Q&A with Chicago River Bridges author Patrick McBriarty

Patrick T. McBriarty is a writer and creative producer based in Chicago and the co-producer, with Stephen Hatch, of the documentary film Chicago Drawbridges. He recently answered some questions about his new photographic guidebook Chicago River Bridges.

Q: What is the significance of the bridges for Chicago?

Patrick T. McBriarty: Chicago has long called itself the Drawbridge Capital of the World and has more drawbridges than any city in North America. Chicago, in classic Second City form, is only second in the world to Amsterdam in the number of drawbridges, but has the greatest variety and collection of different drawbridge designs of any city on Earth. For 150 years, Chicago has been the world center for moveable bridge innovation, design, and testing. Chicagoans hold more drawbridge patents than other city and more new drawbridge designs and innovations were first invented, built, and/or tried in Chicago than anywhere else. Around the turn of the last century, city engineers created the Chicago-type bascule bridge, which is world-renowned in design and engineering circles and been used nationally and internationally. In parallel, it is not surprising great bridge designers and builders like Strauss, Modjeski, Scherzer, Ericson, Rall, Page, Philfeldt, von Babo, Young, and Becker all were drawn to Chicago and created many of the bridges still in use today.

Q: What sparked your personal interest in researching Chicago’s river bridges?

McBriarty: There are about a dozen factors and life experiences that summoned me into Chicago’s bridge history, yet the idea was sparked on a blustery, sunny Sunday in late 1999. My intention was to start a new hobby in photography and take some pictures beginning with the bridges at Kinzie Street. There along the North Branch of the Chicago River shooting the Kinzie Street Bridge and railroad bridge a half block south finally “saw” the bridges as if for the first time. The idea occurred to me, that these under appreciated bridges were hugely interesting, fascinating, and posed a series of questions and quite possibly was a book in it.

At first glance Chicago’s bridges all seem similar and yet with closer inspection each is quite unique. Photographing the bridges left me with many nagging and unanswered questions like: Where did these bridges come from? Why were they here in Chicago of all places? What kind of bridges were here before this one? How do they work? . . . . and so on. Life quickly interceded but fortunately five to six years later I was able to take a year off work and confronted with twelve months off and what to do with myself the bridge book idea returned. Naively, I figured I could complete this book in about a year, and began researching the bridges and discovered there was no good book on the bridges. That was eight years ago and in the process I discovered the very spot I was inspired to this project is where 170 or so years earlier the very first bridge was built in Chicago. Upon reflection this interesting coincidence seemed to hold a good bit of destiny with it.

Q: You focus on drawbridges in particular as key to the infrastructure of Chicago. What made these moveable bridges such a significant part of the city’s history?

McBriarty: The bridges are both a key to the city and a result of its growth and development. Chicago experienced the most rapid growth in population during the 19th Century of any city in history up until that time. This occurred at a time when the preeminent means of transportation was by ship. Chicago grew up around this small, narrow, Y-shaped river that was a critical link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds. Ultimately Chicago and its River connected the eastern seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico and points between. Given that watercraft traditionally had the right of way, the bridges had to accommodate busy ship traffic coming in and out of the Chicago and later the Calumet Rivers. With the flat landscape and high value of land, moveable bridges became the link connecting Chicago’s North, South, and West sides. As the city grew and changed, so too would the bridges, which as much helped to create Chicago and make it a center for drawbridge innovation, technology, and design because of the demand for and number of bridges needed to cross city waterways which came to have national importance and oversight.

Q: Why did you choose to focus only on certain portions of the Chicago River rather than on all the significant waterways of the city?

McBriarty: Originally I had wanted to create a Chicago bridge bible that covered all bridges past and present crossing Chicago’s waterways. This would have included the Chicago River, Calumet River, and the Canals—the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the North Shore Canal, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal. However it soon became clear this goal would have to broken up into two or three books. Focusing on the on the navigable portion of the Chicago River allowed me to get my arms around a manageable chunk of Chicago bridge history. Without that constraint I might still be researching and writing the larger objective with little to show for it. The Preface of the book gives more detail on this decision, so suffice it to say this focus allowed me to develop the underlying drawbridge theme highlighting Chicago’s importance to the world of moveable bridge development and innovation. I hope some day to return to the bridge bible goal and complete a subsequent book on all the railroad bridges, Calumet River bridges, and canal bridges past and present within the city limits.

