of the river and it is because of the Chicago River trisecting the city that there are so many bridges.  Chicago experienced the most rapid growth of the any city during the Nineteenth Century which made it a center for bridges and in particular drawbridges.

The development of Chicago's bridges parallels the development of the city itself.  By the 1880s Chicago featured the greatest concentration of drawbridges of any city in the world.  At that time almost all city bridges were swing bridges, which rotated on a center pier at the middle of the river channel.  Chicago's appetite for newer and better bridges attracted may bridge builders, engineers, designers, and inventors who made their mark on the evolving urban landscape.  Many drawbridge designs were either first invented, tried, and/or built in Chicago before anywhere else on earth.  Chicagoans contributed more than 100 of the approximate 350 U.S. patents on drawbridges.  Within those, Chicagoans generated over 60% of the estimated 120 bascule-bridge patents, by far the highest percentage of any city in the world. 

Chicago is the drawbridge capital of the world.  Although Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, and Venice have more bridges, no other city spawned as many different moveable designs, innovations, and significant contributions to drawbridge innovation as Chicago.
Chicago's First Drawbridge

Dearborn Street Drawbridge built in 1834 (looking East).

The first Dearborn Street Bridge was the town’s third bridge and first drawbridge over the Chicago River.  Completed in August 1834, this bridge was 300 feet long and 16 feet wide with a 60-foot draw. It was built by shipwright Nelson R. Norton from lumber cut from a stand of trees near Michigan Avenue.

Local residents often remarked on the bridge’s sinister cast, particularly when approaching its gallows frames at dusk.  It regularly required repairs from use and so became expensive and troublesome to operate.  After years of trouble, debate, and political wrangling, the Common Council finally approved the bridge’s removal on July 8, 1839.  This was part of a larger political battle pitting North Siders against South Siders, who wanted to eliminate the bridge to prevent the growing wagon trade from reaching North Side merchants.  In an effort to keep the trade for themselves citizens gathered before dawn, the following day, and tore the Dearborn Street Bridge.

Pontoon Swing Bridges

The Randolph Street Bridge based on specifications submitted to the Common Council on January 20, 1839 as drawn by Patrick McBriarty.
Abandoning the gallows frame drawbridge the next moveable bridge design used in Chicago was the pontoon swing bridge first built at Clark Street in 1840.  By 1849 all of Chicago’s bridges at Randolph, Madison, Clark, Wells, and Kinzie streets were pontoon swing bridges.  The first pontoons were wooden boxes with caulked and pitched seams that created an internal air chamber for buoyancy. Most bridges soon had the added sophistication of incorporating pumps to counter the seepage of water.  If not regularly tended, the wooden pontoons eventually became waterlogged, and occasionally the weight of a heavy wagon team would push the bridge underwater.  In one attempt to solve this problem, a pontoon made of iron boilerplate was introduced at Wells and Madison streets in 1847.  Future designs would soon avoid this problem, but on March 12, 1849, many docks, most ships, and all of the city’s bridges in the Chicago River were destroyed by an early thaw and spring flood.

Based on specifications by John Van Osdel submitted to the Common Council on January 1, 1839.  Drawing by Patrick McBriarty.

In 1839 John Van Osdel, Chicago's first architect, proposed building a pontoon turntable bridge at Wells Street that adopted a railroad-type turntable; it seems, though, that such a bridge was not built there or at any other crossing prior to the flood.

Ten years later, all of the bridges built immediately after the flood of 1849 incorporated a railroad turntable to open and close the floating pier (or draw). The significant mechanical advantage of this relatively new technology allowed the construction of much heavier and stronger pontoon swing bridges. Supported by a circular pier, these float bridges were sufficient to withstand a spring flood in 1857 similar to the one in 1849. These wooden bridges typically lasted eight to ten years and were replaced by a more sophisticated design during the next decade. Turntable pontoon swing bridge designs did not entirely disappear, though, and were often used as temporary bridges to maintain traffic during bridge construction in Chicago up into the mid-1940s.

Pivot Bridges

Chicago's second pivot bridge, the third Clark Street Bridge built in 1854.
The pivot bridge design soon replaced the pontoon swing bridges.  They rested on a center pin and surrounding friction rollers within the bridge turntable.  These bridges rotated horizontally in a circle aided by gearing in the turntable and were supported by a center pier of pilings in the middle of the river channel.  The first of these bridges in Chicago was built at Lake Street in 1852 by street superintendent Durastus Harper.  He would build two more such bridges for the City of Chicago, including the Clark Street Bridge in the drawing from 1857 above.  These bridges were a big improvement over the pontoon swing bridges, raising the bridge up out of the river, and allowing the passage of small boats underneath.
Swing Bridges

Rush Street swing bridge in 1860 (looking Southeast).

The introduction of rim-bearing turntables provided increased stability for pivot bridges. With this change, the weight of the bridge was carried by the ring of cast-iron rollers instead of being concentrated at the center pivot.  Thereafter, both center- and rim-bearing bridges were simply referred to as swing bridges.  This design improvement allowed for larger, wider, and more robust swing bridges. 

