Monday, May 28, 2012

Chicago: A Look Back at May 28, 1902

Found on the pages of The Chicago Tribune on May 28 of 1902. . .

The present-day Dearborn Street Bridge, erected in 1963 (
Big trouble in River City on this date in 1902 when the City Engineer declared the Dearborn Street swing bridge across the Chicago River unsafe.  Early in the morning a steamer ran into the bridge abutment, the third boat to strike the bridge in less than a week, and a city diver reported that heavy stones fell out of the abutments beneath the surface of the water every time a team of horses passed over the span.

In and of itself this would not have been a problem.  But the other river bridges were also in trouble.  The State Street bridge was already closed, and now so was the Dearborn Street span.  This sent traffic to the overcrowded Clark Street and Rush Street bridges, with the former “weak in some respects.”

The City Engineer said that if a bulletin were issued, informing citizens about how they could get across the river, it would read:

Rush Street—Usable
State Street—Down
Dearborn Street—Closed to Teams
Clark Street—Good
Wells Street—Just Repaired
Polk Street—Damaged
Twenty-Second Street—Closed to Street Car Travel

On May 27 a steamer struck the Polk Street Bridge, ripping out 20 feet of sidewalk.  After the Wells Street bridge broke down twice in four days, the swing bridge was being operated with the “heaviest machinery ever operated on it.”

Reporting to the Drainage Board, Chicago’s Chief Engineer recommended that the very next bascule bridge erected be the Dearborn Street span.  In his opinion, “The dangerous condition of that bridge rendered it advisable to put in a new one as soon as possible.”

The 1834 Dearborn bridge (
Chicago’s very first movable bridge was constructed at Dearborn street in 1834, three years before the city was chartered.  It was a timber span that provided only a 60-foot opening for ships, a space so tight that the bridge was ordered removed in 1839. []

Records seem to indicate that a second bridge at Dearborn Street was not attempted until the late 1880’s when a deal between Mayor Carter Harrison and Charles Tyson Yerkes moved the old Wells Street bridge east to Dearborn Street when the new Wells Street bridge was constructed. 

Unfortunately, the plan left no provision for bridge approaches, and The Tribune observed in March of 1888, “As a means of crossing the river for anything but a bird or a flying-fish it would be of not nearly so much value as a life-preserver or a plank.  With a wide stretch of dirty water between its abutments and the dock line it would be perched up in the air, entirely inaccessible to even the adventurous small boy.”

1908 Dearborn Street Bridge (
Sometime in 1908 the third Dearborn Street bridge was completed, a Scherzer Rolling Left bascule design.  The Scherzer bridge combined the balanced counterweight of a conventional bascule bridge with a unique rolling lift motion that eliminates most of the friction involved in the process.  It was a huge improvement over the swing bridges that spanned the river because of its compactness and the dependability of its operation.

The existing bridge at Dearborn Street was finished in 1963 and rehabilitated in 2006.  Its main span is 235 feet (71.6 meters) and the width of its roadway is 56 feet (17.1 meters).  On an average day a little more than 15,000 vehicles cross the span. 

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