Q: Today, many of Chicago’s drawbridges remain intact but are used primarily as fixed bridges. Why do you believe these structures remain important despite their diminished use value?

McBriarty: Over 60 drawbridges still stand in Chicago over the waterways and 38 are still operational. These inoperable moveable bridges include many important representations of earlier drawbridge designs and most are along the North Branch of the Chicago River. These drawbridges no longer open and are being treated as fixed spans. Since 1961, new fixed bridges have replaced seven old drawbridges along the North Branch. Most of these new fixed bridges are basic steel and concrete spans and not of particularly strong interest. However the more recent replacements by the City of Chicago at North Avenue and North Damen Avenue installed architecturally significant fixed bridges in the stead of old moveable bridges. These new fixed bridges improve traffic flow offering four-lanes versus the old two-lane drawbridges and better serve the area. Traditionally in the United States, brand new structures are preferred replacing the old, rather than refurbishing or re-purposing existing structures. And in this case, with many of Chicago’s older drawbridges it feels like being handed costume jewelry in place of true gems. The magic and nostalgia of the old drawbridges and tension of permanence and movement is lost along with the childish thrill of imagining the bridge opening.

As an example, in 2006 a first-generation Chicago-type bascule bridge (built in 1907) at North Avenue was replaced by a new fixed bridge, the city’s first ever cable-stay suspension bridge. Though beautiful and the only one of its kind in Chicago, this fixed bridge lacks the same magic. Yet it is hard to argue when driving in traffic its four-lanes conveys the congestion of the area much better than the old one. The new North Avenue Bridge cost $21.4 million, while I would venture a comparable four-lane drawbridge would cost roughly twice that amount. Such extravagance would be a tough sell for taxpayers, myself included.

Nonetheless, I still hope that two almost 100 year-old Chicago-type Division Street Bridges connecting the east and west side of Goose Island may somehow be preserved. They are two of the last four of ten first-generation Chicago-type bridges built between 1902 and 1911. The other two are also on the North Branch at Kinzie and Courtland Street and each is rather unique as early examples of the Chicago-type bascule bridge.

Q: How does the history of Chicago’s bridges mirror the growth and development of the city as a whole?

McBriarty: It is difficult to separate the two, as one would not have developed as it did without the other. Both the city and the bridges grew in population, scope, complexity, and sophistication over time leading to new and major advancements from generation to generation. Innovation and development of the two were prompted by major events and disasters. The advent of new materials such as commercially grade iron and then steel or the Great Fire of 1871 pushed innovation, advancement, and development of the city to create more diverse and advanced architecture, industry, and businesses. Likewise these events encouraged innovations in bridge construction and design, which was often first created and/or tested in Chicago before anywhere else on Earth. In turn, the interplay between the two meant the bridges enhanced the city and the city enhanced the bridges spiraling forward into bigger and better things.

Truly it is impossible to look at the bridges in a vacuum without the wider context of Chicago, as it is difficult to discuss the development of the city and its infrastructure without at least mentioning the bridges. Chicago’s most famous bridge at Michigan Avenue is a good example of this interplay. It was a key link in the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which laid out a broad civic plan to integrate streets and boulevards, harbor, railroad, and park facilities into a comprehensive city system. The broad boulevard of Michigan Avenue with its bridge connecting the North and South sides, which was completed in 1920, transformed Chicago and most notably created the Magnificent Mile north of the river. This bridge led to the transformation of a quiet residential street formerly know as Pine Street into the city’s main shopping district which in three to four decades shifted from State Street to North Michigan Avenue. These developments ushered in tremendous real estate and commercial development along this Chicago boulevard that would not exist without the city and the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Yet one more reason why it is Chicago’s most famous and most decorated bridge.

About michael

Marketing & Sales Manager since 2012