Vertical Lift Bridges

In the long-delayed Part Three of a look at Chicagoland’s moveable railroad bridges, we’ll visit all ten of Chicago’s vertical lift bridges – starting at the far south and moving north.

Vertical lift bridges consist of two towers housing counterweights and cable systems, with a moveable span between them which rises directly up when needed. They are often used for longer crossings and places where a waterway must be crossed at an angle. The towers, often reaching up to 200′ in height, are highly visible in Chicago’s flat landscape.

CSX / Joliet Railroad Bridge, Joliet – 1932

Nearly in the center of downtown Joliet, this bridge still sees occasional use by trains. It remains in the open position until needed by a train.


The bridge is one of a long sequence of moveable bridges lining the Joliet River as it passes through town. Barges necessitate the frequent opening of the bascule bridges seen in the distance.




Joliet Railroad Bridge at

Canadian National Bridge – north of Joliet

Not easily accessible, this bridge sees frequent rail traffic on the CN main line.


CN Des Plaines River Bridge at

Torrence Avenue Bridges – 1938, 1968IMG_7556

Two bridges standing side by side dominate the landscape of S. Torrence Avenue, visible from miles away. Much of the surrounding terrain is marshland and remains undeveloped, lending further prominence to these two massive structures.



The lowered bridge, recently rehabilitated and still in active use, is a road bridge, carrying Torrence Avenue over the Calumet River. It was built in 1938. In the photo above, it appears in its previous steel gray paint; post-renovation, it sports the common Chicago maroon.

The raised bridge is an abandoned railroad bridge, built in 1968. During renovation of the road bridge, the rail bridge was lowered and used as a bypass for the road.





Torrence Avenue Bridge at

Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad Bridge at

Norfolk Southern Bridge (originally Nickel Plate Road), Calumet River, 1971

A double-track rail bridge over the Calumet River, only a few hundred yards’ distance from the Torrence Avenue bridges.



Norfolk Southern Calumet River Bridge at

Multiple bridges, Calumet River – 1912-15

A total of five bridges once spanned the river at this location – 4 vertical lifts, and a single bascule bridge. One of the lift bridges was demolished in the 1960s, and two more are abandoned, but they still form one of Chicagoland’s most impressive industrial sights.


In the view above, the one active bridge stands alone on the right; the gap marks the location of its lost twin. These two built for the Pittsburgh Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad – eventually assimilated into its parent company, the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The demolished bridge was removed in 1965; two workers were killed when a crane failed, dropping the span into the river.

At center are two abandoned bridges originally built for the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern railroad, which soon after became part of the New York Central. The Pennsylvania and the New York Central merged into Penn Central in 1968, rendering these two obsolete and leading to their abandonment. The bridge has since passed from Penn Central to Conrail to Norfolk Southern.

The left-most bridge is the half-destroyed bascule bridge, built by the Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad.


The towers are around 190 feet high, capped with massive cable winding sheaves that are 15 feet in diameter. The Chicago Skyway bridge affords an excellent, if all too brief, view of the bridges’ upper workings.



The Calumet River Bridges at

Canadian National / Elgin Joliet & Eastern Bridge 710 – Calumet River, 1974

Spanning the Calumet River just before it empties into Lake Michigan, this single-track span is the newest vertical lift bridge in the region.

It’s not clear that the bridge is abandoned, but it clearly sees very little traffic.



EJ&E Calumet River Bridge at

Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge 458 – Chicago River, 1915

The heaviest lift bridge in the world when completed, this still-active bridge crosses the Chicago River south branch at Chinatown, carrying many Amtrak trains daily. It is raised twice a week during boating season.






Canal Street Bridge at


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

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.


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



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

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. dates it to 1906.



Further reading on the C&A Bridge:

St. Charles Air Line Bridge
Baltimore & Ohio / Chicago Terminal Railroad Bridge

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)


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.


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



Further reading on the St. Charles Air Line Bridge:

Further reading on the B&O Bridge:

  • 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:

Kinzie Street Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Bridge
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)



Further reading on the Kinzie Street C&NW Bridge:

Multiple bridges, at the Indiana Harbor Canal


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.


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


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

A much smaller and isolated bridge, still operable and in use. A small example of the Sherzer Rolling Lift style.


