Few who cross this bridge today and do not know the history of this bridge probably are completely unaware that what looks like a typical, albeit very wide, fixed riveted through plate girder bridge was once an impressive vertical lift bridge. As unbelievable as it may seem, this bridge once had giant trussed towers and the associated mechanical equipment that enabled the central plate girder span to be lifted up, making it one of the widest vertical lift bridges known. Although this bridge was originally constructed as a fixed plate girder bridge, in 1942, the bridge was altered by the addition of towers and machinery that converted the bridge into a vertical lift bridge, to allow the Navy to move boats as part of the ongoing World War II. Unfortunately, all of those elaborate furnishings have once again been removed, leaving behind a very wide fixed plate girder that may in fact be representative of how the bridge appeared when originally built.
As a movable bridge, this bridge has lost all integrity that conveys its function. It is no longer significant as a movable bridge. However if considered for what it is today, a fixed through plate girder, the bridge is noteworthy for its art deco design including concrete pillars and a large and handsome bronze plaque design. Even the original ornate railings remain on the bridge, ironic because many of the movable bridges which retain structural integrity have lost their original railings.
Thanks to Tom Winkle for providing boat transportation to assist in the photo-documentation of this historic bridge.
Description of Bridge Conversion From Chicago's Report To The People, 1933-1946
The advent of war stopped new bridge construction and prevented completion of the State Street and Canal Street bridge projects. Material and manpower shortages made maintenance of existing structures a difficult task. But engineers and men of the Bureau of Bridges and Viaducts carried on with great resourcefulness, maintaining these essential links in the city's system of war production traffic arteries. In addition, they rehabilitated six bridges over the drainage canal which had been inoperative for about fifteen years to permit passage of Navy vessels en route to the Gulf of Mexico.
A notable achievement in this connection was the conversion of a 10-lane fixed bridge on south Western Avenue into a lift bridge. As a fixed bridge, its 21-foot vertical clearance over the sanitary and ship canal was inadequate to permit passage of newly-built war vessels from Great Lakes shipyards to the Gulf of Mexico. Some vessels had been taken through by omitting their superstructures and lowering the canal four feet, but this method had serious drawbacks. In July, 1942, the city entered into a contract with the Navy department for the alteration to be done by the city. The first shipment of steel for the towers arrived at the site on January 22nd. During the next ten weeks - in one of Chicago's coldest winters - the basic job of con- version was done. Trial tests were made on April 4th and on the following day naval vessels passed through the open draw of the reconverted bridge! One of the great aspects of this achievement is the fact that traffic on the ten lanes provided by the 140-foot deck of the crossing - including two street car tracks, and two sidewalks - was not seriously interrupted during the remodeling.
Above: A photo showing the bridge with its lift towers in place and the lift span in raised position.
Above: Photos showing the dedication ceremony following the conversion of the fixed Western Avenue Bridge into a lift bridge.
Above: Photos from 1943 and 1972, respectively, showing the bridge with the lift towers in place.
Main PlaqueFEDERAL WORKS AGENCY
PUBLIC WORKS ADMINISTRATION
JOHN M. CARMODY
FEDERAL WORKS ADMINISTRATOR
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
S. WESTERN AVENUE IMPROVEMENT
BUILT BY THE
CITY OF CHICAGO
EDWARD J. KELLY, MAYOR
BOARD OF LOCAL IMPROVEMENTS
MICHAEL F. MULCAHY, PRESIDENT
WILLIAM W. LINK, VICE PRESIDENT
PAUL H. MUELLER, SECRETRY
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS
OSCAR E. HEWITT
DESIGN AND SUPERVISION
M. J. BURKE, RESIDENT ENGINEER
SEC. S. WESTERN AVE - S. A. 055 - 1111 - C. S.
