Historic bridge houses are an iconic part of Chicago’s acclaimed architectural past and cultural heritage, representing several major styles, including Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, and Modernism. Chicago’s movable bridges and their bridge houses are also economically significant, having played a pivotal role in driving the city’s economic growth and prosperity. But as the city’s economy and population were booming in the late 1800s, the river itself became a major environmental problem; fortunately, one of the greatest engineering feats of its time solved the issue and paved the way for further economic growth.
The Chicago River and the movable bridges that span it helped Chicago become the fastest growing city in the world in the mid- to late 1800s. Bridges connect people and places, literally and figuratively, and Chicago’s population grew from 4,000 in 1834 when the first movable bridge was built to over 1,600,000 by 1900 when the city had more than 40 drawbridges. The bridges and their bridge houses allowed for the efficient and safe transfer of goods and people up, down, and across the various branches of the Chicago River. Each bridge was fitted with one or two unique bridge houses manned by tenders who monitored traffic and operated the bridges to optimize the flow of commerce. The bridge house tenders played a unique role in advancing the thriving Chicago economy by minimizing congestion and delays on both water and land.
There is an undeniable link between Chicago’s movable river bridges and its vibrant economic growth in the 19th Century. But amidst this prosperity was a looming environmental health crisis associated with the Chicago River. Untreated industrial waste and sewage were being dumped into the river and flowing into Lake Michigan, the primary source of drinking water for the city. As a result, residents were contracting waterborne illnesses such as typhoid and cholera. It would take an engineering marvel, the reversal of the Chicago River, to solve this issue. The reversal was completed in 1900 after eight years of work connecting the Chicago River with three newly constructed canals that were dug at increasing depths to allow the water to flow downhill, away from Lake Michigan, thus protecting the drinking water source. The canals were then joined with the Mississippi River system. Although the primary goal of this massive public works effort was to solve an environmental health issue, it also created a significant economic boost to the region. The tie to the Mississippi River meant the Chicago River was now connected all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, making Chicago a key link in intracontinental water transport from the North Atlantic via the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The bridge houses and their tenders were witness to, and a vital part of, an innovative engineering solution to an environmental health crisis that just so happened to increase the economic fortunes of the city.