The year-long project of replacing the Wells Street Bridge over the main branch of the Chicago River reaches another critical phase this weekend. The north leaf of the the double-decker bascule bridge will be replaced with a brand new 2,100-ton leaf, constructed off-site and floated into place a couple of weeks ago.
The removal of the northern half of the span means that CTA trains won’t be able to cross it from 10pm tonight (April 26, 2013) until Monday morning, May 6 — Nine days from now. Normally about 400 L trains and 9,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day. Add in bicycles and pedestrians, and an estimated 100,000 people rely on the bridge to get around each day. That’s like having the entire population of South Bend, Indiana cross the bridge.
Since Brown and Purple line trains won’t be able to transit the area, the CTA is using that time to also replace the tracks to the north over the Hubbard Street curves, and to rebuild Tower 18 — the junction over West Lake and North Wells Streets where the Brown, Green, Orange, Purple, and Pink lines do a little mass transit do-si-do in the sky. It is reputed to be the busiest rail crossing in the world, with nearly 700 trains going through it on an average weekday. Doing the Tower 18 work at the same time as the Wells Street Bridge work is expected to save a half-million dollars.
The Wells Street Bridge is long overdue for an overhaul. It was built in 1922, and its last major renovation was in the 1940’s. In 1944 the city’s Division of Bridges and Viaducts estimated the bridge’s life span at 40 to 50 years. It is now 91 years old. And at 268 feet, it has the second-longest span of the downtown bridges. It was the 23rd movable bridge built on the Chicago River.
The first Wells Street bridge was built in 1841. It was a simple float bridge, similar to a tethered ferry. That bridge was destroyed in the flood of 1849. Six years later, the city built a hand-operated wooden center-swing bridge, which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. The bridge was rebuilt in 1872 with iron. That bridge didn’t last long, and was replaced by a steam-powered iron center-swing bridge in 1888. In 1896 the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company paid to add the second level to the bridge, and also paid to replace the steam power with electricity, making this the first electric-powered bridge in Chicago.
The bascule bridge we see today was built in 1922 because of what was then called the Department of War (now evolved into the Department of Defense). In 1909 it ordered the City of Chicago to remove all of the center-pivot swing bridges on the Chicago River because they were potential navigation obstructions to military ships. It was this need for a long-span drawbridge that inspired the development of the trunion bascule bridge, commonly known as the “Chicago Type” bridge, that we see all along the river today.
Remarkably, back then the Wells Street bridge carried even more traffic than it does today. According to the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers, in a 12-hour period on a day in early 1922 3,180 vehicles, 1,000 trains, 850 horse-pulled wagons, and 7,000 people crossed the bridge.
Also being replaced in this rebuilding project are the bridge tender houses located on the northwest and southeast corners of the bridge. These will be reconstructed to keep their existing 1920’s-era look, but will be modernized inside.
The photograph above shows the inside of one of the bridge houses. It was taken by Jet Lowe in 1987. The poster on the wall on the right shows various shipping company logos so the bridge tender can identify what vessels might glide past.
The history of the Wells Street Bridge hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. In 1935 the S.S. Dahlke, carrying a load of sand, slammed into the bridge, causing serious damage to the sidewalk and trusses. A year later the bridge was closed repeatedly during the summer because it kept breaking down with one leaf stuck in the air, snarling boat, train, automobile, and pedestrian traffic. It happened again in 1941.
Since then, the bridge has been renovated a couple of times; most notably in 1968 and again in 1993. Since November of last year, the city has been replacing the bridge entirely, a project that will continue deep into the fall. But hopefully this sixth Wells Street Bridge will last 90 years, like its predecessor, taking Chicago into the 22nd Century.