Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Span that Started It All

Took the car in for an oil change over on Clybourn this afternoon . . . great service, in and out in less than ten minutes. With time on my hands I drove south about a half-mile, parked by the Treasure Island and walked down to Courtland to visit a relic.

Crossing the Chicago River on Courtland Street is the oldest trunnion-bascule bridge in the country. Most of the bridges that cross the river in Chicago fall into this category, a type of bridge in which counterweights below the deck of the bridge lift the structure as it rotates around a large axle called a trunnion to raise.

Chicago is packed with them, and their strength and grace complement the strength and grace of the city’s architecture. Just imagine Chicago’s river being crossed countless times by monstrous, black and graceless bridges, and you will get an idea of how much the city owes the designers of the Courtland Street bridge.

The bridge, completed between 1901 and 1902, is 216.5 feet long and 36.1 feet wide with a vertical clearance of 15. 74 feet. Although it still retains its original mechanism, including the wooden bridge tender’s shanty on the east side, it no longer is raised or lowered.

The plaques on the bridge are not the simple square bronze plaques seen on other bridges in town with inscriptions that can only be read by passersby. These are nicely wrought decorative plaques that motorists can see as they enter the bridge. The ornate finials placed at the middle of the span also show the additional attention given to the aesthetic design of the bridge. []

This bridge's truss superstructure was built by the American Bridge Company, Lassig Plant. The steel didn’t have to travel far . . . the Lassig yard was just up Clybourn where Wrightwood meets the river.

The trusses probably cost a lot more than they would have, had the bridge been finished five years earlier. I ran across an article from the Aurora Daily Express of February 23, 1899 which announced the merger, on the previous day, of 11 separate bridge building companies with Andrew Carnegie’s operations, a combine which would control 90 per cent of the iron and steel used for bridges in the United States.

Things like that happened back in the day . . . before folks started to get fussy about an overbearing government trying to bust up loyal American business interests.

The construction of the bridge, originally called the West Clybourn Place bridge, was carried out under the supervision of Chief City Engineer John Ernst Ericson. He was one of those “can do” Chicagoans who made Chicago at the end of the 19th century into the engineering marvel of the world.

Ericson was born in Sweden in 1858 and came to the United States in 1881 after attending the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Stockholm and designing bridges in the Stockholm area. According to the 1908 History of the Swedes in Illinois, Part II “During his service as assistant city engineer Mr. Ericson was in charge of all tunnel and crib construction and made the plans and specifications for twelve miles of new tunnels, together with two new pumping stations . . . About 70 per cent of the Chicago water works system has been designed and constructed under Mr. Ericson’s supervision.”

Mayor Daley’s name is also up there among the trusses as the bridge was renovated in 1997. Located among brawny steel fabricating concerns, the Courtland Street bridge is a sleepy span that doesn’t see a lot of action these days.

If you're in the area, it’s worth a trip across the North Branch to say hello to this old timer.

1 comment:

Jill said...

and so Carnagie show up in Chicago! Bridges are very interesting!