Chicago, “the city that works,” wouldn’t work nearly as well were it not for the scores of bridges that crisscross the Chicago River, linking the North Side and the South Side, connecting people and business and commerce and transportation and shipping and leisure. These many bridges also connect the city’s present to its past, revealing a history of Chicago from before this city on the marsh was technically even a city.
Patrick McBriarty has crafted a lovingly told and thoroughly researched history of the bridges that now span and once spanned the river in Chicago River Bridges, a large-format, fully illustrated guide that chronicles more than 175 bridges in 55 locations on the North Branch, South Branch, and Main Channel of the Chicago River. Packed with nearly 200 illustrations, maps, and photographs, the book is an exhaustive, detailed examination of the bridges and the city that grew up around them.
From the first footbridge (built in 1832 by a tavern owner) to today’s modern marvels of engineering, McBriarty chronicles Chicago’s downtown bridges. Readers will find detailed information about the structures themselves, including architectural, mechanical, and technical details as well as information about the politics behind them, from debates about funding to discussions about ownership to arguments about placement. Engineering innovations are brought to life as McBriarty shares exacting details about materials and designs, explaining how the Chicago-style bascule bridge influenced bridge building worldwide.
For those readers whose eyes might glaze over with all the mechanical and technical information, which at times can feel microscopic, McBriarty colors these pages with lively descriptions of political and financial fights that helped or hindered bridges during the city’s history. Stories also abound of various bridge-related mishaps, from ships running aground and slamming into bridge pilings to horse-and-wagon accidents that tossed animals, humans, and cargo off bridges and into the river to the 2004 incident involving a Dave Matthews Band bus, the Kinzie Street bridge, a tourist boat, and a lot of sewage—to a sickening result. Floods and fires also populate these pages, serving as example after example of a city that perseveres.
McBriarty’s enthusiasm for Chicago and its bridges shines through on each and every page of Chicago River Bridges, as does his attention to detail. The book is literally packed with information, and punctuated with “historical highlights” and various sidebars, evidence of the effort the author put into researching and writing the book, which is something of a companion to his documentary film Chicago Drawbridges, coproduced with Stephen Hatch.
Architecture, design, engineering, history, human drama, politics—Chicago River Bridges has all of this and more. It is beautifully designed and well written, making for a lovely package for enthusiasts. Whether all readers will find each and every bridge—and each and every iteration of each and every bridge at each and every crossing of each and every branch of the river—entirely as fascinating as the author may be a question, but there’s certainly something for just about anyone in these pages.
October 2013, University of Illinois Press
$44.95, hardcover, 329 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen