Between 1856 and 1920 there were four bridges that crossed the Chicago River at Rush Street. All of them, except the last one (Rush Street Bridge #4) were destroyed by some sort of accident (cattle, fire and collision). Even though this was not the location of the first bridge built across the Chicago River (that honor goes to Dearborn Street), it was considered the first bridge due to its location near the mouth of the river.
Rush Street Bridge #1
View of Rush Street Bridge From Norton’s Block, River Street
Lithographed & Printed by Chas. Shober, 109 Lake St.
Published by E. Whitefield, Rufus Blanchard 52 LaSalle St
Harper’s Weekly, November 21, 1863
A few minutes before five o’clock last evening the iron bridge across the river at Rush Street broke in two while turning, and precipitated twelve human beings and at least fifty cattle into the river. Several were drowned. Owing to the fact that it was growing dark at the time of the accident, and to the bustle and confusion incident to the scene, it was impossible to gather full particulars of the catastrophe. The following is all that could be ascertained:
A herd of fat cattle, numbering about one hundred and fifty, was being driven over the bridge, in a northerly direction, at a quarter before five o’clock. About sixty of them were on the bridge, the remainder having crossed over, when the tug Prindiville, having two small vessels in tow, came steaming down the river, and blew the whistle as a signal to open the bridge. A minute afterward, and before having arrived within dangerous distance, the captain saw the cattle crowding over, and immediately reversed the screw, signaling the fact to the vessels in tow at the same moment. But it was too late. The bridge-tender saw the tug approaching, and, apprehensive of a collision, he commenced to swing the bridge,, the north end of which was covered with cattle, the south end being empty. Of course this gave an immense preponderance to the former, and no sooner did the bridge swing clear of the bearings at the abutments than the north end descended. It sunk very slowly till it had dropped eight or nine feet, and then the whole weight of the structure being rested on one edge of the platform the bridge broke in the middle with a tremendous crash, precipitating every thing into the river, the two pieces falling right across the channel, one on each side, and leaving but one narrow space through which a vessel can pass.
The Rush Street Bridge after it collapsed.
Photograph by Mr. Alschuler
There were on the bridge at the same time two drovers, one of them mounted on horseback; James H. Dole, commission-merchant in this city; one woman with a child; a boy: and about four other men. The scene was indescribably terrible. Several of the cattle were jammed in among the broken material, being horribly mutilated, and sending forth most distressing sounds of agony. Human beings were struggling in the water, shrieking for help, and all around them were the uninjured cattle swimming about, and threatening mischief to their human companions in misfortune. The brig Goble was lying just below at the time, and her captain, Lewis Berry, sent off the first boat to the assistance of the sufferers. Other boats were quickly dispatched to the scene, and then the work of rescue began. This was not easily accomplished, as the animals were very thick in the water, and it was almost impossible to move among them for the purpose of aiding first the passengers. In consequence of this, and the rapidly increasing darkness, no one knew with certainty the number of those in peril. The following is believed to be the correct record of saved and lost.
The bridge-tender leaped from the platform overhead to the one below. He fortunately was not struck by any of the splinters, and escaped with only a few bruises received in falling. His assistant is believed to be lost.
Mr. Dole escaped almost by a miracle, falling into the water unharmed, and was picked up almost immediately. The horse and buggy were lost. The animal was a rather valuable one—worth four hundred dollars.
One elderly gentleman secured one of the planks which formed the floor of the bridge, and swam ashore by its aid; three other men were picked up by the boats. The boy was also saved. He said there was a woman walking alongside him when the bridge broke. Nothing was seen of her. She is in all probability lost, with her child. It is feared that both drovers were lost. nothing having been seen of them since, and the cattle were last evening roaming about the streets of the North Division, with no one to take care of them.
The horse on which the drover was riding was taken in tow by the Goble’s boat and hoisted on board the vessel. He was soon claimed and taken away. In attempting to get him ashore the plank slipped and he again fell into the river. The task of effecting a second emersion was much more difficult than the first. The animal was nearly drowned.
The Rush Street Bridge after it collapsed.
The majority of the cows swam to the dock without aid, and were pulled on land by the by-standers. Of the others, two were seen to drown, and five others were killed after reaching the dock, their injuries being of such in nature as to render recovery impossible. Several others remained inextricably fixed in the wreck, their moanings being plainly heard to a late hour last evening.
Rush Street Bridge #1
View from Rush Street Bridge #2
Photographer: John Carbutt #188
Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1872
RUSH STREET BRIDGE (#3)
So far everything was delightful, but the rest is not so cheering. The pedestrian who wandered down South Water street and wishes to cross the river at Rush street bridge, finds himself confronted by a corps of workmen laying Nicolson on the approach, while the long span points east and west, and no prospect of its coming round appears. The fact becomes apparent that Rush street bridge has not been rushed through, and that the in the scow immediately below, who waits with an amused air until you descend and take a seat, is the only bridge tender, and his clumsy craft the only bridge the city can boast at this point. To embark with him is a reckless proceeding, for, although the chances of death by drowning are not appalling, those of having one’s brains dashed out under the approach as the boat goes suddenly through between the piles, are decided by arguments in favor of life insurance. There is consolation, however, in the fact that you dead-head your way into the other world, and that this model Charon receives his remuneration in strong language only, as far as his passenger is concerned, while the balance is made up out of the City Treasury. When completed Rush street bridge will be 209 feet long and 33 feet wide. The contract for the substructure, including a substantial stone centre pier and protection, was awarded to E. Sweet, Jr.,& Co. for $5,850, the superstructure, including turntable, &c., to the Detroit Bridge & Iron Company for $15,600, making a total cost of $21,450. The contract stipulated that it should be ready for passengers by April 1. So it is, but the passengers have to take a ferry.
Panic at the Rush Street Bridge #2, Looking South
Chicago Fire Cyclorama, Scene The Third
Chicago Tribune November 23, 1883
Shortly before 4 o’clock yesterday morning the schooner Granger (US No. 85376), lumber laden, in charge of the Charles W. Parker (US No. 125222), collided with Rush-street bridge while the latter was swung open and so damaged it in the centre that the two ends upon the protections of the centre pier, entirely wrecking the structure and the running-gear in the centre. According to the statement of the of the bridgetender, either the schooner Granger or the steam-barge Business, or both, are responsible for the disaster, and it is not unlikely that the courts will be called upon to decided this point. It seems that the Granger was being towed up the river by the Parker, and that the Business was passing out light, being about to sail for Escanaba for iron ore. By some misunderstanding or perverseness the Parker chose the south draw of the bridge, while according to maritime rules she should have taken the north draw with her schooner unless otherwise apprised by the vessel going out. As she entered the draw from the east the Business did the same fromn the west. As soon as the Captain of the Parker discovered the close quarters ahe was in she attempted to get alongside the Granger, and in so doing she slewed the schooner’s head around toward the bridge. While in that position the Business struck her on the port bow, driving her jibboom into the bridge about midway of it, tearing away the board-walk, one of the iron up-rights, and the iron stringer at the bottom, so weakening the structure amidships that it collapsed and let both ends down. Fortunately, the bridge was almost entirely open, and the ends were thereby prevented from falling in the river. The bridge was over twelve years old, and was not regarded as very substantial. It was 206½ feet long, and when open the weight of each end unsupported caused a great strain upon the central portion which was weakened by the blow. There were two men on the bridge at the time of the accident, neither of whom was injured. This morning a force of men will be put to work, and the structure will be repaired as soon as possible.
REPAIRING THE BRIDGE.
Commissioner Cregier states that it will be a week or ten days before the bridge can be sufficiently repaired to admit travel, but the position that it is now in will allow vessels to pass to and fro. As to the amount of damage done he can as yet form no estimate, but the injury to the bridge is not so great the it will be necessary to build a new one. The Commissioner thinks that after the repairs are made it will be in better condition than ever. The liability falls upon the owners of the vessels, but it is too early to determine what this will amount to. The repairs will be made by Rust & Coolidge, and a gang of men were set to work yesterday afternoon.
THE FIRST ACCIDENT
Some ten years prior to the accident of 1863 the Rush street bridge was the occassion of another and more fatal disaster. It was then a floating bridge, hinged to one bank of the river, and opened for passage of vessels by means of ropes. As it was being pulled open one day it careened and was swamped, and a number of laborers on board were drowned.1
A BROAD BRIDGE TURNED BY STEAM
CHICAGO, Nov. 22.—(Editor of The Tribune)
—Is not now a good time for the city to build at Rush street a wide, heavy, substantial bridge; one that two teams could pass over abreast each way at the same time, and could be operated by steam-power? The railroad bridge at Sixteenth street demonstrates that a heavy, substantial bridge can be successfully operated by steam and turned in about one-quarter the time a light, narrow bridge can be turned by hand. In this way could not most of the annoyance of delays to navigation and land traffic at the bridges be obviated?
Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1884
The Rush street bridge was formally opened yesterday in the presence of probably 3,000 people, though the public has been using it for a week. Two o’clock was the hour announced for the beginning of the tests which were to be made prior to its final delivery to the city by its contractors, but long before that time the bridge and its approaches were crowded.
The bridge was first cleared, and then the tests were made under the supervision of Commissioner of Public Works Cregler and City Engineer Artingstall. It took just fifty-nine seconds to draw the latch asnd swing the structure to the centre protection and sixty-two seconds to swing it back to the abutment. To swing the bridge from the abutment 270 degrees required 180 seconds, while to open it for a passing vessel and swing it back to the abutment ready for use took 138 seconds, The above tests were considered most satisfactory, but those following were pronounced far above what had been expected. To test the deflection there were first placed on the north end two city water-wagons loaded with soap, weighing each twelve and a half tons, followed by teams whose weight was from six to seven tons each—in all eighteen wagons. Local instruments, by means of which deflection under the load was to be measured, were placed near the approaches, one at each end.
Rush Street Bridge #4
TESTING THE STRENGTH.
The rollers under the north end of the bridge were adjusted that the end track just touched the bearings. The eighteen teams weighed in the aggregate 136 tons, and those who wished being allowed to go upon the structure, about 800 people availed themselves of the opportunity, making a total of about 200 tons weight. Under this pressure the detection of the north arm was about one-half of an inch, while the south end was raised about three-eighths of an inch. The teams were then moved to the south arm and their places filled with other teams, so that the bridge was covered from end to end. There were thirty-four teams in the double roadway, and 2,000 people (estimated), the centre load being about 370 tons. The maximum deduction of the trusses under the above at the south end was three-eighths of an inch.
This was followed by the most exiting test of all. Engines 10, 11, 27, and 32, with their hose carriages, had been stationed on the North Side, and at a signal they started at a full gallop across the bridge, two engines and their trucks on each roadway. It was noticeable that the jar was hardly perceptible, or, as the experts stated, the vibration was moderate. The bridge was then swung again, no permanent deflection was found, and it turned as easy as before.
This completed the tests, and at the invitation of the contractors, Fitz-Simmons & Connell, the officials and guests repaired to the Tremont House, where a collation was served. Commissioner Cregier presided and Controller Gurney invoked a blessing.
Commissioner Cregier in the course of some remarks said he believed that Chicago had made an advance in bridge-building, for she had furnished the largest bridge of its kind in the world. He considered nearly all the merit was due to the engineer, Mr. Artingstall, thought the for the structure under the water the credit should go to Fitz-Simmons & Council, and for that above to Rust & Coolidge. The relations of the contractors with the city had been pleasant, and though the retaining wall did fall everything was now substantial.
Gen. Fitz-Simmons said that although the newspapers had prophesied that the piles would go through the bottom of the river to China he was not at all afraid of any such catastrophe. The contractors had not made any money, notwithstanding what the Commissioner had said about everything being pleasant. They only got paid for a tithe of the work donem and he did not propose to again make such a contract. He spoke of the magnificence of the structure, and said that had it been built in France the designer would have been made a member of the Legion of Honor, or if in England he would have been Knighted.
Capt. Prindiville said that though he admired the structure the time would come, though not in his day, when all the bridges across the river would be permanent.
Rush Street Bridge #4
Robinson Fire Map
Volume 3, Plate 9
Commissioner Gurney spoke of the pleasure it gave him to see the bridge finished, but he was satisfied that it would not be many years before the citizens would cross the river upon permanent stone structures and the railroads be driven back to the outskirts.
John M. Clark spoke of Chicago’s marvelous growth, and of the problems for the future, remarking that they were chiefly engineering in their character, embracing sewerage, bridge-building, and water supply. As to bridges, Rush street had settled that problem, but he did not believe there would be permanent structures. The law of the State does not permit any injury to invested property without full compensation, and the whole assessed valuation of property would not pay the damage caused by closing the river. The remedy, he thought, would be tunnels under each branch of the full width the street and double track bridges. Of the Rush street bridge he said that in all his engineering experience he had rarely seen a structure stand a severe test so well.
