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Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

Chicago and Northwestern Railway Bridge

Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

Primary Photographer(s): Nathan Holth

Bridge Documented: August 12, 2006 and 2011-2013

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Facility Carried / Feature Intersected
Railroad (Abandoned Union Pacific) Over North Branch Chicago River
Chicago: Cook County, Illinois: United States
Structure Type
Metal 7 Panel Rivet-Connected Warren Through Truss, Movable: Single Leaf Bascule (Strauss Trunnion) and Approach Spans: Metal Girder, Fixed
Rehabilitation Date
Not Available or Not Applicable
Main Span Length
170.0 Feet (51.8 Meters)
Structure Length
195.8 Feet (59.7 Meters)
Roadway Width
Not Available
1 Main Span(s) and 1 Approach Span(s)
Inventory Number
Not Applicable

Historic Significance Rating (HSR)
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Bridge Documentation

This bridge's future is at risk!

Bridge Status: This historic bridge is at risk for demolition!

View Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) Documentation For This Bridge

HAER Data Pages, HTML - HAER Data Pages, PDF

View Strauss Patent 738954 and Strauss Patent 995813

View Historical Articles About This Bridge And Previous Railroad Bridges At This Location

Chicago and Northwestern Railway Bridge Diagram

Historic Significance

Joseph Baerman Strauss (Joseph B. Strauss)

Sitting south of the Kinzie Street Bridge, this railroad bridge is (except for one day each year, discussed later) abandoned in the raised position and is no longer used by trains. Historic American Engineering Record documentation for the bridge discuss the historic significance of this bridge. On aesthetic terms, this strange movable bridge is one of only a few bascule bridges in Chicago where the counterweight is above the ground. More importantly, the bridge employs an unusual counterweight system where the counterweight is not rigidly connected to the bridge and it actually moves independently of the bridge itself.  The bridge was built in 1907, with its truss bascule superstructure design being provided by Joseph Strauss, who was an important engineer who worked to develop trunnion bascule bridge designs, and would often be angry at Chicago city engineers since he felt the designs the city was using were to close to his patented designs and even went as far as to take successful legal action against the city. This particular bridge follows unique design of trunnion bascule that Strauss used, which in later bridges eventually evolved into the heel-trunnion type of bascule. This early example could be considered a prototypical example that documents the development of the heel-trunnion type of bascule. The steel superstructure was fabricated by the Toledo-Massillon Bridge Company of Toledo, Ohio. This railroad line was owned by the Chicago and North Western Railway until Union Pacific bought them out in 1995. The substructure for this bridge was designed by William H. Finley, an engineer of the Chicago and North Western Railway. Like the Lakeshore Drive Bridge, this bascule set records when it was built. At the time of its completion, this railroad bridge was the heaviest as well as the longest bascule leaf in the world!

Chicago and Northwestern Railway Bridge

When constructed, the company Joseph Strauss created was called the Strauss Bascule and Concrete Bridge Company. During this time, he built a small number of concrete bridges, notably a couple ribbed concrete arch bridges. However the periodical Industrial World reported in a November 7, 1910 issue that he had changed the name to Strauss Bascule Bridge Company and would no longer build concrete bridges. This is the only movable bridge designed by Strauss remaining in Chicago that dates to before the name change.

Earlier Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

The site of this bridge is a historical crossing for railroads. It is the location of the first railroad bridge in Chicago, dating to 1852, a significant observation given the high level of importance that railroads would play in the development of Chicago in the decades after that date. One of the two first all steel railroad bridge in the country was built here as well in 1879 alongside the Glasgow Railroad Bridge in Missouri.

Previous Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

Previous Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge Conversion To Bobtail

The 1879 bridge was replaced with a lattice through truss swing bridge in 1898. This bridge had a very short life, testimony to the rapidly changing needs of boats and trains during this period of history. The construction of the bascule bridge has an interesting connection to the 1898 swing bridge. Railroads were notorious for devising creative ways to keep their trains (and their profits) rolling even when a bridge was being replaced. Here, the bascule bridge was built directly beside the swing bridge. However, this created a problem. If the swing bridge opened for boats, one end of the swing bridge would crash into the bascule bridge construction site. Engineers solved this problem by cutting this half the swing bridge off and adding a counterweight to that end effectively turning the center pier swing bridge into a bobtail swing bridge

This crossing once served the Wells Street Passenger Terminal of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. For this reason the railroad and railroad personnel often referred to the bridge as the "Wells Street Bridge" according to Mike D, the last bridge tender to operate this bridge.

