The Old North Avenue Bridge

the old bascule bridge

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Click the above photos to enlarge.

The Chicago DSA office was in the Northwest Tower Building from the mid-1980s through the first decade of the 21st Century. The Northwest Tower Building (aka “Coyote Tower”) was at the 3-way intersection of Milwaukee, Damen, and North avenues. In the mid-1980s, this was not quite a derelict neighborhood, but there were players working on its gentrification. It ultimately became part of Chicago’s extensive party district, and the Northwest Tower Building went from being a commercial slum to being a boutique hotel. That’s when the Chicago DSA office migrated to the northern boundary of Logan Square, still along Milwaukee avenue.

It was something of a commute from my place to and from the Chicago DSA office. Most often going home, I would take the CTA Blue Line south to Jackson and transfer back north on the Red Line. Sometimes I would take the North Avenue bus east to the Red Line’s North / Clybourn Station. If you could arrange to catch the bus with less than a 5 minute wait, you would at least break even on time compared to taking the Blue Line south. Depending on traffic, you might even save 5 or 10 minutes.

And sometimes I would walk North Avenue.

North Avenue was never particularly safe. In the 1980s, the main hazard might have been predatory jerks, the type who’d rob you with a gun. As the various neighborhoods along North Avenue gained in wealth, those jerks were largely replaced by jerks who robbed people with their pens. It’s difficult to actually do that with a pen on the street, so the main hazard was the sense of privilege that informed their driving. Other motorists may have been most at risk, but pedestrians had to keep an eye open too. There were homeless under the Expressway overpass and sometimes beneath the Chicago River bridge, but these were friendly… if you were friendly.

My favorite part of the walk were the blocks either side of the bascule bridge over the Chicago River’s North branch. The bascule bridge (aka draw bridge) was actually the second of the North Avenue bridges. The original North Avenue bridge was a swing bridge built in 1877, not long after Chicago’s great fire. (At one point North Avenue was Chicago’s northern boundary.) This was replaced by the bascule bridge in 1907. A few years after these photos were taken, the current bridge, a cable-stayed suspension bridge replaced it.

The builder’s plate lists Fred Busse as Mayor of Chicago. He was the first of Chicago’s ethnic mayors. All the previous mayors were of British extraction; Busse was German. Back then, Chicago election ballots had party labels; Busse was a Republican, having won the election against the incumbent Democrat Edward Dunne. Dunne probably deserves credit for the bridge as the contracting and construction began under his administration. Busse’s administration was noted for vice and crime, though it’s not clear to what degree Busse directly benefited from the corruption. He hung out at Murphy’s saloon, North Avenue and Clark Street.

The bridge was last lifted in the early 1970s. There continued to be commercial river traffic however: barges and tug boats equipped with retractable pilot houses.

There was, actually, a fourth North Avenue bridge. When the 1907 bridge was closed for demolition, a temporary bridge was built along side of it so as to not close North Avenue. As I recall it, this was largely a wooden structure with huge beams from what must have been impressive trees.

One morning on the way to the Chicago DSA office, I was stopped by a journalist and a videographer next to the temporary bridge. Did the temporary bridge frighten me, the reporter wanted to know. My reaction was that as a story, this was beneath contempt. In retrospect, I should have also asked if the assignment editor was pissed off at her.