To most people, Chicago’s movable bridges represent an engineering feat that lifts a ton of steel into the air while boats pass underneath. But to the crew that operates the structures, they are a full-time job. Here’s what it takes to get it done.
“Every day kinda speaks for itself,” says Darryl Rouse, Chicago’s Superintendent of Bridge Operations. “On a boat run, we start at south Ashland with fourteen operators and trade support, so there are like 30 people.”
Mr. Rouse has been running the operations of Chicago’s bridge system since 1994. He was promoted to the position after serving more than a decade as a bridge tender. Before that, he was a member of the International Carman’s Association for Burlington Northern Railroad, repairing freight trains and handling the duties of a traveling mechanical supervisor.
Besides managing the administrative function of his 56-person department within the Chicago Department of Transportation, he also oversees the preparation and execution of the spring and fall boat runs.
Every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 a.m. from mid-April to late-July, the summer boat run takes place along the Chicago River. On these days, all the movable bridges from the 2600 block of S. Ashland Ave. on the South Branch to the 400 block of N. Columbus near DuSable Harbor are lifted in fifteen-minute increments to accommodate vessels traveling to Lake Michigan. By the end of the operation, nearly two-dozen structures will have made way for floating traffic. By the end of the season, nearly 200 boats will have sailed through.
On days before boat runs, Mr. Rouse coordinates the trade support — a team of CDOT electricians, engineers, ironworkers and machinists — and the bridge operators. During the runs, the crew of about 30 is divided into two teams that “leapfrog from site to site to make sure that the bridges open.”
“Every time we lift, we troubleshoot,” he says.
The bridges are also tested weeks before the season begins. Besides repairing or replacing unsatisfactory mechanical parts that may be up to 100 years old, the crew also rewires safety gates, safety bells and stop signals.
Of the 400 bridges that span the Chicago River, 37 are movable. “They are mostly bascule bridges,” explains the Superintendent.
Bascule bridges work by attaching the bridge leaf, which is the part that people and vehicles travel on, to a counterweight, which is usually hidden from site. When the bridge leaf is given an initial push, the counterweight uses gravity to lift it into the air like a balance scale, which is the definition for the French word “bascule,” after which the bridges are named. Because so many of the city’s bascule bridges pivot on a fixed axel or trunnion, the name “Chicago bascule” is also frequently applied to similar structures around the world.
“It’s like a teeter totter,” says Mr. Rouse. “It doesn’t take a lot of weight to tip it.” In Chicago, one to four 125 horsepower engines provide the initial push. Counterweights weighing 400 to 500 pounds finish the job. The real trick, according to Mr. Rouse, is ensuring that the weight is evenly distributed. “Even if you paint them,” he continues, “you have to make sure that the weight remains balanced.”
During a bridge lift, the tender’s main responsibility is to ensure the safety of nearby people and boats. “You’ve got to judge just right something as simple as the stop traffic lights,” explains Mr. Rouse. “If you throw them on too suddenly, you might have a traffic accident.” They operate a console full of dials and buttons that analyze, control, and distribute everything from the warning bell on top to the motors underneath. “It takes about three years to get them really seasoned and know their craft,” he continues.
Besides completing an in-house training program at the Calumet Bridge, new tenders are monitored closely once they are assigned to the downtown region.
“The operation can freak you out, as it did me when I was first up there,” says the Superintendent. But not enough to deter him from following a dream that he’s felt since growing up on Chicago’s near north side. “I’ve always been fascinated by bridges and railroads,” he says.
— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer