The University of Illinois Press: What is the significance of the bridges for Chicago?

Patrick: Chicago has long called itself the Drawbridge Capital of the World and has more drawbridges than any city in North America.  Chicago in classic Second City form is only second in the world to Amsterdam in the number of drawbridges, but has the greatest variety and collection of different drawbridge designs of any city on earth.  For 150 years Chicago has been the world center for moveable bridge innovation, design, and testing.  Chicagoans hold more drawbridge patents than other city, and more new drawbridge designs and innovations were first invented, built, and/or tried in Chicago than anywhere else.  Around the turn of the last century city engineers created the Chicago-type bascule bridge, which is world renowned

2015 Ferguson Prize

for Outstanding and Original Reference Work from the

Society for the History of Technology

Q & A with the Author

Patrick: Over 60 drawbridges still stand in Chicago over the waterways and 43 are still operational. These inoperable moveable bridges include many important representations of earlier drawbridge designs and most are along the North Branch of the Chicago River. These drawbridges no longer open and are being treated as fixed spans.  Since 1961 new fixed bridges have replaced seven old drawbridges along the North Branch.  Most of these new fixed bridges are basic steel and concrete spans and not of particularly strong interest.  However the more recent replacements by the City of Chicago have installed architecturally significant fixed bridges in the stead of old moveable bridges.  These new fixed bridges improve traffic flow offering four-lanes versus the old two-lane drawbridges and better serve the area.  Traditionally in the United States brand new structures are preferred replacing the old, rather than refurbishing or repurposing existing structures.  And in this case with many of Chicago’s older drawbridges it feels like substituting costume jewelry for true gems.  The magic and nostalgia of the old drawbridges and tension of permanence and movement is lost along with the child-like thrill of imagining the bridge opening.

As an example in 2006 a first-generation Chicago-type bascule bridge (built in 1907) at North Avenue was replaced by a new fixed bridge, the city’s first ever cable-stay suspension bridge. Though beautiful and the only one of its kind in Chicago this fixed bridge lacks the same magic.  Yet it is hard to argue when driving in traffic its four-lanes conveys the congestion of the area much better than the old one.  The new North Avenue Bridge cost $21.4 million, while a comparable four-lane drawbridge would cost more than twice that amount.  Such extravagance would be a tough sell for taxpayers, myself included.

Nonetheless I still hope that two almost 100 year-old Chicago-type Division Street Bridges connecting the east and west side of Goose Island may somehow be preserved.  They are two of the last four of ten first-generation Chicago-type bridges built between 1902 and 1911.  The other two are also on the North Branch at Kinzie and Courtland Street and each is rather unique as early examples of the Chicago-type bascule bridge.

The Press:  How does the history of Chicago's bridges mirror the growth and development of the city as a whole?

Patrick: It is difficult to separate the two, as one would not have developed as it did without the other. Both the city and the bridges grew in population, scope, complexity, and sophistication over time leading to new and major advancements from generation to generation.  Innovation and development of the two were prompted by major events and disasters.  The advent of new materials such as commercially grade iron and then steel or the Great Fire of 1871 pushed innovation, advancement, and development of the city to create more diverse and advanced architecture, industry, and businesses.  Likewise these events encouraged innovations in bridge construction and design, which was often first created and/or tested in Chicago before anywhere else on earth.  In turn the interplay between the two meant the bridges enhanced the city and the city enhanced the bridges spiraling forward into bigger and better things.