 An Abandoned Bridge (Almost)

According to Historic American Engineering Record, at the time they documented the bridge, this bridge still lowered once in a while to allow a train to access the Sun Times building to deliver paper, but noted that the newspaper company was going to move its printing operations after which the bridge would be abandoned. Since that time, the bridge has indeed been unused, left standing in its raised position. The bridge itself however is still in good shape with a decent coat of paint on it. The bridge is not "technically" abandoned, however. Once a year, Union Pacific Railroad lowers the bridge for the sole purpose of preventing the bridge from being truly abandoned? Once the bridge is lowered, a company truck is driven over the bridge, which allows the bridge and railroad line to officially remain in an "active status." Additionally, at this time, any repairs needed to ensure the continued ability of the bridge to perform this meager duty are also performed by the crew.

It is not known on what (if any) schedule this annual bridge lowering occurs. As such, this rare event is a sort of historic bridge lottery. The chance that you will randomly happen to visit this bridge at just the right time to witness this event is very unlikely indeed. However, Royce and Bobette Haley won this "lottery" and took a lot of photos, and have been kind enough to share these with HistoricBridges.org. Their photos showing the rare occasion of this bridge in the lowered position are available in the 2015-2016 photo gallery available below. One photo is also shown above.

Bridge Aesthetics and Landmark Status

The Historic American Engineering Record noted that apparently some people feel that this bridge has no aesthetic value and does not blend in with the clean look of the skyscrapers of the city. They note that likely this priceless historic artifact may eventually be scrapped and someone will pick up a few bucks for the steel. This is an absurd idea to for a bridge that is part of the bascule bridge legacy in Chicago. Perhaps if it were painted a lighter color, or a color similar to that of the other highway bridges in Chicago then people would like it more. The reality is that Chicago's unique identity and culture is derived from a fusion of both modern and historical attractions and structures. Chicago's modern attraction, the Trump Tower sits next to the historic Wrigley Tower. Similarly, there is no reason why this historic bridge cannot remain next to any number of modern buildings. Just as Chicago's historic Water Tower sits in the shadow of the Hancock Center as a reminder of the pre-fire Chicago that the current city's towering skyscrapers were built upon, the Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge is a reminder of the industrial past that grew Chicago into the great city it is today.

At the other end of the spectrum, this bridge has been designated a Chicago Landmark. Chicago's Landmark designations are significant because it provides a barrier to demolition. It also is a formal recognition on the part of the city that this bridge does contribute positively to the visual qualities of the area. Anyone wishing to demolish the bridge cannot do so until they convince the city that their reasons for demolishing the bridge outweigh the value of the bridge as a historic and visual landmark of Chicago.

Strauss Bascule and Concrete Bridge Company AdvertisementKelly-Atkinson Construction Company Workers

William H. FinleyWilliam H. Finley

Information and Findings From Chicago Landmarks Designation

Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

General Information

Address: South of Kinzie St., East of Canal St. (North Branch of the Chicago River)
Year Built: 1907 - 1908
Architect: William H. Finley
Date Designated a Chicago Landmark: December 12, 2007

Located just north of the Loop, the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Bridge is an early example of an overhead counterweight bascule bridge based on the patents of Joseph Baermann Strauss. Strauss was a prominent engineer who later achieved fame as the designer of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The Chicago & Northwestern Railway Bridge was reported to be the world's longest and heaviest bridge of its type at the time of its completion. The single-leaf bridge is made from heavily-bolted steel girders and plates whose superstructure consists of a fixed tower and an overhead counterweight comprised of concrete, reinforced with a steel skeleton. The leaf's axis of rotation, the main trunnion, is located about halfway up the tower and power is provided by a pinion which engages a rack on the operating strut to raise and lower the leaf. Today, the bridge is no longer in service, due to the rerouting of passenger traffic and dwindling freight traffic. It is locked in a raised position creating a massive steel silhouette familiar to residents of the Near North side and commuters on Brown Line and Metra trains.

This Bridge Is A Designated Chicago Landmark

Visit The Chicago Landmarks Website

Information About Joseph Strauss

Joseph Baermann Strauss, Bridge Engineer, and the Strauss Trunnion Heel Bridge - From Historic American Engineering Record

Joseph Baermann Strauss (1870-1938) was a talented and versatile engineer who took his bridge theories and inventions and applied them to other disciplines as well. Strauss was the son of a artist and musician and received an engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati. Upon graduation, in 1892, he worked at the New Jersey Steel & Iron Company in Trenton, New Jersey and learned all the aspects of bridge building including designing, estimating and conducting inspections. During the early part of the twentieth century, he worked for the Chicago Sanitary District of Chicago and a number of engineering firms in the Chicago area. During this time he gained a broad knowledge of railroad bridges and viaducts. Chicago is the home of bascule bridges due to the Chicago River and the many man-made canals which run through the city. Strauss soon began to study the dynamics of moveable bridges and at the same time worked for the Universal Portland Cement Company. He developed a concrete house for the company and became familiar with the strength, plasticity and relative cheapness of concrete as a building material. In 1902, Strauss formed the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company of Chicago (later named the Strauss Engineering Corporation). Through his company Strauss disseminated his innovative ideas all over the country. The actual construction of his designs were completed by other engineering or bridge fabrication firms.

