Monday, July 25, 2011

The Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge


The Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge on the North Branch of
the Chicago River (JWB, 2011)

Crossing the river at Kinzie Street, it’s hard to miss the railroad bridge that stands in a permanently upraised position just north of the East Bank Club.  Looking at its stark form in the gentrified neighborhood along the North Branch of the river, you would never guess that the structure was once the most audacious bridge in the city, perhaps even the nation.

The bridge stands where the first railroad bridge in Chicago crossed the river back in 1852.  The site is also where the first all-steel railroad bridge in the country was constructed in 1879.  The bridge we see today is an overhead-counterweight bascule bridge, and when it was completed in 1908 it was the longest and heaviest bascule leaf bridge in the world.

Today it’s just a curiosity, a museum piece that time has passed by.  Using the extensive history of the bridge, compiled by the Historic American Engineering Record in 2004, it is fascinating to examine the story of the now unused railroad bridge.

The bridges in this location have always had an important role in Chicago’s growth, going back to the time of William B. Ogden, a guy who became rich selling real estate in the early years, lobbied for the Illinois and Michigan canal, and oversaw the first railroad to lay tracks in the city – the Galena and Chicago Union, which was later consolidated with the Chicago and Northwestern with Ogden in charge of the new line. 

When the Union Pacific completed its western line in 1868, Chicago had a connection across Kinzie Street all the way to the west coast, the Northwestern running to Omaha where the Union Pacific carried on.

The two Kinzie Street bridges between the former Apparel
Center and the East Bank Club (JWB, 2011)
There was no bridge crossing the river when the Galena and Chicago Union began; its operations were conducted from the west bank of the river.  Four years after it began, the G&CU built a pontoon bridge, and trains began crossing the river in 1852, ending their run at a station on Wells Street.  By 1861, just 13 years after the railroad began, it had extended its tracks all the way eastward to Ogden Slip and beyond that to the pier that would nearly a half-century later become Municipal Pier, today’s Navy Pier.

The first bridge, the pontoon structure, became obsolete in a matter of years.  The next bridge, finished in 1979, was one of the first all-steel railroad bridges in the country, fabricated with Bessemer steel rather than wrought iron.  Because of the high sulfur and phosphorus in Bessemer steel (the problem wasn’t solved until the advent of the open hearth process in the late-1880’s), this bridge, too, quickly proved inadequate because of the brittleness of the steel.   A replacement was built in 1898, but it only lasted a decade.

At this point things began to happen in a hurry as the rapidly growing city was bursting at the seams, nowhere more than on the river.  It was clear by the beginning of 1901 that the Wells Street Station was much too small for the passenger traffic that it was being asked to handle.  It had an additional drawback beside its narrow lot – it was on the wrong side of the river from the central business and hotel district of the Loop.

The Chicago and Northwestern decided in 1905, therefore, to construct a new terminal on Madison Street between Canal and Clinton Streets.  Chicago architects Charles S. Frost and Alfred H. Granger designed the new station, one that could handle five times as many passengers as the old Wells Street terminal.

The immediate problem was solved.  The Wells Street station was sufficient to serve the freight needs of the city’s north side, but the Kinzie Street river crossing was another matter.  Three bridges now stood at this location – the city-owned span that carried Kinzie Street across the river, the C&NW bridge and another just to the north that belonged to the Milwaukee Road.  Ore boats by this time were over 400 feet long, and the Secretary of War used his power under the River and Harbor Act of 1899 to order the removal of the three Kinzie Street bridges.

Because the space available for any bridge at this site was so small, both the city and the C&NW chose the bascule-type bridge for replacement of the old structures.  The railroad chose the Strauss Bascule and Bridge Company to design the new Kinzie Street crossing, at first proposing two double-tracked bridges and eventually narrowing that down to one double-tracked structure that would carry only freight traffic.

The bridge took nine months to construct, six of which were spent on preparing the foundations, that operation spanning the months of December of 1907 to May of 1908.  The largest component of the structure was the eastern abutment, which carried the entire weight of the span and its counterweight.  The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company was chose to construct this section of the bridge, probably because its plant was located on Goose Island, just a half-mile up the river.

Noteworthy in the Strauss Bascule and Bridge Company’s design for the Kinzie Street bridge design is that it didn’t require a pit for the counterweight, one of the many innovations that the company’s founder, Joseph Baermann Strauss, brought to the engineering of movable structures.  Only five-feet tall, Strauss was granted over 150 patents for designs that involved movement and balance.

The Kinzie Street bridge is composed of three parts:  a fixed tower, a rotating bascule leaf, and a concrete counterweight that rotates independently of the bascule leaf.  The great advantage of this design is that the main trunion, or rotation point, is halfway up the fixed tower.  The counterweight is attached to the rear arm of the bridge so that in the closed position it rides above and behind the trunion.  As the bridge swings open, the counterweight moves down and inward without ever moving lower than the piers on which the structure sits.  Note the diagram from the Historic North American Engineering Record in order to see how the bridge functioned during its working years.

Diagram of Kinzie Street Bridge operation (HAER, 2004)
Aside from eliminating the deep pit for the counterweight in this design, Strauss’s design also carried another huge advantage – it could be erected in the upright position.  Because of this there was little interference with traffic on the river, an important consideration in light of how tight the Kinzie Street site already was.  The bascule leaf of the Kinzie Street bridge weighed about 800 tons and because the bridge was in near-perfect balance, only two 50-horsepower direct current electric motors were required to raise and lower it.  These were located in a shed at the top of the tower.

The last customer for the innovative span disappeared in 1999 when The Chicago Sun Times moved its printing plant from the site where Trump Tower currently stands to Damen and 39th Street.  Today the bridge remains in the permanently raised position, strangely out of place amidst the glassy towers that have replaced the old industrial corridor through which it ran. 

The massive ironwork of the single leaf
bascule Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge (JWB, 2011)
Absolutely innovative when it was erected, the Kinzie Street Bridge was a significant force in the growth of this great city, a city that passed it by long ago.  Stare at it long enough, though, and its power bores into your bones as you imagine the belching steam locomotives with their pounding drive wheels bringing their loads into and out of a city that grew from a small prairie hamlet into an industrial giant, making men rich beyond imagination, a city strutting and crowing proudly about the wide-eyed promise that in this place anything is possible.

The old bridge stands as mute testimony to that promise, holding it aloft for all to see.

3 comments:

Tony said...

Great to hear the history of such a great gem in Chicago... So many people fail to enjoy the little icons like this and appreciate them for what they are, a great reminder of an incredible industrial town!

Andreatte said...

Loved the pictures and the commentary. Strangely, I kept making connections to this old bridge and my teaching career. From all construction and adaptations to the feelings of being replaced and "strangely out of place", I wonder if retired teachers are doomed to be "just a curiosity, (a) museum piece(s) that time has passed by." Enjoyed reading this!

jim said...

Glad you enjoyed the blog. We're kind of lucky in Chicago. There are still a ton of these touchstones of history scattered around the area. It takes a little work to dig them up. But most of the time the effort is rewarded!