Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
City of Bridges

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Basic Bridge Types

Bridges were vital to Chicago’s growth. The city could not develop without ways to cross the Chicago River (and other waterways), but open navigation was also essential to the region’s growth. At first ferries and pontoon bridges moved people, vehicles, and goods between divisions. A drawbridge was built in 1834 across the Chicago River at Dearborn Street. It stood only six feet above the water, so had to be opened for almost every boat. Swing bridges became a standard from the 1850s to the 1890s. By the 1880s, 35 bridges crossed the Chicago River. Over time, Chicago engineers developed better movable bridges, including technically innovative vertical and rolling life bridges, as well as the trunnion bascule bridges for which Chicago has become justifiably famous.

Swing Bridge, State Street, 1889


The first swing bridge was built in Chicago in 1857, a vast improvement over earlier ferries or pontoon bridges. This swing bridge across State Street in 1889 shows the center pier on which the bridge pivoted, as well as the bridge tender’s house atop the bridge itself. People, vehicles, and animals pushed onto the two parts of the bridge, which were swung parallel to the river bank when a ship needed to pass. There were no barriers between the bridge and water, so there was a real danger that people or vehicles would tumble into the water. Policemen were stationed at either side of the bridge to prevent people from jumping on and off the bridge as it was being moved, as well as to prevent people from being pushed into the water. Long lines of vehicles and people waited impatiently at busy times for bridges to realign parallel to the street.

See also: Bridges; Chicago River

Swing Bridge, Calumet River, 1963


In 1963, this railroad swing bridge over the Calumet River east of Torrence Avenue was damaged by a boat. The damaged bridge is seen here swung open.

See also: Bridges; Calumet River

Vertical Lift Bridge, Halsted Street, 1894


The center pier in swing bridges made navigable passageways along rivers quite narrow. Engineers worked on new designs that would allow the use of the entire channel. This vertical lift bridge was constructed in 1894 over the South Branch of the Chicago River at Halsted Street (view is looking east). Cables hung from each tower lifted the bridge above passing ships.

See also: Bridges; Chicago River; Near North Side

Approach to the Vertical Lift Bridge, Halsted Street, 1915


Looking south across the Halsted Street Bridge in 1915 provides a different view of a vertical lift bridge. Vehicles and pedestrians were stopped by gates at the foot of the bridge when the center panel was raised for a passing ship. This bridge was removed in 1932, replaced by a bascule bridge.

See also: Bridges; Chicago River; Near North Side

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