Modern Steel Construction » Steel in the News » Steel Shots: Chicago Bridge Celebrates Centennial

Steel in the News

Back to all posts

Steel Shots: Chicago Bridge Celebrates Centennial
Posted by Tasha Weiss on July 19, 2013 at 4:38 PM.


Opened 100 years ago on May 26, 1913, Chicago’s Washington Blvd. Bridge spans the South Branch of the Chicago River and stands as a monument to the metamorphosis of Chicago style bascule bridges from first to second generation, which were crucial in the city’s growth and development. Today the historic steel bridge is raised about 40 times a year, mostly during the spring and fall sailboat runs to and from Lake Michigan. Photo: Courtesy of  


This past May marked 100 years of service for downtown Chicago’s oldest movable bridge — the Washington Blvd. Bridge.


This historic steel bridge has been present for most of the history of the river crossing at Washington Blvd. During Chicago’s first 70 years as a city, engineers experimented with many ways to satisfy the conflicting needs of land traffic and navigation interests at the Chicago River. One of these experiments was a tunnel built at Washington Blvd. in 1869 and was the first in the city built specifically for wagon and pedestrian traffic (a second tunnel was built at LaSalle St. that opened in 1870).


The tunnel provided an escape path during the Great Fire in 1871 that the burning bridges couldn’t. The steep approaches, damp and dirty conditions made the tunnel unpopular with pedestrians. Eventually the tunnel was converted for use in the cable car, and later, the street car systems. In 1910, the tunnel was rebuilt and lowered nine ft as the larger vessels ran aground on the top of it. The Washington Blvd. tunnel was closed in 1953, ending 84 years of service.


The first bridge at this location was a swing bridge that was floated in from Madison St. and installed in 1891. This swing bridge was in use until 1907 when it was demolished for both the lowering of the existing tunnel at the time and the construction of the current bridge.


The current bridge was the first to include the ideals of the 1909 Plan of Chicago. Edward Bennett, co-author of the Plan, began collaborating with Chicago Public Works bridge engineers during the latter design stages of the bridge. That collaboration led to aesthetic considerations such as upgraded materials in the abutment walls, railings, lighting, and, most notably, in the bridgehouses.


Technologically, the bridge involved innovations in two areas. First, due to the tunnel directly below the bridge, new foundation design techniques were developed and implemented and used on bridges that followed. Second, features developed and patented in 1911 by Chicago Public Works engineer Alexander von Babo were incorporated into the design. The most significant of these design innovations was changing the location of the rack and pinion which made a striking difference in the appearance of Chicago’s bridges.


washington-blvd-bridge-1913.jpgToday, it is hard to imagine the number of vessels that used the Chicago River in the first part of the 20th century. During 1914, the first full year of operation of this bridge, a total of 9,540 vessels entered and cleared the river; the bridge opened 3,773 times in that year alone. (Click on the left image to view the new Washington Blvd. bridge in action at the time it opened. Image reproduced from the 1913 Annual Report of the Chicago Public Works Department.)


Now in semi-retirement, the bridge is raised only about 40 times a year, mostly during the spring and fall sailboat runs to and from Lake Michigan. About 14,000 vehicles and 9,500 pedestrians cross this bridge daily. Based on the available data, it is estimated that this bridge has been raised about 70,000 times in its 100 years.


For more information about the Washington Blvd. Bridge, contact Jim Phillips (who provided this commentary) at 312.540.0696, or visit his website, which features additional information, images and videos of the bridge, as well as multimedia pages for all of the Chicago Loop bridges (which are all steel!).


Another notable steel bridge anniversary happened earlier this month: the Arrigoni Bridge, a twin-arch span which stretches across the Connecticut River between Middletown and Portland, Conn., turned 75. A recent article in The Courant highlights a local exhibit on the bridge which runs through the summer marking its anniversary and mentions that upon its completion in 1938, the Middletown-Portland Bridge, as it was first called, was named the “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge” in the nation by AISC.


Photos and a brief history on the Arrigoni Bridge can be found at



Bookmark and Share