Truly it is impossible to look at the bridges in a vacuum without the wider context of Chicago, as it is difficult to discuss the development of the city and its infrastructure without at least mentioning the bridges.  Chicago’s most famous bridge at Michigan Avenue is a good example of this interplay.  It was a key link in the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which laid out a broad civic blueprint to integrate streets and boulevards, harbor, railroad, and park facilities into a comprehensive city system.  The broad boulevard of Michigan Avenue with its bridge connecting the North and South sides, which was completed in 1920, transformed Chicago and most notably created the Magnificent Mile north of the river.  This bridge led to the transformation of a quiet residential street formerly know as Pine Street into the city’s main shopping district.  Formerly State Street was Chicago's commercial center but three to four decades after this bridge it had shifted to North Michigan Avenue.  The Michigan Avenue Bridge ushered in tremendous real estate and commercial development along this Chicago boulevard, yet one more reason why it received Chicago’s most famous and most decorated bridge.

in design and engineering circles and been used nationally and internationally.  In parallel, it is not surprising great bridge designers and builders like Strauss, Modjeski, Scherzer, Ericson, Rall, Page, Philfeldt, von Babo, Young, and Becker all were drawn to Chicago and created many of the bridges still in use today.

The Press: What sparked your personal interest in researching Chicago's river bridges?

Patrick:  There are about a dozen factors and life experiences that summoned me into Chicago’s bridge history, yet the idea was sparked on a blustery Sunday in late 1999.  My intention was to start a new hobby in photography and take some pictures beginning with the bridges at Kinzie Street. There along the North Branch of the Chicago River shooting the Kinzie Street Bridge and railroad bridge a half block south I finally really “saw” the bridges for the first time.  The idea occurred to me, that these underappreciated bridges were hugely interesting, fascinating, and posed a series of questions and quite possibly there was a book in it.

At first glance Chicago’s bridges all seem similar and yet upon closer inspection each is quite unique.  Photographing the bridges left me with many nagging and unanswered questions like: Where did these bridges come from?  Why were they here in Chicago of all places?  How do they work? …and so on.  Life quickly interceded but fortunately five to six years later I was able to take a year off work and confronted twelve-months off and what to do with myself the bridge book idea returned.  Naively I figured I could complete this book in about a year, and began researching the bridges to discover there was no complete book on the bridges.  That was eight years ago and in the process discovered the very spot I was inspired to do this project -- is where 170 or so years earlier the very first bridge was built in Chicago.  This interesting coincidence seemed to hold a good bit of destiny with it.

The Press:  You focus on drawbridges in particular as key to the infrastructure of Chicago. What made these moveable bridges such a significant part of the city's history?

Patrick: The bridges are both a key to the city and a result of its growth and development.  Chicago experienced the most rapid growth in population during the 19th Century of any city in history up until that time.  This occurred during a period when the pre-eminent means of transportation was by ship.  Chicago grew-up around this small, narrow, Y-shaped river that was a critical link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.  Ultimately Chicago and its River connected the eastern seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico and points between.  Given that watercraft traditionally had the right of way, the bridges had to accommodate the busy ship traffic coming in and out of the Chicago, and later, the Calumet Rivers.  With the flat landscape and high value of land, moveable bridges became the links connecting Chicago’s North, South, and West sides.  As the city grew and changed so to would the bridges, which as much helped to create Chicago as make it a center for drawbridge innovation, technology, and design. Chicago's demand for bridges needed to cross city waterways came to have national importance, which lead to federal oversight of navigable waterways.

The Press:  Why did you choose to focus only on certain portions of the Chicago River rather than on all the significant waterways of the city?

Patrick:  Originally I had wanted to create a complete Chicago bridge bible covering all bridges -- past and present crossing Chicago’s waterways.  This would have included the Chicago River, Calumet River, and the Canals—the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the North Shore Canal, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal.  However it soon became clear this goal would had to be broken up into two or three books.  Focusing on the on the navigable portion of the Chicago River allowed me to get my arms around a manageable chunk of Chicago bridge history.  Without that constraint I might still be researching and writing the larger objective with little to show for it.  The Preface of the book gives more detail on this decision, so suffice it to say this focus allowed me to develop the underlying drawbridge theme highlighting Chicago’s importance to the world of moveable bridge development and innovation.  I hope some day to return to the bridge bible goal and complete a second volume on the railroad bridges, Calumet River bridges, and canal bridges past and present of Chicago.

