Saturday, May 10, 2014

Washington Boulevard Bridge -- May 10, 1913

Everybody is a little touchy back in May of 1913 as a result of waiting six years for the Washington Boulevard Bridge to be completed.  On this date, May 10, of that year The Chicago Tribune reported, “When the old bridge came down work on the Panama canal had but begun.  The new bridge and the big ditch across the isthmus will be completed at about the same time.  Apparently they are both engineering works of world shaking size and difficulty.”

Ah . . . for the days when serious journalism and sarcasm were mixed together as easily and a viscously as beef tallow and the waters of the Chicago River.

The Washington Boulevard swing bridge, complete in 1891
(Chicago Daily News photo archive)
The former Washington Boulevard bridge, which was finished in 1891 and which was only 16-years-old when it was replaced, lost its right to exist because the United States decreed that the tunnel which passed beneath the river at Washington Boulevard had to be lowered.  An annoying number of ships passing up and down the South Branch of the river kept grounding themselves on the roof of the tunnel and plugged the channel, which was already narrowed because the turntable on which the bridge opened and closed was in the middle of the river.

So the tunnel had to be lowered eight feet, and that required the removal of the center span of the swing bridge.  Plans were drawn for a new bascule-type bridge with a span of 140 feet.  Oops.  The Sanitary District decided subsequently that it wanted a clear span of 170 feet.  Back to the drawing board.  Then the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad moved from its old station on the north side of the river at Wells Street to a new station west of the river between Madison and Washington, and it was decided that the bridge would have to be wider.  More plans, more delays, still no bridge.

Finally, the plans were ready and a bond issue was proposed and approved by the citizens of Chicago in April of 1911.  Oops.  Because of a technicality in the wording of the proposed bond issue on the ballot, the vote was declared invalid, and the subsequent bond issue was not voted upon until November of 1911.  Finally, in August of 1911, using money that the City Council had previously approved, the new bridge was begun – four years after the old bridge had been removed.

The new Washington Boulevard bridge, 1913
“In the opinion of leading bridge engineers and builders,” The Tribune stated, “it should easily be possible to complete such a bridge as that at Washington street . . . in one year from the day of beginning work on the foundations.  There are scores of bridges in the country much larger and more complicated than any of these which have been opened for traffic within a year.”

The situation was especially alarming because the bridges at Madison, Lake and Jackson were all scheduled for replacement within the year. 

The Tribune concluded, “. . . people who shudder at the prospect of having Lake and Madison streets and Jackson boulevard closed for at least a couple of years may possibly get a suggestion from the casual remark of a minor official at the city hall in discussing the six years’ delay in replacing the Washington street bridge.  ‘If the people had hollered loud enough,’ he said, ‘they could have had at least a temporary bridge way back in 1908.’” [Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1913]

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