Monday, September 17, 2012

Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge . . . Happy Birthday!

Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge (Google Image)
Opened on September 17, 1922

Happy birthday, today, September 17, to the Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge, opened on this day in 1922.

You know, it isn’t easy keeping the people of a big city happy . . . we’ve learned that once again in the past week.  Over a century ago, though, there were so many more ways that a person’s patience could be tried.  Combine smoke, horse manure, cobblestone streets, and a metropolis bound in by a lake on the east and split in two by a river flowing on the north and south . . . you would have had some pretty good reasons to feel a little moody once in awhile.

Back in the old days, one group of city employees who took more abuse than almost any other was the bridge tenders.  In September of 1872 The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial that began, “One would suppose that bridge-tenders were furnished the city on contract, so inferior in quality are they.  They are despotic, and exercise a tyranny over the travelling public in this city, but the people have risen against despotism and won’t have it displayed by bridge-tenders.”

With crowds like this, when the bridge was tied up, things could back up in a hurry (Google Image)
The condemnation came after an incident at the Madison Street Bridge, where on the previous night the bridge-tender had raised the bridge and kept it open for 22 minutes, causing traffic to back up all the way to Jefferson Street to the west along with “three blocks of profane language.”  Such an occurrence was commonplace in a city where the river made Chicago the busiest port in the United States.

One of the problems in the old days was the type of bridge that crossed the Chicago River.  Nearly all of these early bridges were swing bridges that had a locating pin and supporting ring around which the bridge rotated at its center of gravity, a location almost exactly in the middle of the channel.  In a modest river like the Chicago River, putting the mechanism for the movement of the bridge as well as the open bridge, itself, directly in the middle of the channel made for some interesting times. 

The Madison Street swing bridge of 1891 -- note the width of the river on each side (Google image)
In 1879 Mayor Carter Harrison, himself, intervened directly at the Madison Street Bridge.    On the evening of September 17 as folks were streaming across the river on their way to the theaters on the east side, the bridge was raised to allow the propeller ship Chicago to pass.  It was 45 minutes before the ship worked her way through and at some point during that time Mayor Harrison “bore down on the craft from the West Side approach, and stepped down the abutment and jumped aboard the propeller and went in search of the Captain . . .”  [Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1879]

By the time the Mayor and the Captain squeezed the boat through the draw, streetcars were lined up “from the river to Halsted Street.”

Things got pretty crowded back in the early 1900's -- the river at Rush Street (Google Image)
There were incidents more serious than just the delay of theatergoers.  On  May 9, 1890 the Coral, in tow of the D. S. Babcock, was demasted when the bridge lock would not work.  Anticipating an open bridge since the bridge bell had rung and the bridge had been cleared of horses and wagons, the Coral was unable to halt its progress and lost its foremast and superstructure.

By the early 1890’s the bridge at Madison Street was in desperate need of repair with the western approach shifting toward the river to such an extent that the city engineer thought that a heavy load would bring it down.

So in a practical move, literally, on March 12, 1891 the city loaded the old Madison Street Bridge, which had stood since 1876, onto two barges and moved it north a block to Washington Street.   There the 180-ton bridge was settled on new piers that had been completed a year earlier.

The Tribune wrote of the event, “Since 1876 the Madison street structure has stood in sunshine and storm, uncaring of conditions and ever the faithful servitor of a careless public.  It will be remembered as one public servant within the corporate limits of Chicago which executed its public office as a public trust.”

The new bridge at Madison Street was supposed to be completed within three months, which today looks like a colossal piece of optimism.  On September 13, 1891 The Tribune wrote, “Madison street for the distance of a block or more on each side of the river resembles the deserted main street of a Southern village during camp meeting time, so far as traffic or trade is concerned.  The stores are barren of customers and the few clerks who have been retained occupy themselves during the day in keeping up the circulation of their blood.”

Finally, by the middle of October of 1891 the new bridge was completed.

Chicago RIver at Madison Street, somewhere between 1910 and 1920 (Chicago Daily News Archive)
The new Madison Street bridge, bigger than the previous one, 197 feet long and able to accommodate four horse teams abreast, was finished later that year, but because it still held to the traditional swing bridge system of engineering, trouble was bound to continue.

