Can you get hit by a train while biking across the Cherry Avenue Bridge?

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Photo by John – all others by Steven except where noted

Last month while exploring bits and piece of trails and riverwalks that run alongside the North Branch of the Chicago River, I biked over the Cherry Avenue Bridge, an old railroad bridge connecting Goose Island to North Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently converted the bridge to serve pedestrians and bicyclists, with rubber between the rails and the decking to make the surface safer to pedal over.

But I was alarmed to see a sign reading “Caution / Active Rail / Yield to Trains.” Was I really in danger of being flattened by a locomotive? I tracked down the project manager, chief bridge engineer Daniel Burke, to get the skinny.

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[Historic photo of the bridge – courtesy of CDOT]

What’s the history of the bridge and why is it there?

The bridge was originally constructed in 1902 by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway. It was a rail connection to service facilities on Goose Island. That railroad and right-of-way has continued in service to this day. The bridge was declared a Chicago landmark in December of 2007 and purchased by the City of Chicago from the Chicago Terminal Railroad for $1 in September of 2008. That fall the city took possession of the bridge and did the conversion that you see today. The bridge re-opened August 14, 2009.

What was the purpose of the conversion? It’s a bike-pedestrian bridge but it’s not really connecting any bikeways – North Avenue’s not a very bikeable street.

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[The bridge appears on the Chicago Bike Map as a purple line north of Goose Island]

Correct, North Avenue is not a designated bike route. But there’s been quite a bit of redevelopment on Goose Island. For instance the Wrigley Global Innovation Center is built at the north tip of Goose Island.

What that connection does is provide a link for pedestrians and cyclists – they can either walk their bike or ride it across the structure – not only to the island but also to the whole North Avenue – Clybourn corridor. [Here’s a Google map showing how the bridge makes it much easier for Wrigley employee to walk to buy lunch.] It gets fairly heavy pedestrian and bicycle usage and it’s been extremely well received.

The condition of building the pedestrian link was also part of the planning and development agreement between the City of Chicago and the Wrigley Corporation for the construction of the Global Innovation Center.

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[The Wrigley Global innovation Center – photo by CB804]

Do you know what they do over there?

Research and development for all the Wrigley products.

Oh really, chewing gum – interesting. So is there really active rail on that bridge?

There is John, it’s very, very limited though. The line is operated as a short line railroad. Their only active customer on Goose Island is Big Bay Lumber, which is located on the east side of Cherry Street just south of Division Street. They receive probably two shipments of lumber a week via rail. Those trains are pulled what’s called a yard locomotive, usually a two-to-three car train. They park that locomotive off of the Kennedy Expressway, next to the Morton Salt facility. You can usually see it from the expressway.

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[Condition of bridge before the conversion – photo courtesy of CDOT]

The take the lumber across the Chicago River via a turntable bridge located just south of Finkl Steele, then go along the Kingsbury right-of-way and then fork off onto Cherry Avenue, cross North Avenue at grade and go across that bridge and then down Goose island to deliver it. Usually there are three people on one locomotive, with two flagmen walking out front, and the train is typical only going about five miles an hour, almost walking speed.

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[Looking north towards North Avenue]


So if I’m walking or biking on the bridge is there any danger I might actually get hit by a train?

Absolutely not, there’s no danger. As I said, the train is going at very low speeds and there are two flagmen walking in front.

So I might have to get out of the way of the train or wait for it to pass before I can cross the bridge but there’s zero chance I’d actually get struck.

Yes.

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Anything else you’d like to tell me about this project?

It’s pretty innovative and one of the first of its kind. It’s a new take on an old concept because it was originally built as a rail and pedestrian link to Goose Island. We used fiberglass sidewalk and foam end pillars between the rails and the sidewalk. We’ve received really good feedback from both pedestrians and the bicycle community on the project. It received the 2009 Chicago Landmark Award for excellence in preservation, adaptive reuse and bridge restoration.

It was a quirky, unique way to take what had just been declared a landmark and find an adaptive reuse of it. I think it’s a pretty cool project.

[Check out more of Steven’s photos of the bridge here.]

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

20 thoughts on “Can you get hit by a train while biking across the Cherry Avenue Bridge?”

  1. I’ve been over that bridge several times, wandering roughly from downtown to Albany Park. Always northbound going home, just following my nose.  I’ve wondered about it – because it seems to go from nowhere to nowhere.  It seems I mostly go that way when I’m just riding with no particular plans or rush to get home.

    It’s a little more colorful route than the traditional Milwaukee or Elston or Halsted evem though these streets do have bike lanes.
     
    I saw the sign, but have never seen a train.

    1. I’m working on a route from downtown to the North Branch Trail incorporating as many sections of riverwalk and riverside paths as possible. I’ll probably post a map of the route in the spring.

  2. Interestingly, the swing bridge near Finkl Steel used to connect to the Bloomingdale Line, another re-purposing project. However, that connection was severed long ago.

    1. Do you know if this bridge still swings?

      At the Bloomingdale Trail charrette in October, several people commented that they’d like to see the trail extended to Clybourn across the river, perhaps using this bridge. 