The first Rush Street Bridge, shown above, is an excellent example of an early swing bridge.  Built in 1856, it replaced a ferry service that was started in 1847.  This Pratt truss swing bridge was the first all-iron bridge in the West.  The superstructure's three trusses supported a two-lane roadway and sidewalks to each side.  A bridge tender with an assistant operated it by turning the T-bars on the top deck.  Connected to long vertical shafts running through the bridge the T-bars turned two pinion gears which meshed with the large circumference gear of the turntable to rotate the bridge.  This important river crossing at Rush Street was destroyed on election day in 1863, plunging at least twelve people and about 60 head of cattle into the water.

Folding-Lift Bridges

First ever Harman Folding-Lift Bridge at Weed Street built in 1891.

The City of Chicago attempted three different experimental designs toward finding the ideal bridge design to replace the swing bridge between 1890 and 1900. The first experiment was the folding-lift bridge, designed and patented by Captain William Harman. This first double-leaf bridge was cheaply built at Weed Street in 1891, at a nonessential crossing.  Each leaf was double hinged and folded up and back on itself like a jackknife, giving the bridge its nickname.  The City, dissatisfied with this first bridge, but without any real alternatives, built a second bridge at Canal Street in 1893 amid assurances that the next one would be greatly improved.  Ultimately, the design had too many moving parts and was deemed too complicated. The bridge was removed ten years later and replaced by yet another design.

Vertical-Lift Bridges

Plans for the vertical-lift bridge at South Halsted Street in 1894.

The City’s next experiment was with a vertical-lift design, patented by J. A. L. Waddell and built at South Halsted Street in 1894.  Massive towers on each riverbank connected the roadway, the entirety of which raised and lowered like an elevator.  When opened, the bridge provided a 155-foot clearance for ships to pass beneath.  It was a significant milestone in engineering and steel construction.  Though more reliable than Harman’s folding-lift bridge, it was deemed unsightly and was soon considered too expensive to build, maintain, and operate.

It would be another decade before partnering with a talented engineering named John Harrington who with Waddell would develop additional patents on this design.  Soon thereafter the bridge became a favorite of the railroads as can by seen by the many vertical lift bridges on the Calumet River today.

Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridges

The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Train Bridge in 1907 (looking northeast).

The third and most promising private design was the Scherzer rolling-lift bridge.  The City built the first of these in 1895 at Van Buren Street over the South Branch.  The West Metropolitan Elevated Train Company contributed $45,000 toward the bridge in a deal with the City to build a similar Scherzer four-track elevated train bridge a half-block north of Van Buren Street.  Chicago engineer William Scherzer drew plans for both bridges before his death.

The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Train Bridge shown here was built in 1895 over the South Branch of the Chicago River. This and the fifth Van Buren Street Bridge were the very first Scherzer rolling-lift bridges in the world. Awarded a U.S. patent (no. 511,713) posthumously, William Scherzer's brother Albert, an attorney, founded the successful Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company.
The Chicago-Type Bascule Bridge

The Tower Bridge in London over the Thames in 1921.

The first Chicago-type bascule bridge at Courtland Street in 1902.

By 1898 City Engineer John Ericson, dissatisfied with private-sector bridging solutions, and decided the City needed to develop its own design.  With little or no budget City engineers initiated a literature review seeking a more robust moveable bridge design to replace the center-pier swing bridges and early experimental bascule designs. 

The Tower Bridge in London, England, constructed between 1884 and 1894, over the River Thames and still the most famous bascule bridge in the world.  Well suited to the requirements of the Chicago River, it provided the basis for the Chicago-type bascule developed by John Ericson and the City of Chicago bridge engineers.  This design would go through significant development, innovation, and refinement over the next one-hundred years as its use expanded along the Chicago and Calumet rivers. 

Initially purely functional in design and the first generation Chicago-type bascules did not receive the attention to architecture or aesthetics of subsequent bridges.  The first of these was completed in 1902 at Clybourn Place (later renamed Courtland Street).  These paradoxical structures of permanence and movement that have carried the hustle and bustle of the city across the river for more than a century are an especially fascinating element of Chicago.  Developing into the iconic structures crossing the Chicago River today, the genesis of these precious structures evolved from Chicago, a city that is constantly remaking itself.

The drawbridges are true gems on a string of city waterways.  The dual pressures of land travel and navigational right-of-way forged the city’s bridges, as bridge builders and engineers attempted to meet the changing demands of both.

Chicago first built float and swing and then bascule bridges, each type cleverly designed to be all the rage. In time, each archetype became passé and was replaced by the next design.  As Chicago matured, the bridges became more refined, more costly, and more valuable.  Bridge materials and know-how progressed, and, as a center for drawbridge technology, Chicago attracted builders, engineers, and architects, the jewelers of drawbridge design.  Only Amsterdam has more moveable bridges than Chicago, ironically known as the Second City, but no other city on earth developed as rapidly, developed as many, built such a variety, or used drawbridges as intensively as Chicago to make it the Drawbridge Capital of the World.