Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge - Chicago


This abandoned Chicago landmark carried trains from 1908 until it was abandoned permanently in the raised position above the Chicago River.

- A tour boat approaches the permanently raised railroad bridge.

On a recent trip, my friends and I checked into a Holiday Inn on the north end of downtown Chicago. Our hotel was located directly above Mart Plaza and the offices of the Chicago Sun-Times, right on the banks of the Chicago River. The hotel's outdoor plaza offered a view of the city's impressive skyline and was surrounded by restaurants, ritzy apartments and even more hotels. The river bank was lined with yachts, speed boats and other upper crust watercraft, but in the middle of all the gentrification was a rusty structure rising up on the river. That structure was the abandoned Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge.


The bridge was once Chicago's lifeline to the West. Its location had been the site of the first bridge to cross the Chicago River and as demand and technology grew, the bridge seen today came to fruition in 1908. The riveted steel structure and massive concrete counterweight became Chicago icons, carrying the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

The design was innovative in that the large counterweight allowed the bridge to be stored in the upright position as not to interfere with traffic on the river. When a train was approaching, the bridge just simply had to be lowered to allow it to cross. The bridge opened up a main artery that fueled the growth of Chicago's west side. Eventually, the city infrastructure grew beyond the need of the bridge. By the late 90's, only the Chicago Sun-Times was using the bridge. In 1999, when the paper relocated its printing facilities out of downtown, no more trains were serving the Kinzie Street Bridge and it has remained in the upright position ever since.

- Looking towards the bridge's other connection across the Chicago River.

I hadn't planned to explore anything abandoned on this trip, but given that we were staying right next to this bridge and since the risk seemed low, I had to give it a shot. Despite the high activity around the bridge and the faded "No Trespassing" signs, no one seems to mind if you poke around a bit. In fact, one man was laying on one of the bridge's concrete piers - taking a nap during his lunch break, brief case tucked behind his head.


- Tunnel and abandoned railroad track leading to the Chicago Sun-Times building, the last customer to use the bridge before its abandonment.

I began to climb up the unprotected stairs to the bridge's tower when a nearby construction worker came over and asked me what I was doing. He told me a little bit of the bridge's history and mentioned that if I could get into the control tower or basement, that it would be like going into "Saddam's Dungeon."


There were a lot of people out and about, but none of them besides the construction worker seemed to care and if you look like you know what you're doing, people generally won't bother you, so I started climbing the steps to the bridge's control tower.


The door at the top was padlocked - apparently for the third time as the lock sat above two rusty, older ones. It wasn't coming open, so I went below to see if I could find this Gulf War era dungeon room that my newfound hard hat sporting friend was telling me about.


Locked again, and while a nice hard kick to the old door probably could've yielded some results - some things aren't worth being arrested on vacation for.


I walked across the actual Kinzie Street bridge (the one that carries cars, not railroads) to the other side of the River.




The right-of-way for the railroad was an overgrown gravel lot stuck between two upscale apartment buildings.


Across the street, overgrown rails continued into the distance - reminders of what had once been one of Chicago's industrial corridors.


The western deck of the railroad bridge is currently rotting, like some old boat dock. Making sure not to trip, I stood on the dock watching tourist boats go by and getting weird glares from the people on their condo patios.


On this side of the river, many private boats were docked, but underneath the bridge - an abandoned and slowly sinking fishing boat flopped in the water below.



The bridge stands as a rusty reminder of the city's past amongst the skyscrapers and condos. In 2007, it was designated as a Chicago landmark. A number of proposals from commuter rail lines to light rail lines to bus lines have been tossed around as a way to re-use the bridge, but nothing has come to fruition. In a city still bustling with rails, the Kinzie Street bridge has been outgrown.


  1. Very cool, I saw this last summer while on an architectural tour. I found it to be more interesting than most of the buildings.

  2. I would argue that the city has NOT outgrown this line. Much of its remnants remain in bits and pieces. What is needed is a line to Michigan Avenue for commuters and tourists. This could be the northern half of an arc and the St. Charles Air Line the southern arc toward Soldier Field, McCormick Place and the Museum Campus.