The young engineer began work in a field that was new and rapidly growing: bascule bridge design and construction. Bascule bridges had an advantage over other moveable bridges since they could be built in tight spaces where a swing bridge would have been impracticable and they provided an obvious vehicular traffic barrier. They also could be made in any width and length. In the early 20th- century bascule bridges were relatively rare and limited in length because of the prohibitive cost of building them, primarily due to the cost of the large counterweights which were fabricated of cast iron. Based on his work at Universal Portland Cement, Strauss was able to design a concrete counterweight which resulted in a significant reduction of weight on the drawspans. He then went on to design a pin-connected counterweight system that took much of the stress off the bridge superstructure. Therefore, the spans could be lighter in weight and longer in length. These were major innovations in bascule bridge design and they allowed bascules to be used in a variety of situations all over the world. The design was particularly popular with railroads. The first Strauss bascule was a railroad bridge constructed in 1905, in Cleveland Ohio. By 1911 Strauss had worked out the designs for his four distinctive types of moveable bridges: the heel trunnion, the vertical overhead counterweight, the underneath counterweight and the simple span. Strauss' major innovation, in addition to introducing concrete counterweights, was the concept of "...balancing the bridge with a pivoting counterweight linked so as to form a parallelogram with pinions at the vertices."

Although Strauss was an innovator in moveable bridges, perhaps his greatest achievement, and one for which he is most well known, is his design for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate, was, at the time it was built, the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, It is 4,200 feet long and opened in 1937. In addition to designing the bridge, Strauss worked through the complicated political maneuvering it takes to get a project this size completed. In 1935, during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, Strauss went into partnership with Engineer, Clifford E. Paine who worked with him on the Golden Gate as well as on the Chicago firms other projects, most of which were bascule bridges. Strauss also designed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, Washington, DC and was a consultant on the designs of the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge, both in New York City." Strauss was an innovative designer and often turned his expertise to other fields. In 1915 he designed a ride called the Aeroscope for the Panama-Pacino International Exposition; it was essentially a revolving bascule bridge. He used his movable bridge experience to devise portable search lights for World War I, a rotating tower restaurant, a steel glass building system and a rapid transit system called an Airtram. A creative writer, as well, Strauss produced books, essays, poems and music. He died in California in 1938, just one year alter the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge."

Chiefly A Human Dynamo - Another Biography of Joseph Strauss - From Historic American Engineering Record

Biographies of Joseph Baermann Strauss focus on his five-foot height, as if a need to compensate for it motivated his mechanical ingenuity, ceaseless invention, and political acumen. On the fiftieth anniversary of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, one publication directly linked his ineligibility for the University of Cincinnati football team to his desire "to build the biggest thing of its kind that a man could build."" But Strauss' success stems from his keen understanding of the kinematics of complex moving structures. About 150 patents, from window sashes to prison doors, and amusement rides to airplanes, attest to his obsession with movement and balance. Some of Strauss' patents cover the use of concrete in structures and vehicles, showing a facility with that material as well. These two interests came together in Strauss' work with bascule bridges, which started in Chicago and spread throughout the world.

Born in Cincinnati on 7 January 1870, Joseph B. Strauss belonged to a talented family of musicians and artists. "In spite of his natural artistic and literary learnings," wrote one biographer, "Mr. Strauss early showed a strong bent for mechanics and the sciences. Although this flattering quote appeared in a company brochure, there could be some truth to the author's assertion that Strauss' youth was spent observing mechanics and engineers at work. Strauss proceeded through public schools to the University of Cincinnati, where he took part in student activities both technical and literary. His years as Class President indicate an ego suited to politics; as Class Poet, a coincidence in written and verbal expression. After presenting a thesis on bridging the Bering Strait, he received a civil engineering degree in 1892. These were the makings of the Golden Gate Bridge's Chief Engineer, a role which Strauss played as more of a promoter than a designer. Strauss' years between Cincinnati and San Francisco are of greater concern to this report.