Above: While this is a completed different bridge, it is interesting to note that as late as 1939, there was an impressive, yet narrow through truss that crossed a body of water (The West Fork of the South Branch Chicago River) that was filled in around 1939, after which the bridge was likely demolished. The two photos above show the bridge before and after the fill project. The Annual Report of the Department of Public Works provides the following information about former Western Avenue bridges: Among canal bridges: The first documented bridge was built in 1870 of wood by C. Fitz Simons and the bridge was a fixed bridge. This bridge was replaced by an iron fixed bridge in 1882. This bridge was built by the Massillon Bridge Company of Massillon, Ohio. It had a length of 118 feet and a width of 18 feet. The Public Works Report also listed a history of crossings for South Western Avenue, which is presumed to refer to the West Fork of the South Branch Chicago River Bridges. The first listed bridge was a hand-turned swing bridge that was a wood/iron combination bridge built by F. E. Canda in 1869. It was replaced in 1906 when the old 18th Street Bridge was moved and reused at Western Avenue. That bridge was built in 1888 by the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio and was a hand-turned iron and steel swing bridge.
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Chicago and Cook County are home to one of the largest collections of historic bridges in the country, and no other city in the world has more movable bridges. HistoricBridges.org is proud to offer the most extensive coverage of historic Chicago bridges on the Internet.
Chicago / Cook County Bridge News
October 2015 - Patrick T. McBriarty, author of Chicago's River Bridges, informs HistoricBridges.org that in recognition for the "outstanding and original reference work that will support future scholarship in the history of technology", the book was awarded the biennial Eugene S. Ferguson Prize by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) at the SHOT Annual Meeting's awards banquet. See press release. This is the third award for this book. Order Now Direct From The Publisher! or order on Amazon.
September 2015 - Fall Bridge Lift Season is Underway. View Schedule.
October 2014 - A visit to Chicago revealed that the Van Buren Street Pedestrian Bridge was not demolished, but instead extensively rehabbed. The railings are new, but replicate the original design. The concrete encasement was removed and not replaced, and instead the exposed riveted steel beams have been painted. The riveted beams look quite nice, and given the condition of the bridge prior to the project this seems like a good outcome. In other news, the rehabilitation and repainting of the La Salle Street Bridge is ongoing, and the project to extend the Chicago Riverwalk under additional bridges on the Main Branch is continuing.
September 2014 - Chicago's dubious distinction of offering numerous boat tours that pass under the bridges but offer narration only of the buildings has ended with the start of a Wendella tour that focuses on bridges! Information is here.
July 29, 2013 - A project study has been initiated for the reconstruction of historic North Lake Shore Drive. This project puts a large number of historic bridges at risk for demolition and replacement. However, it could also be an opportunity to rehabilitate the bridges. Visit the project website.
April 30, 2013 - Illinois Landmarks has included Chicago's Bascule Bridges as one of their Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Places. View The Official Page.
General Chicago / Cook County Bridge Resources
Chicago's Bridges - By Nathan Holth, author of HistoricBridges.org, this book provides a discussion of the history of Chicago's movable bridges, and includes a virtual tour discussing all movable bridges remaining in Chicago today. Despite this broad coverage, the book is presented in a compact format that is easy to take with you and carry around for reference on a visit to Chicago. The book includes dozens of full color photos. Only $9.95 U.S! ($11.95 Canadian). Order Now Direct From The Publisher! or order on Amazon.
Chicago River Bridges - By Patrick T. McBriarty, this is a great companion to Holth's book shown above. This much larger book offers an extremely in-depth exploration of Chicago's movable highway bridges, including many crossings that have not existed for many years. Order Now Direct From The Publisher! or order on Amazon.
Chicago Loop Bridges - Chicago Loop Bridges is another website on the Internet that is a great companion to the HistoricBridges.org coverage of the 18 movable bridges within the Chicago Loop. This website includes additional information such as connections to popular culture, overview discussions and essays about Chicago's movable bridges, additional videos, and current news and events relating to the bridges.
Additional Online Articles and Resources - This page is a large gathering of interesting articles and resources that HistoricBridges.org has uncovered during research, but which were not specific to a particular bridge listing.
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