On November 25, 1909 The Tribune reported, “Madison street bridge was wrecked yesterday by the bow of the iron freighter Bethlehem of the Lehigh Valley line.  The bridge was thrown off its axis, many of the rollers on which it rides were broken from their journals and the iron supports of the mechanism were broken and twisted.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

The vessel’s master, Captain W. J. Flanders saw as he approached the bridge that things were going to be close, and he called for a tug to assist.  Before the tug could get a line aboard the freighter, it crashed into the bridge.  One woman and 20 men were marooned on the bridge itself, and they were taken aboard the towboat Protection by means of a ladder and ferried to the west side of the river.

It was clear that a new bridge design was needed, a new system of engineering that would accommodate a huge amount of pedestrian and freight traffic, along with the city’s surface lines while, at the same time, allowing more room in the channel for the tremendous river traffic serving the city’s grain elevators, lumber yards, and warehouses.

The Cortland Street bridge, the first trunnion bascule bridge in the country (JWB, 2010)
By 1902 the answer to the problem was worked out and the first trunnion bascule bridge was built across the river at Cortland Street.  (For information on this bridge check out this blog.)  In this type of bridge a complex interworking of gears, counterweights, and motors lift the cantilevered roadway above and away from the channel.

Model of the new bridge, displayed in 1906 (Chicago Tribune)
By 1906 a large plaster model of the proposed Madison Street Bridge was placed on exhibit at the annual architectural exhibit of the Art Institute.  It was a sleek design, gussied up with some artistic flourishes, specifically proposed groups of statuary at the ends of the span to be executed by Chicago sculptors funded through the Ferguson fund.

Thirteen years later work on the substructure of the new bridge began on December 1, 1919 as, to the south, the new Roosevelt Road bridge was also being erected.  Things sailed along for a while with the Madison Street bridge’s superstructure completed by November of 1920 . . . and then the money dried up and construction ground to a halt.  With Madison Street and Roosevelt Road severely compromised at the river, voters had to decide in June whether or not to approve a $3,400,000 bond issue to finish the two projects.  Arguments were heated as both sides of the issue passionately argued their case.

In a June 4, 1922 editorial The Tribune proclaimed, “The Madison street bridge continues as a heroic monument of the agony of incompetence, the triumph of demos, shapeless, useless, and reaching steel arms into the heavens as if it were going down a third time and forever in the current of the river.  It is a mass of twisted, distorted, and convulsed, inchoate, but with a glimpse of some design thwarted before it could take form.”

Despite the language, the paper still urged the populace to approve the bonds.  “Great as the waste of money is, it is not so great a waste as that of these disordered thoroughfares.  The citizen may be as mad as he cares to be, but he needs the bridges and if he has to pay twice for them let him know in such fashion his affairs are run.”

Finally, on September 17, 1922 the bridge was ready for the public.  Its debut left only one swing bridge left in the loop district at Clark Street.  The new bridge’s sidewalks were spacious by contemporary standards – 13 feet, 6 inches wide (the old bridge had sidewalks measuring 5 feet, 6 inches).   According to the City Engineer Thomas Pihlfeldt, the new bridge contained 1,800 tons of steel and the machinery to move it weighed 250 tons.  There were 4,000 yards of concrete in its substructure.

Note the sidewalks on the old swing bridge (Chicago Daily News archive)
It was quite a difference from the first bridge crossing the river at Madison Street back in 1849, made of floating logs, and costing $1,000, which was paid by subscription from adjacent property owners.

A great description of the bridge can be found on the outstanding website  The writers point out that this was the first bascule bridge in the city where the trusses were arranged so that part of the truss was above the deck, creating a buffer between vehicular and pedestrian traffic while increasing clearance under the bridge since the trusses, which were raised to waist height above the deck, allowed more clearance under the bridge.

Bridge truss raised above roadbed, separating traffic from pedestrians.  Also note
design of railings and bridge houses. (
The website goes on to observe, “This bridge stands out among the bridges of Chicago as one of the most historically and technologically significant since it is the first example of a design that Chicago would use in construction on many bridges during a period of over 40 years.  It also retains ornate sidewalk railings that greatly contribute to the visual beauty of the bridge.” 

It is a beautiful, sleek span in a place that where its beauty and sleekness is an absolute necessity, just to the south of the exquisite Art Deco 1929 Civic Opera Building.