Movable Bridges and the Accidents That Happen on Them

Movable Bridges and the Accidents That Happen on ThemBridges are a mainstay of Chicago’s outstanding architecture and skyline, but did you know Chicago has the most movable bridges in the world? Thirty-seven of the city’s 300 bridges are movable bridges and many are close to 100 years old.

When you suffer an injury because of a faulty bridge part, you deserve to be compensated for the harm you suffered. The compassionate Chicago personal injury attorneys at Gainsberg Injury and Accident Lawyers discuss the dangers of movable bridges in today’s blog.

What is a movable bridge?

Britannica defines a movable bridge as any of several types of bridges that can move to accommodate the passage of boats and ships. Movable bridges include drawbridges, vertical-lift bridges, transporter bridges, and swing (pivot) bridges. In simple terms, it is a bridge that opens to allow boats to fit under it, then closes for vehicles to drive and pedestrians to walk over it.

Chicago’s bridge history

According to Britannica, in the late 19th century, drawbridges began to be built specifically to aid waterway navigation; the Tower Bridge, London, and the Van Buren Street Bridge, Chicago, were built almost simultaneously. Both were double-leaf bascules, and their success led to wide imitation; more than 20 were built to span the Chicago River alone. A bascule bridge is also called a drawbridge or a lifting bridge. It is a moving bridge that uses a counterweight to continuously balance a span or leaf throughout its upward spin to allow a boat to move through. A leaf is the part of the bridge that covers the water underneath.

Around the same time, bridge designer J.A.L. Waddell designed the vertical lift bridge, another movable bridge which also made its debut in Chicago. Several years later, it was noticed that this vertical lift bridge was ideal for railroad loading and then Waddell’s bridge design was used in major cities all around the country.

Wadell’s vertical lift designs are known as the Chicago Style bridges, or the trunnion bascule. The Chicago Loop Alliance describes trunnion bascule as, “Derived from French, ‘trunnion’ means ‘pivot point’ and ‘bascule’ means ‘seesaw.’ Operated by a bridgetender, the leaves of the bridge raise high, away from the center of the river with a complex system of counterweights, gears, and electric motors.”

The trunnion bascule bridges, said to have hastened the city of Chicago’s growth, are still in use today. Many of the bridges are close to a century old. They are a unique feature of Chicago’s architecture. In fact, the Chicago Loop reports that all bridges are lifted at the beginning and end of the boat season to allow tens of thousands of boats to pass through the Chicago River. Their spans rise dramatically into the sky, so onlookers can view the engineering marvel.

Are movable bridges safe?

There is not a lot of research on the safety of these bridges, but it is time for their safety to be seriously evaluated, especially the many movable bridges in the U.S. that are close to 100 years old.

There have been freak accidents, and accidents due to malfunction of the bridges, but there are not a multitude of accident reports due to this particular type of bridge. That being said, thousands of boats travel under them, and thousands of cars and trucks travel on them and we can’t forget about the pedestrians that walk and ride bicycles over them as well. Accidents have and will continue to happen.

For example, in September 1992, a fluke accident in Chicago occurred when a drawbridge opening of the Michigan Avenue Bridge hurled a crane from the bridge into traffic, creating a mess on the road. The iron ball and hook of the crane barreled into the back of a car; luckily the driver was in the front seat and was not injured. Several passengers on a bus, however, were injured due to debris flying through windows.

The Daily News reported that a woman was killed in 2014 in Boston when a bridge operator opened the drawbridge for a boat in the Chelsea River. The operator did not know the woman was there. The operator heard her screams and lowered the bridge, trapping her, causing her death. A police spokesperson said the victim was in a blind spot and the operator could not see her.

In February of 2022, a woman in West Palm Beach, Florida was walking her bicycle over the Royal Park Bridge when the drawbridge opened, and she fell to her death. Her family later sued for negligence.

Another Florida incident occurred in Palm Beach County in April of 2022. A pontoon boat was crushed underneath the Cato Bridge. There were signs directing boaters not to stop under the bridge because it is movable, but the boaters did not comply. Luckily, all passengers were able to jump off the boat and swim to safety. No one was injured. But these fluky incidents have forced people to stop and wonder about the safety of the movable bridge.

It might be time for the safety of the bridges and their opening mechanisms to be evaluated to ensure the safety of those traveling on and under these century-old engineering marvels.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car or boat accident due to faulty bridge opening mechanisms or any other kind of vehicle or boat accident, Gainsberg Injury and Accident Lawyers serves clients throughout the Greater Chicagoland area. We would be happy to listen to your story and help you recover the damages to which you are entitled. To learn more about our services, or to schedule a free consultation with a Chicago personal injury lawyer, please call our office at 312-600-9585, or complete our contact form today.