Further reading on the EJ&E Bridge:

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Bridge – at the Calumet River
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)


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:

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.


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

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.



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

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


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.

The industrial wonders of northwest Indiana

Whiting. Hammond. East Chicago. Calumet City. Pullman. Harvey. Dixmoor. Blue Island. Gary. As I slowly become more familiar with the southern reaches of Chicagoland, these names gain more and more resonance for me. Each speaks of strange contrasts, lands of tidy lawns and raw industry, urban decay and pastoral emptiness. It’s a land slightly mythologized by the movie Blues Brothers, whose grungy titular characters rarely ventured north of the Loop. It is a region that has worked hard and sacrificed much over the decades, the city’s blue collar underbelly, the engine that drove Chicago to its industrial peak, only to be abandoned and neglected when US industry began collapsing.

I could gaze at this forever.

Despite the hard times, a lot of heavy industry remains here. The Port of Chicago operates here, receiving a steady trickle of Great Lakes freighters. And from Whiting, all the way into Michigan, a line of industrial sites makes Highway 912 one of the most amazing places on the planet.

The industrial sprawl once started much further north, within the Chicago city limits, at the site of the US Steel South Works, once the largest steel mill complex on the planet. That facility closed nearly two decades ago, and was leveled to the ground. With the subsequent demolition of the mills and factories along S. Torrence Avenue to the west, large-scale industry has mostly vanished from the Chicago City limits.

Despite the decline, even the most cursory overview of the industrial regions is a big undertaking. The action today, then, begins at the Chicago Skyway bridges, which soar to incredible heights to cross the Grand Calumet River.

That endless skyway

Below the skyway bridges, a profusion of industrial sites loads ships and barges, as tugs and speedboats drift past. A trio of movable railroad bridges stands abandoned, their tracks long since torn up, too big and cumbersome to demolish.

The Chicago Skyway


After the Skyway bridges, one passes the looming State Line Generating Station, which sits just yards away from the Indiana/Illinois border.

State Line Generating Station

State Line Generating Station

Rolling on southward, you’ll pass a profusion of casinos, gas stations, medium industrial sites (including the sometimes overpowering smell of Lever soap being manufactured). This land is essentially one continuous urban development, but the “town” of Whiting is one of several here that has its own distinct main street and central business district. Whiting also abuts an enormous refining complex owned by British Petroleum.

Tank car army

BP Refinery at Whiting


The BP plant sprawls all the way up to the first of the steel mills, the huge facility of Ispat Inland Steel, built on a peninsula made of landfill. Crushed between the two complexes is the tiny planned workers’ village of Marktown, one of the most incredibly isolated residential neighborhoods you’re ever likely to find, and well worth a post of its own.

Inland Steel

Awesome industrial hell

If there’s a center to all this insanity, it’s the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, which runs right through the center of the Ispat Inland complex, and is crossed by a dizzying array of bridges and overpasses.

Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal

Highway 912, aka Cline Avenue, provides an elevated view of the Inland Ispat complex, bringing you nose-to-nose with some of their gargantuan buildings and flying high above their grounds.

Inland Steel

Cline Avenue turns away from the lake as it continues south, but the industrial sprawl continues. As soon as Ispat Inland’s reign ends, US Steel begins. US Steel is the reason Gary exists; they constructed the city as their own company town. Their mini-empire runs for miles along the lake, and consumes the vast majority of Gary’s lakefront.

US Steel’s Gary Works is frustratingly inaccessible. Multiple entry points are steadfastly guarded against such wayward rouges as photographers, explorers, and curiosity seekers.

I think there was a fire.

Once you finally get past US Steel, the lakeshore of Gary is quite lovely, marking the beginning of the Indiana Dunes lakeshore park. Due to some Machiavellian bargaining back in the 1950s, part of the dunes was carved away to provide room for still more industry, another steel mill (likewise inaccessible) and a power plant at Michigan City that looms over some of the beaches.

Indiana Dunes

Michigan City power plant

It can be a shock to look back from east Gary’s waterfront and suddenly realize how far you’ve come from Chicago, whose skyline is 30 miles distant and barely visible across the lake. And it’s a bigger shock to realize the amount of industry you’ve passed along the way.

I expect prize money for this shot.