A tiny Chicago museum
(Feature photo: view of the Michigan Avenue-DuSable bridge from the wheelhouse)
By Karen Rodriguez
“Chicago has long been known as the Drawbridge Capital of the World, and is home to the greatest variety of drawbridge designs of any city on earth!”* Patrick McBriarty, author and bridge historian
The McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum inhabits the southwest tower of the Michigan Avenue-DuSable Bridge over the Chicago River. Museum entry is on the Riverwalk level. The museum winds upwards five stories through the narrow tower starting at the bottom floor with its view of the bridge gears to the top floor with great views of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River. Along the stairway signage tells the story of Chicago’s drawbridges and why and how the flow of the Chicago River now flows toward the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan. The Friends of the Chicago River, a non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the health of the Chicago River, helped to establish the museum in 2006.
The Michigan Avenue-DuSable Bridge is a Bascule (seesaw) design—double leaf, double decked, Beaux-Arts architectural style, opened in 1920. As with other Chicago drawbridges, it rotates on a trunnion (axle) with a counterweight. The drawbridge opens approximately 50-100 times a year for sailboats traveling to and from the river to the Lake Michigan locks. Modern drawbridge designs were developed and tried in Chicago first. Today, Chicago has 60 drawbridges, 44 operational, more than any other city in the world except Amsterdam.
In the mid-1800s, sewage from an increasing Chicago population was dumped into the Chicago River. The river flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water supply. Waterborne diseases were rampant. Sewers were built in 1855, increasing the flow of sewage to the river and Lake Michigan. In 1900, in an engineering feat, the flow of the Chicago River’s main stem and south branch was reversed using a series of locks and increasing the flow of Lake Michigan to the river and to a newly built canal. Sewage was transported upstream to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and on to the Mississippi River. Chicago’s drinking water was and still is protected.
*From a brochure produced and donated by Patrick McBriarty, author and bridge historian, in cooperation with Friends of the Chicago River.
Content and photos copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez