Chicago’s Rail Bascule Bridges

Swing bridges are quiet curiosities – if it seems odd that a bridge should move, at least it’s only moving sideways.

Bascule bridges, by contrast, are utterly bizarre. If bridges aren’t supposed to move in the first place, then they really are not supposed to upend themselves into the air. That a flat sidewalk or roadway should become a vertical surface defies all logic and expectation.

Chicago’s roadway bascule bridges – including all the ones downtown – are elegantly slender, partly by necessity – crowded downtown streets don’t have a lot of room to spare. By contrast, the area’s numerous rail bascule bridges sport gigantic superstructures and enormous hanging counterweights, visually spelling out the defiant nature of their function – the titanic forces required to span a waterway, support a train, and occasionally turn the whole affair on its side.

Pennsylvania Railroad Western Avenue Bridge
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Variously known as the 8-track bridge or the scissor lift bridges, this complex conglomeration of steel is one of Chicago’s most unique sights. Just south of Western Avenue, the “bridge” is actually four bridges standing side by side, supported by common foundations. Each originally carryied two sets of railroad tracks. The western two bridges – seen above, rusty brown from lack of maintenance – are now abandoned, with tracks removed. The eastern two, however, still see many freight trains a day.

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The bridge type is known as a Scherzer rolling lift bridge – to open up, the entire span would literally roll back on the rounded arcs visible, pulled down by the massive counterweights hanging from the structure. Each bridge is a single-leaf structure, though the close spacing, alternating opening directions, and shared foundations have lead some sources to refer to them as double-leaf.

The 8-track bridges are no longer operable, and their motors have been removed. Curiously, there are no images online of the bridges in the open position, nor any indication of when the bridges last opened. Fixed in their closed position, they constitute the lowest bridge on the canal, with only 17 feet of clearance – a landmark by which boat clearances are measured by pleasure cruisers doing the various waterway circuits that pass through Chicagoland. Boats unable to pass below them must instead take the Cal-Sag canal to reach Lake Michigan.IMG_9824a

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The nearby Western Avenue road bridge was itself a lift bridge, with an impressively massive superstructure that has since been removed – see images here.

Further reading on the 8-track bridges:


Chicago and Alton Railroad Bridge
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This smaller bridge sits next to an Orange Line El stop, and spans a short branch of the river that run southward before abruptly terminating north of Pershing Street. Bridgehunter.com dates it to 1906.

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Further reading on the C&A Bridge:


St. Charles Air Line Bridge
Baltimore & Ohio / Chicago Terminal Railroad Bridge
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The most monstrously huge of them all, this pair of lift bridges crosses the Chicago River just south of Roosevelt Boulevard.

The northern bridge – built for the Baltimore & Ohio and the Chicago Terminal Railroad, in 1930 – is long abandoned and permanently raised, the tracks leading to it long since vanished. (ref 1)

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The southern bridge, originally serving the St. Charles Air Line Railroad, was built in 1919, moved and shortened in 1930, and still sees Amtrak traffic today. (ref 1) (ref 2)

The 1919 bridge was originally a few hundred feet east, as was the river itself. When the river was straightened, the 1930 bridge was built, allowing the older bridge to be moved alongside it without disrupting rail traffic. The older bridge was shortened at this time since it had less river to cross.

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If you’re ever lucky enough to see this mass of steel in motion, you’ll discover that the heavy angled piece is actually hinged at both ends – the counterweight section hoists the bridge up not as a contiguous piece, but through this pivoting system. The city has posted an amazing video of it, and many other bridges in motion, here.

The abandoned 1930 bridge operated through the same system, known as a Strauss Trunnion after the engineer who designed it.IMG_3696a

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Further reading on the St. Charles Air Line Bridge:

Further reading on the B&O Bridge: HistoricBridges.org


  • Deering BridgeP5020178aIMG_7428Serving the Union Pacific North Metra line, the Deering Bridge was built in 1916, replacing an earlier swing bridge on the site. (ref)Further reading on the Deering Bridge: HistoricBridges.org

Kinzie Street Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Bridge
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The other lift bridges are mostly far from the city center, in fairly out-of-the-way spots; not so the former C&NW bridge, which sits right in the middle of downtown. This bridge once served the industries near the lakefront, its tracks running under the Merchandise Mart to Navy Pier. The last customer was the Chicago Sun-Times; the bridge was lowered for paper deliveries to the printing presses. Since the Sun-Times closed up shop in the early 2000s (the site now replaced by the Trump Tower), this bridge has been permanently raised. (ref 1) (ref 2)

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Further reading on the Kinzie Street C&NW Bridge:


Multiple bridges, at the Indiana Harbor Canal

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At a narrow stricture point, multiple rail lines once crossed the Indiana Harbor Canal on their approach to Chicago – a total of ten lines on five bridges. Only two of the bridges remain in service today, carrying three tracks and seeing heavy freight traffic from BNSF and Norfolk Southern, as well as eastbound Amtrak trains.