      1. In John’s interview, Daniel mentions that the “lumber train” uses the swing bridge to get from the “parallel to kennedy” line to the kingsbury line (sorry I don’t know my train lines). I’ve hung out and smoked pought on the western end of the swing. It is a very cool spot, and a short stroll back to the Hideout’s Block Party. Just like the whole of the Bloomingdale line, I’d like to see this remain a little secret rather than get developed. It keeps the city more interesting. For that matter I remember riding across the Cherry Ave. bridge with Jim Redd and friends a dozen years ago while beams were missing. To be honest I think we were all too scared to ride, and simply walked our bikes across. Not as safe, but a lot more interesting.

        1. I want to know more about this bridge so I searched the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and found “Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, Bridge No. Z-6, Spanning North Branch of Chicago River, South of Cortland Street, Chicago, Cook, IL”.

          Photos that seem to be taken in summer 1999. 

          It was built in 1898. “The Milwaukee Road’s Bridge No. Z-6 may be the only one of its kind ever built, defying the conventional categories of center-bearing and rim-bearing swing bridges. This ingenious design answers the constraints of a small site on a bend in the river.”

          1. The swing bridge on the old Milwaukee Road from the Bloomingdale line to Goose Island certainly does still swing.. it stays open until railroad traffic requires that it be closed to pass. Traffic on the line can found more on Tuesday and Thursdays.

            The Chicago Terminal Railroad certainly still uses the Cherry bridge too.. this article felt like a bit of entitlement.

  3. To reply to SOB, (that’s Sweet Old Bob), I have seen train traffic across that bridge and through the Kingsbury corridor. However, if you’re not there during ‘normal’ M-F business hours, you’ve probably got a better chance of seeing a flamingo at the north pole.
    Keep on Pedalin’.

  4. When I first saw the new adaptation of the bridge after it reopened, I thought it was a very creative, smart reuse of the bridge.  I’ve seen trains there a few times over the last several years, but VERY few times, and they really do go that slow.

    A while back, I had a job interview at Wrigley and used the bridge to get there from the North/Clybourn red line stop.  The folks I talked to there said that the bridge is very popular with Wrigley employees for commuting, going to lunch, etc.

    1. Traveling by bike or on foot the few blocks between the Red Line station and this bridge merits a separate post. There are too many people wanting to drive through there. I may go there and to Big Box Boulevard just to get some video and photographs of Black Driving Friday madness. 

    1. If you read our south side cycling series by Anne (there care two articles), you’ll read about how so many of the barriers to cycling on the south side of Chicago are caused by railroad viaducts. 

      The railroads own (or at least manage) the property underneath the viaducts and either refuse to fix the pavement, lighting, drainage problems, and sidewalks, or aren’t aware of them (I highly doubt that). These problems have been brought to the City’s attention multiple times (Anne counting for some of them) but they seem powerless to do anything about it. 

      CDOT did arrange with Union Pacific to put asphalt in between this track that had two pairs of three rails all within inches of each other to make it just a tad smoother to cycle over. I don’t think it made a difference. Since the line is abandoned, the tracks should just be removed. I’ll rent the backhoe!

      1. Actually, the railroads are responsible for the bridges themselves.  Various other agencies (mostly CDOT, some IDOT and Cook County) are responsible or lighting, pavement, sidewalks, and sewers under the viaducts.

          1. There are various reasons. The biggest is probably just a limited budget. It’s not like RR viaducts are the only infrastructure in poor condition in the city.

            For roadways, adding a layer of pavement as an overlay would reduce viaduct clearances, which are typically already too low. So that means full reconstruction is required, which is more expensive.

            For drainage, cleaning clogged sewers can sometimes lead to collapsed sewers, which are more expensive to fix, so it’s risky work if you don’t have the budget to fix a potentially bigger problem.

            For lighting, I have heard there are only two crews to maintain the hundreds of viaducts around the city. However, I’ve also seen things get done quickly when it becomes a hot political issue.

            This leads me to believe that the real problem is complacency. As long as people expect viaducts to be in poor condition they don’t complain to Aldermen and 311. If the right people don’t hear enough complaints, nothing will get done. That’s the Chicago way.

  5. FWIW, I had used this bridge as a pedestrian going to Wrigley before, during, and after the renovation.  Before was kinda scary as many of the wooden planks were damaged, loose, or even missing.  During the winter months, you could see Many people’s footprints compacting the snow.  I didn’t know they were rebuilding it one time and I didn’t have time to walk down Kingsbury, Halsted, Division and up Cherry, so I instead climbed under the fence and walked through the site.  The bridge always remained open to rail traffic, but not pedestrians.  Now, the walkways were widened, the bridge was structurally beefed up or at least repaired, and the whole thing looks 1000x better.  Thanks CDOT!!  It also goes really well having the modern North Avenue suspension bridge and this 100+ year old swing bridge.

    As for some of your questions, while the swing mechanism was excavated and painted with new stones placed at it’s base, I don’t think the mechanism works.  I had heard it said that bridges on at least that part of the Chicago River no longer need to be raised.  That would also mean Cherry Avenue doesn’t need to move either.  The largest boats I saw passing underneath are some Crew boats from the nearby boating club.

    I have also seen the Terminal train run twice.  Once it was crossing North Avenue with a guy on the east, and presumably west, stopping traffic, and another time traveling down the middle of Cherry Avenue approaching Division.  It was really cool and impressive seeing it dwarf all the parked cars on the street.

    I’m not really sure how the Bloomingdale Trail could be extended to Clybourn or North Avenue for that matter, but at this point I just really want to see the Trail be built.

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