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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.