The majority of trains pass over the Norfolk Southern bridge, the silver-whitish one in the foreground. Behind it, the bridge with the greenish tint is an Elgin, Joliet & Eastern bridge, now owned by Canandian National.  The box girder bridge was previously the Baltimore & Ohio main line; the two trestle bridges in front of it carried the New York Central. (ref)  The structures in the background are ore unloaders for the steel mill.

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A sixth one was built in 2011 – a bright blue bascule bridge that directly serves the ArcelorMittal steel mills.

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It’s barely visible above, but a clear shot may be seen here.

This fascinating group is difficult or impossible to reach without crossing a great deal of private property, or else taking a boat down the Indiana Harbor Canal – which, it just so happens, you can do this July if you take Forgotten Chicago’s Indiana Harbor Canal tour.


And just south of this group –

EJ&E Whiting Line Bridge No. 631
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A much smaller and isolated bridge, still operable and in use. A small example of the Sherzer Rolling Lift style.

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Further reading on the EJ&E Bridge: BridgeHunter.com


Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Bridge – at the Calumet River
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This unfortunate stump of a bridge met a colorful end when a massive lake freighter hit it in 1988. The span was damaged beyond repair, and removed; only the counterweight portion remains in place today. (ref)

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IMG_5073It stands alongside three vertical lift bridges… a topic we’ll cover next time!

Further reading on the B&O Calumet River Bridge, including photos of the accident that destroyed it: HistoricBridges.org

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Swing Bridges of the Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal has the least appealing name imaginable, but it draws interest for its remarkable history – as a feat of engineering, as a center of industry, and as a major geographic feature for southwestern Chicago. It is one of those rare elements that truly disrupts the marching grid of Chicago’s streets.

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The Sanitary and Ship Canal from the air, with railroads, industry and the Stevenson Expressway alongside.

Railroads, of course, are fewer in number than roads, and also heavier and less agile. The result is that a large number of remarkable railroad bridges cross the Sanitary and Ship Canal – all of them originally designed to move for ship traffic when needed.

With one major exception, movable bridges over the Chicago river and its associated canals fall into two groups: lift bridges, where the bridge raises into the air, and swing bridges, where the bridge rotates out of the way.  Today, we’ll visit a few of the swing bridges.

Almost none of the canal’s movable bridges remain operable today; many have had their machinery removed. This raises a curious question: when was each bridge last opened, and which one was shut down first? Deactivating a single bridge would essentially restrict boat height for the entire canal to the maximum clearance of that bridge. At what point was the canal judged no longer important enough to require maintenance of the bridges?

Santa Fe Railroad Bridge – near Harlem Avenue
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Now owned by the Santa Fe’s successor BNSF Railroad, this swing bridge sits perhaps a quarter mile northeast of Harlem Avenue and still sees frequent traffic. The Historic American Buildings Survey Engineering Record dates it to 1899, when the first segment of the canal was constructed.

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This bridge appears as the opening image of Wikipedia’s page for the canal – standing high and dry, before the canal had been opened and filled.

Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad Bridge – northwest of Cicero AvenueIMG_9731a

The least accessible of these bridges, the Cicero rail bridge is another swing-span bridge with a mid-stream pivot, built in 1899 as part of the canal’s construction. In the view above, the Ciero Avenue road bridge is visible beyond the rail bridge.IMG_6604a

Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad Bridge
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Sitting north of Pulaski Avenue, this is another original 1899 bridge that dates to the canal’s original construction. It is a two track bridge; only one track remains, and that one sees only occasional use.IMG_9761

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Kedzie Avenue BNSF Railroad BridgeIMG_9796a

Originally built for the Chicago, Madison & Northern Railroad, this bridge  stands just north of Kedzie Avenue and crosses the canal at a sharp angle; in fact, the tracks cross over Kedzie itself just a hundred yards or so later.  The Kedzie bridge is another swing-span bridge with a center pivot point; it has a more substantial central framework than its neighbors to the south.

This two track bridge remains in heavy use today.