An Exclusive Bridge Club: Chicago’s River Bridges Turn 100

Chicago might be known as the “city by the lake” but it owes much of its growth as a transportation and commerce hub to the rivers that run through it and the iconic bridges that run over them.  

This year, four more of Chicago’s river bridges turn 100 years old, bringing the total of centenarian bridges to 24 – a pretty exclusive bridge club.

The 2016 centenary bridges are: the Jackson Boulevard and Lake Street bridges, both Chicago-style double-leaf bascule trunnion bridges; the Webster Street bridge east of Ashland Avenue; and the nearby Chicago and North Western Railroad bridge just west of Ashland Avenue.

Bridges across Chicago’s waterways became crucial to the expansion of the young city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, connecting the city center to outer neighborhoods and the rest of the country.

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

  • (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

    (Courtesy of "Chicago River Bridges" by Patrick McBriarty)

Especially vital were the moveable bridges that allow street traffic to cross the river and boat traffic to move through the river. Chicago’s bridge engineers pioneered different styles of moveable bridges, including swing bridges that pivot on a central pier, allowing boats to pass on either side; bascule bridges that tip up the leaves of the bridge to open in the center and allow boat traffic to pass through; and vertical lift bridges that raise and lower like a platform and allow boats to pass underneath.

As a result, Chicago’s waterways comprise a living, working museum showcasing over a century of moveable bridge technology. Over the last decade, the focus has shifted to maintaining these historic bridges and keeping them operational for another century of progress.

“We have, probably the world's greatest working museum of drawbridges here in Chicago, strung across the waterways,” said Patrick McBriarty, documentarian and author of “Chicago River Bridges.” He joined “Chicago Tonight” to talk about the history – and future – of Chicago’s bridges.

Below, see a map of the city's centenarian bridges. 


Bridge enthusiasts can see the Chicago’s moveable bridges in action from now until June – the 2016 bridge lift schedule can be seen at the Chicago Department of Transportation website.

In 2015, Geoffrey Baer visited an 1899 bobtail swing bridge named Bridge Z-6 that carries railroad traffic across the North Branch of the Chicago River just south of the 1902 Cortland Bridge.

Watch the video below to take a ride on the Chicago Terminal Railroad with engineer Brian Rose and conductor Kyle Kimpel as it travels across Bridge Z-6 and through the industrial corridor along the eastern bank of the Chicago River.


Related Stories from “Chicago Tonight”

The River Bridges of Chicago

April 14, 2015: The bridges spanning the Chicago River have played an intrinsic role in Chicago’s development as an epicenter of industry and transportation. It was here that a new kind of bascule bridge, or drawbridge, was innovated and engineered to perfection. Patrick McBriarty, author of Chicago River Bridges, joins us to discuss how the bridges shaped the city.


Ask Geoffrey: 3/18

March 18, 2015: Geoffrey Baer tours a Miracle House, swings by a bobtail swing bridge and makes some noise at a silent film studio in this week's edition of Ask Geoffrey.