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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
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.]