The Press:  Today, many of Chicago's drawbridges remain intact but are used primarily as fixed bridges. Why do you believe these structures remain important despite their diminished use and value?

Winner of three book awards, Chicago River Bridges presents the untold history and development of Chicago’s iconic bridges from the first wood footbridge, built by a tavern owner in 1832, to the fantastic engineering and architectural marvels spanning the Chicago River today.  It is the story of Chicago as seen through its bridges.  Bridges, both past and present, have proved critical in connecting and reconnecting the people, industry, and neighborhoods of a city constantly on the make.  In this book, author Patrick T. McBriarty shows how generations of Chicagoans built (and rebuilt) the thriving city trisected by the Chicago River and linked by its many crossings.

This first comprehensive guidebook on Chicago’s bridges offers a broad contextual look at these key links of the city's urban landscape and fantastic detail and received the 2015 Ferguson Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for original research by the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, and an Honorable Mention in the Chicago Writer's Association's 2014 Book Awards for traditional non-fiction.  

Chicago River Bridges chronicles more than 170 bridges over time spanning 55 locations along the Main Channel, South Branch, and North Branch of the Chicago River.  With new full-color photography of existing bridges by Kevin Keeley and Laura Banick, cover image by David Solzman Ph.D., and additional historic maps, diagrams, and photographs to deliver approximately 200 images to reveal the rich history of ​Chicago’s bridges.  From the iconic Michigan Avenue Bridge to the often forgotten Rush, Erie, Taylor, and Polk Streets bridges this book is chock full of fascinating stories and remarkable detail.

Throughout, Patrick delivers new research into the bridges’ architectural designs, engineering innovations, and their impact on Chicagoans’ daily lives.  Describing the structure and mechanics of various kinds of moveable bridge designs (including vertical-lift, Scherzer rolling lift, and Strauss heel trunnion mechanisms) in a manner that is accessible and still satisfying to the bridge aficionado, he explains how the dominance of the “Chicago-style” bascule drawbridge influenced the style and mechanics of bridges worldwide.  Interspersed throughout are the human dramas that played out on and around the bridges, like the floods of 1849 and 1992, the cattle crossing collapse of the Rush Street Bridge in 1863, or Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci’s Michigan Avenue Bridge jump in 1922.

A confluence of Chicago history, engineering lore, and urban design, Chicago River Bridges illustrates Chicago’s significant contribution to drawbridge innovation and emergence as The Drawbridge Capital of the World.   It is perfect for any reader interested in learning more about Chicago history through the grace and gritty ascetic of Chicago’s many and varied bridges.

Reviews of

Chicago River Bridges

"Chicago River Bridges the definitive, the definitive book about the bridges that crossed this fascinating river. ...this is a cherished book in my collection. It should be on the shelves of anybody who cares anything about Chicago and its history."

-- Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune Columnist, author, and host of After Hours with Rick Kogan on WGN 720 Radio

"McBriarty’s enthusiasm for Chicago and its bridges shines through on each and every page of Chicago River Bridges... there’s certainly something for just about anyone in these pages."

-- Kelli Christiansen, Chicago Book Review

"After reading Patrick McBriarty's impressive and thoroughly researched Chicago River Bridges, no one could ever again overlook or take for granted Chicago's bridges."
-- Greg Borzo, author of The Chicago "L" and Chicago Cable Cars

"I had the opportunity to start reading your book, and I would like to congratulate you for the great work.  I admire your dedication and passion for putting together a great book."
-- Marco Loureiro, P.E. HNTB Corporation

"After no more than a cursory examination, we were struck by the beauty of your book as well as the research behind it."

-- Charles Frey, Special Collections Librarian, Bradley University.

Henry N. Barkhausen Award

in 2013 for original research

from the

Association for Great Lakes

Maritime History.

Honorable Mention  
in the 2014 Book Awards

in the Traditional Non-Fiction Category

Awards for

Chicago River Bridges