2019 Update: This bridge's setting is rapidly changing. When first documented in 2006, this location remained an industrial area. Today, nearly all the industrial buildings have been completely demolished, and an enormous mixed use residential/commercial complex that also includes public space is being planned.
Chicago is today known by bridge enthusiasts as the bascule bridge capital of the world, and this bridge is where that legacy started. The design of this bridge is that of trunnion style bascule bridge. Built from 1901 to 1902, this was in fact the first Chicago style trunnion bridge ever built. The design only became known as the "Chicago" type bascule bridge when Chicago proceeded to populate nearly every movable bridge crossing in the city with this type of bridge over the decades to come. Trunnion bascule bridges rotate up around a giant axle called the "trunnion." This design proved superior to the competing design of a rolling lift bascule, which lifts by rolling back on a short track. The rolling lift design introduced shifting dead load on the abutments, which wore out the abutments quickly in Chicago because Chicago abutments were more susceptible than abutments in other places because the land was essentially swampy and somewhat unstable.
With the Chicago bascule bridge in its infancy and city engineers perhaps occupied enough with just designing the overall structure of the bridge, the first generation bascule bridges like the Cortland Street Bridge have a somewhat cluttered and clunky appearance compared to the graceful, curved, and uncluttered appearance of the second generation bascules where engineers spent more time making the bridges aesthetically pleasing. This is not to say that the first generation bascule bridges are ugly, indeed in today's world of plain and simple bridges, their complex geometry is perhaps equally as beautiful in its own unique way. Where the later bridges would have a beauty that could be described as graceful, these first generation bridges have a beauty that could be described a geometric art. The complex patterns of triangles and curves created by the beams and trusses of this bridge give the eye much to study. Further, the first generation bridges were embellished with non-structural decorations in a way later bridges were not. For example, the Cortland Street Bridge has decorative finals placed on the top of the top chord. In addition, the placement of the plaques up in the sway bracing and on the truss members allows the plaques to have a dual function as an decorative enhancement as well. The plaques on the bridge are not the simple square bronze plaques seen on later generation bascule bridges; rather they are fancy shaped decorative plaques proudly mounted for all to see. In contrast to all of this however, the bridge-tender's tower is much more simple than the fancy stone towers seen in later generation bridge, and is instead a simple wooden building.
This bridge's truss superstructure was built by the American Bridge Company, Lassig Plant. The American Bridge Company would have been a brand new company at the time. As one of the first bridges built by the fledgling company that would become one of the leading bridge builders of the 20th Century, the Cortland Street Bridge gains additional historical significance. The Fitzsimons and Connell Company were the substructure contractors.
Construction of this bridge began with the a contract for this bridge's substructure being let on November 16, 1900 which allowed for the demolition work to begin by December 10, 1900 and be completed by January 1, 1901. The west piers were completed by July 1, 1901. The east piers were completed by October 1, 1901. The superstructure contract was let on February 20, 1901 allowing the erection of the west leaf to begin on August 12, 1901 and the east lead on November 5, 1901.
Today, the bridge no longer raises for boats, which is all too obvious due to the i-beam that was bolted on the middle of the span to lock the bridge closed.
The truss superstructure of this bridge is in good condition, and like many Chicago bascule bridges features rivets that have been replaced with bolts on select portions of the bridge. Original railings appear to have been replaced by pole railings on the bridge itself, although beautiful ornate railings that feature lattice on the bottom and a gothic arch-like design above are present on the approaches, which likely were originally present all the way across the bridge. The bridge was rehabilitated in 1983, and a plaque added to the bridge announces that the bridge was restored in 1997. The bridge was also repainted sometime between 2006 and 2009. It is good to see that this extremely important historic bridge is being maintained and preserved. As of 2014, additional repairs to the bridge are being planned, as is the restoration of the bridge tender house.
Be sure to view the excerpts from the 1901 annual report of the department of public works. It has an interesting discussion of the bridge.
The previous bridge at this location was also the first documented bridge at this location. It was a hand-turned iron/wood combination bridge built in 1873 by Fox and Howard. It was 140 feet long and 32 feet wide.
Above: These three views show the bridge after around a year of operation.
Above Left: F. W. Blocki was the Chicago Commissioner of Public Works when the Cortland Street Bridge was built.
Above: Although the City of Chicago's engineers were largely responsible for researching and identifying the fixed trunnion bridge as the bascule bridge of choice for Chicago, they did hire of Board of Consulting Engineers to assist. This board consisted of Byron B. Carter, Ralph Modjeski, and someone cited in Historic American Engineering Record as "F. L. Cooley," a historical July 6, 1902 issue of The Railway Age as "E. L. Cooley", and more likely who was really Lyman Edgar (L. E.) Cooley who was a consulting engineer for the Sanitary District. Ralph Modjeski stands out among that group, since he became famous and is considered one of the country's greatest bridge engineers.
Above: Photos taken in 1904, a few years after the construction of the bridge, show some of the internal machinery and electrical equipment.
CARTER H. HARRISON
F. W. BLOCKI
COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC WORKS
RICHARD M. DALEY
Information and Findings From Chicago Landmarks Designation
Address: 1440 W. Cortland St.
This Bridge Is A Designated Chicago Landmark
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This bridge is tagged with the following special condition(s): Arch Lattice Railing and Unorganized Photos
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