Ruby Street Bridge detour along Route 66 in Joliet, IL

[Today’s post comes courtesy of my friend and colleague Joe Kubal. Joe and our other co-author, Keith Yearman, are big bridge fans. I like interesting bridges, but my Mama was an architect, so you know where my bias lies. Which is why I generally let the guys write about big, macho metal engineering wonders, like bridges. Take it away, Joe!]

Ruby Street Bridge under reconstruction, looking west from Columbia St., August 2012; repairs should be done by mid-November. (Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Well, the Ruby Street Bridge in Joliet, IL is finally closed. The bridge was overdue for repairs and is, at long last, undergoing refurbishing. The construction project, which began July 9th, should be completed by November 19, 2012. The bridge is located (appropriately) at Ruby Street just east of Broadway, aka Illinois 53 (Historic Route 66), on Joliet’s northern edge. It spans the Des Plaines River, connecting the downtown area and older east side of town with the Upper Bluff historic area on the west bank and the newer, more suburban-looking west side of town.

According to a report by the Joliet Police Department, southbound Route 53 traffic will be detoured west on Theodore Street to Plainfield Road (Route 30), southeast on Plainfield Road (Route 30) to Jefferson Street, then east on Jefferson Street to Ottawa Street (Route 53). Northbound Route 53 traffic will be detoured west on Cass Street to Center Street, north on Center Street to Plainfield Road (Route 30), north on Plainfield Road (Route 30) to Theodore Street, and east on Theodore Street to Broadway Street (Route 53).

That’s the plan, anyway. In practice, it’s not quite so. Yet. We drove down Broadway in Joliet today and discovered that there were no detour signs posted at Theodore and Broadway southbound, so nobody turned west to take the detour. There were orange blinker barricades blocking the left turn lane at Ruby and Broadway, but people were moving around them to turn left toward the bridge onto Ruby (presumably to reach Bluff Street along the west bank or the businesses between the bridge and Broadway; the bridge leaves are up now and the approaches are blocked during construction). Most southbound traffic, however, did what the locals do: it flowed south on Broadway past Ruby and up to Bridge Street, at which point most people turned east to cross over the river using the Jackson Street Bridge. And that’s what we did, too. No one seems to be using the designated detour route unless they’re already coming southbound on Plainfield Road/U.S. 30.

The current Ruby Street Bridge was opened in 1935 and replaced an earlier bridge that stood on the same spot. It took three years to build and was constructed during the height of the Great Depression. The steel was forged by Joliet steelworkers at the next-door Illinois Steel Company (you can tell by the mill marks on the steel girders), and the bridge itself was built by Joliet workmen. This means that at least some local steelworkers and construction workers were employed at that point during the Depression, which would have been a godsend for the town given how many people were out of work and on the verge of financial collapse. Many of the steelworkers and, probably, some of the construction workers were from nearby Slovenian Row on the east bank of the river. Wherever they got the coke to fuel the mill and forge the steel, however, it wasn’t in town – because the local coke ovens had shut down early on during the Depression and never reopened.

Ruby Street Bridge was last reconstructed in 1972, which is when some of its original steel girders were replaced with steel from two other sources (non-local). It has a double-leaf bascule trunnion type mechanism. The McCormick Bridge and Chicago River Museum defines bascule the following way: it means “… ‘seesaw’ in French, which is [the principle on which] this bridge operates. The bridge’s steel and roadway weigh the same as the concrete and steel counterweight. The bridge and counterweight balance on a trunnion — the point on which the bridge pivots. The bridge is in almost perfect balance, which means that a surprisingly small motor lifts it.” In fact, on a seesaw both the weight and the counterweight are on the same plane; as one end arcs up, the other arcs down.

Specifically, Ruby Street Bridge is a Chicago-style bascule bridge. This means that the bridge rotates around a trunnion or large axle. Its design was perfected by German-American structural engineer Joseph Strauss (1870-1938), who is best known as the chief engineer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Strauss preferred the use of concrete counterweights instead of the ubiquitous iron counterweights. His designs, therefore, were less expensive to produce.

Ruby Street Bridge is one of only three movable bridges along the entire stretch of the former U.S. Route 66 (yes, all the way to Santa Monica, CA). The other two are in Chicago and span the South Branch of the Chicago River at Jackson Street and Adams Street. Those are also Chicago-style bascule trunnion bridges. For further reading on all three of these Route 66 bridges, see Dave Clark’s excellent summary, “A Feast of Moveable Bridges,” at Route 66 University. And for a video of the bridge in action, see Steve Conro’s short production at Bridgehunter.

See you on the Road!
Joe Kubal

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