A. C. Hesting urged double track bridges at all the streets where bridges were now placed. He did not advocate shutting up the river but thought be carried on better with permanent bridges. He referred to the city of Hamburg where all of its immense trade was done through the agency of lighters at a very small expense. With competent lighterage there would be no fear of Chicago losing trade through competition with other cities. The river was never a natural one, for time was when vessels could only go in the neighborhood of Michigan avenue. The period had been reached when citizens should see that the lAw was changed so as to allow them to borrow money for the purpose of extending the waterworks system, and thus prevent pestilence. The sewage now goes out to the crib and is brought back for the people to drink.
A NEW DEPARTURE.
State-Treasurer John C. Smith related reminiscences of early days in Chicago, and, continuing, said that the Rush street bridge was a new departure in rapid transit and the rapid handling of freight. He was in favor of permanent bridges, and believed that the majority of those present would live to see them. The lighterage system would do away with all the objections that might be urged. The city authorities should see that the harbor was dredged and put in proper condition.
Dr. Wickersham, ex-Chairman of the Council Finance Committee, thought that all were satisfied with the money spent on the Rush street bridge. He believed that it would not be more than ten or fifteen years when all the bridges would be permanent. The population of the city was increasing at the rate of 25,000 each year, and the people would demand the change. There would be a great harbor outside, and the river would be open for dock purposes by means of lighters. He was not afraid of a reasonable addition to the bonded indebtedness of the city for permanent improvements. The ship-canal about which there had been so much talk about would cost $20,000,000, but it would add $100,000,000 to the taxable property of Chicago. It was needed, and he was afraid that Congress would do nothing in its favor, and that the State would lend no assistance, so that the greater part of the cost would fall upon this city. Twenty million dollars at 4 per cent per annum would amount to $800,000 interest each year, but every time he advocated increasing the debt for such improvements the papers gave him Hail Columbia. They kicked also when he advocated an extension of the water system, but they would regret it. The canal and waterworks were necessities and should be completed for posterity. Even now Chicago had less indebtedness than any city of her size in the country.
John O’Neil hardly thought any one presently would live ti see permanent bridges, but if such as that at Rush street were puta at all the streets all that would be necessary when the time came for permanent bridges would be to raise the abutments.
Brief addresses were also made by Messrs. Artingstall, Daley, and E. T. Holden.
Rush Street Bridge #4 in 1900
Rush Street Bridge #4 in 1900
Rush Street Bridge #4 in 1910 showing the congestion and the necessity to build a bigger bridge to link the North and South sides.
Chicago Examiner, October 11, 1911
The Rush street bridge carries more traffic in a single day than does the famous London bridge in the City of London. Traffic on the Rush street bridge in a single day is 10 per cent heavier than on London bridge.2
This fact is proven by a traffic census taken under the direction of Captain Healy of tbe Chicago Police Department at the request of tbc Chicago Plan Commission,
Charles H. Wacker. chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, said yesterday:
When I made the statement al the public bearing on the Michigan avenue connecting link before the Board of Local Improvements last July that traffic was more congested in and around Rush street bridge than at any single spot in the world, somebody laughed.
The London and Chicago police traffic census reports both represent a day of twelve hours. The two reports show another significant fact. There is 38 per cent more traffic on the seven streets intersecting Michigan avenue immediately north and south of tbe river than is shown in the London report for the eight principal points of entry into London.
The Chicago police traffic census also shows 9,725 vehicles of all descriptions passing over the Rush street bridge in twelve hours, as against 9,575 vehicles on Fleet street.
These figures prove conclusively that there is only one practical way to make the connecting link and at the same time relieve congestion, while preserving Michigan avenue as a business thoroughfare, and that is to separate traffic, as proposed by the double level system in plan of tbe Chicago Plan Commission.
River Street at Rush Street Bridge #4
Rush Street Bridge #4
March 25, 1917
The photograph above shows the old Rush street bridge, the new Michigan avenue one, and points of interest along the river banks. It was taken from an airplane for The Tribune by Pilot Dallas M. Speer, whose picture is inset
1 The first “floating bridge” described was actually a ferry service that started in 1847. It got swamped around 1853.
2 For comparison, the population of London in 1910 was 4,997,741, while Chicago’s was 2,185,000.