Remember the old nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down...”?
In 1900, Kankakee residents could have substituted the word “Washington” for “London” — the major river crossing for pedestrian and vehicle traffic between the city’s downtown and south side was in deplorable condition.
On Jan. 17, 1900, the Kankakee Daily Gazette told its readers, “The city engineer, superintendent of streets, and every member of the committee on streets and alleys this afternoon made a close examination of the condition of the Washington avenue bridge. … The city authorities discovered, to their amazement and dismay, that a number of the joists at the south end of the bridge, on the streetcar side of the structure, were rotted for a distance of several feet from their ends. Looking further they found that a supporting rod was broken squarely off at the top where it passed through the iron arch; and more ominous than all else, the city engineer detected the first long arch on the west side of the bridge was sprung three or four inches out of line.”
Since the bridge typically carried a heavy traffic of pedestrians, horses, wagons, and trolley cars, city authorities “ordered the roadway boarded up immediately in order that not another hour of danger shall be risked by team or streetcar travel over the structure. The footwalk will be left open.”
The bridge, which had served the city for 37 years, stretched a distance of more than 500 feet, connecting the north and south banks of the Kankakee River. Four arched iron trusses, each 125 feet in length, rested on limestone piers rising from the riverbed; a heavy timber deck served as the roadway.
The Washington Avenue span was the city’s first publicly owned bridge. For the first 10 years of Kankakee’s existence, a uniquely designed wooden bridge erected by the Illinois Central Railroad carried all pedestrian and vehicle traffic across the river. The upper level was used for trains; the lower level carried all other types of traffic.
Tolls were charged by the railroad for crossing the bridge, causing resentment among its users. As early as 1855, a Kankakee newspaper editorialized, “This is a toll bridge, and although a beautiful and costly structure, it is upon many of our citizens a heavy tax. By parties interested, there has been talk of other bridges in different localities of our city.”
A decision by the Illinois Central to replace the double-decker wooden bridge with a trains-only iron structure prompted the city to build the Washington Avenue bridge. Both the Washington Avenue and the new IC bridge were completed in 1863.
Fear that the bridge “was in danger of going down at any hour under the strain of even a light load” prompted quick action on the part of two important users of the span: the fire department and the trolley company. Fire Chief I.W. Powell announced that his two fire companies based in downtown Kankakee would handle all alarms on the north side of the river, while a third company located south of the river would respond to all alarms on that side.
The trolley system operated by the Kankakee Electric Street Railway was a vital transportation link for workers commuting from Kankakee to their jobs at two major employers on the south side of the river, the state hospital and the Sinclair stone quarry. The company moved one of its trolley cars across the bridge to serve the south side of the city. While the bridge was closed to vehicles, pedestrians could walk across and board a trolley car at either end.
The city council ordered immediate repairs to “permit the use of the bridge for all traffic except streetcars, the amount to be expended not to exceed $150.” The “immediate” repairs were not completed until mid-April, when “light traffic” was allowed to cross; additional repairs to permit trolleys on the bridge stretched well into May. The projected $150 repair cost escalated to more than $3,000.
With periodic repairs, the aged and decrepit bridge would continue to carry traffic across the river for more than four years. On March 14, 1904, the city council approved a $45,170 contract with an Iowa company to build a new and larger Washington Avenue bridge. Construction began in late March and was completed in October.
The new bridge was a steel-reinforced concrete structure composed of seven 72-foot spans, and a width of 44 feet, 8 inches (a 34-foot-wide roadway, with 5-foot, 4-inch pedestrian walks on each side). The old Washington Avenue bridge was only 24 feet wide, including the sidewalks. An added feature was electric lighting — 32 incandescent light fixtures would be mounted on the poles carrying the trolley wires.
Instead of a formal dedication ceremony for the bridge, city leaders decided upon what would be called today “a photo op.” On page 1 of its Saturday, November 12 edition, the Daily Gazette announced, “Kankakee’s pride, the new concrete-steel bridge, will be photographed next Monday morning at 10:30 o’clock and an invitation is extended to all to occupy a space on the structure at that time, just to show that the bridge is capable of holding a crowd.”
On Monday morning, hundreds of Kankakeeans crammed the bridge deck from end-to-end and side-to-side, along with horses and wagons, a fire engine, at least two trolley cars, and several “horseless carriages” (as early automobiles were described).
The scene was recorded by three cameras from the Powell Studio, “mounted on small structures at the northeast end of the bridge, and a number of private cameras, including one owned by a daring amateur photographer+ who took the picture from the Illinois Central Railroad bridge.”
Today, 116 years later, trolleys no longer cross the Washington Avenue bridge, but it still carries a steady volume of traffic across the Kankakee River.