After graduating from college, he worked for two years with the New Jersey Bridge & Iron Company in Trenton, then returned to teach for one year at his alma mater. He must have arrived in Chicago with his new bride, college sweetheart May Van, around 1895. Employment at Lassig Bridge & Iron Works, then at the Chicago Sanitary District, led to work on movable bridges at Ralph Modjeski's engineering firm in 1899. According to engineering historian Henry Petroski, Strauss left because his ideas about concrete counterweights and trunnion bearings gained little acceptance there.' Petroski implied that Strauss went directly to independent practice in 1902, but the Western Society of Engineers' member directories tell a different story. Strauss became a member of the society on 8 December 1899, and is listed as "Bridge Engineer, Monadnock Block" in its 1900 and 1901 directories. lf he was then with Modjeski's firm, it seems odd that his employer's name was not mentioned. The next year, the listing changes to "Chief Engineer, Hall Bascule Bridge Co., 97 Washington St. Departure from this firm, not Modjeski's, must be the basis for the 1902 date in Petroski's book, which also appears in Strauss company brochures. Strauss is listed as "Consulting Engineer, Opera House Block" in the 1903, 1904, and 1905 directories; the next year's issue contains the first mention of Strauss Bascule & Concrete Bridge Company (incorporated 1904). According to one company brochure, Strauss subsequently dropped "Concrete" from the name to reflect a focus on bascule spans. This occurred in 1910 or 1911, after the Kinzie Street Bridge was constructed. By that time, Strauss' bascule bridge designs had earned six U.S. patents and attention in the national engineering press. Strauss' engineering firm achieved financial success with a strong belief in intellectual property, reinforced by patents and defended by patent-infringement suits. Although bridge engineers had sought exclusive rights to their designs as early as 1841, when Squire Whipple was granted U.S. Patent No. 2,064 for "Construction of Iron-Truss Bridges," Strauss took it to new extremes. A Strauss Bascule Bridge Company brochure produced circa 1925 devoted three pages to the subject of patents, including a portrait of Donald M. Carter, the company's patent attorney." Strauss' most well-known patent-infringement lawsuits were against the city of Chicago in 1913 and against Seattle in 1921. Strauss claimed that both cities had constructed bascule bridges with trunnion supports similar to his U.S. Patent No. 995,813, without paying royalties for using the design. The courts decided against Chicago, and Seattle settled out of court." As the defensive tone of Strauss' brochure might indicate, the lawsuits earned him criticism from some fellow engineers, while others would have agreed with his desire to recoup the expense of a long-term effort to improve the bascule bridge. The engineering profession's debate over proprietary designs neither began nor ended with Strauss' bascule bridges. As early as 1902, discussions in the American Society of Civil Engineers' Transactions pitted pro-patent engineers against those who felt that the existence of proprietary designs "lowers the dignity of the profession." Citing the medical profession's ethical restriction on patenting medical instruments, opponents claimed that engineering patents impeded progress toward public good. Another important point of dispute was whether engineers made unfair gains by charging royalties for proprietary designs. A powerful counter- argument, in the words of engineer S. Whinery, was that engineers "must have some assurance that, after they have spent large sums for the development and introduction of the invention, they will be able to prevent competitors from robbing them of the reward. Undoubtedly, Strauss' continual improvement of the bascule bridge was financed by the dozens of clients who chose to pay for his proprietary design. As stated in Strauss' brochure, clients chose patented designs in an open market, therefore "the only hope for a patented product lies in its ability to do things at less cost or to do them better.


Historic Bridges of Chicago and Cook County

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Complete Bridge List

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.

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.

View Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) Overview of Chicago Bascule Bridges (HAER Data Pages, PDF)

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.


Photo Galleries and Videos: Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge


View Photo Gallery

2015-2016 Bridge Photo-Documentation

Original / Full Size Photos
Including photos of the bridge in the lowered position, a collection of overview and detail photos. This gallery offers photos in the highest available resolution and file size in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


View Photo Gallery

2015-2016 Bridge Photo-Documentation

Mobile Optimized Photos
Including photos of the bridge in the lowered position, a collection of overview and detail photos. This gallery features data-friendly, fast-loading photos in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


View Photo Gallery

Pre-2015 Structure Overview

Original / Full Size Photos
A collection of overview photos that show the bridge as a whole and general areas of the bridge. This gallery offers photos in the highest available resolution and file size in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


View Photo Gallery

Pre-2015 Structure Details

Original / Full Size Photos
A collection of detail photos that document the parts, construction, and condition of the bridge. This gallery offers photos in the highest available resolution and file size in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


View Photo Gallery

Pre-2015 Structure Overview

Mobile Optimized Photos
A collection of overview photos that show the bridge as a whole and general areas of the bridge. This gallery features data-friendly, fast-loading photos in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


View Photo Gallery

Pre-2015 Structure Details

Mobile Optimized Photos
A collection of detail photos that document the parts, construction, and condition of the bridge. This gallery features data-friendly, fast-loading photos in a touch-friendly popup viewer.
Alternatively, Browse Without Using Viewer


Maps and Links: Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

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2021 National Bridge Inventory: View listed bridges within 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) of this bridge.

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