It made sense for the early settlers of Chicago to nestle right down next to the lake, alongside the river. Back in the early 1800’s any commerce that might come to the area – and the certainty of that prospect was far from bright – would come by way of those two resources.
Sometimes, though, a blessing can also be a curse. Living within the barriers of a river on the north and west and a lake on the east was fine as long as there were only a few thousand folks trying to get along in the circumscribed space. But by 1850 there were 30,000 people in the rapidly growing metropolis on the prairie; by the time of the Great Fire in 1871 there were 270,000.
Space was, to say the least, at a premium and when the fire wiped the slate clean, commercial business stayed in what is today the Loop with some residential property to the south, and industry and residential property, for the most part, was located across the river.
|Washington St. Bridge propped on supports, 1906 (Chicago Daily News Archive)|
The easy way to connect the two obviously was by building bridges. The complicating factor was that the bridges could not be permanently engineered; there had to be a way to accommodate the ships that moved up and down the river. By the end of the nineteenth century the biggest lake freighters measured well over 400 feet in length, and somehow the bridges had to be built in order to allow these huge ships to deliver the grain and lumber and raw materials that had put Chicago on the map in the first place.
The solution was the swing bridge, which sat on a turntable in the center of the channel and which could be rotated from a position where the bridge lined up with the streets on either side of the river to a position where the bridge swung 90 degrees where it would lie parallel to the banks of the river, allowing ships to pass on either side.
This arrangement solved the problem, but barely. Ships were smacking into the bridges all the time, splintering railings, crumbling foundations, at times knocking the entire bridge out of alignment. By the early part of the 1900’s the whole situation was intolerable.
In fact, on January 10, 1901 The Chicago Tribune ran an article on the city’s bridges under the headline Sees a Menace in Nine Bridges: City Engineer Refuses to Retain Responsibility for Fragile Structures.
Four bridges, the ones on West Division Street, North Avenue, Archer Avenue, and Twenty-Second Street were in such bad shape that the city engineer recommended closing them completely. Five more bridges, at Wells Street, Washington Street, Harrison Street, Twelfth Street, and Eighteenth Street were less dangerous but still so shaky that the city engineers refused to be responsible for them.
|Wells St. Bridge, looking north, with Chicago & Northwestern terminal in the background|
(Chicago Daily News photo archive)
Goose Island was the section of the city most affected by the situation. According to coverage in The Tribune, “The engineers had hardly raised the scow which formed Division street bridge over the canal when the bridge over the river was found to be almost past service. An attempt was made . . . to patch it up and save it. If the bridge be closed it is expected that insurance rates will be increased; as the fire risk will advance.”
Clearly, in a city that numbered over two million human beings, something was going to have to be done.