Kane County History: The Terrible Truesdell Bridge at Chicago Street in Elgin

Kane County History: The Terrible Truesdell Bridge at Chicago Street in Elgin

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Elgin History Museum Intern Gavin Carlson.

“Urbs Fluminis,” or city by the river, has been the slogan on Elgin’s official seal since 1859, and of course, a city by the river is a city that requires bridges.

Elgin’s first bridge was a crude wooden span built at today’s Chicago Street in 1837-1838. The bridge had to stretch over a river that was much wider than it is today.

The first bridge was washed out in the flood of 1849 and was rebuilt. By 1866, it was in poor condition, and Elgin voters approved a bond issue to replace it. The contract was given to Lucius E. Truesdell of Warren, MA, for his patented iron bridge, said to combine a pleasing design with a strong structure.

The Truesdell Bridge is Built

Lucius E. Truesdell was born May 10, 1818 in Monson, MA. He was a physician and inventor who, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, proposed an iron bridge that “might be built of short light pieces, easy of transportation to the almost inaccessible localities where bridges might be needed.” (Photo from Ancestory.com)

The Truesdell bridge was completed on Halloween day of 1866 at a total cost of $13,200 (approximately $226,000 in today’s dollars), with $2,000 being paid up front, and the rest being paid upon the bridge’s completion.

Its roadway was 18 feet wide, topped with a seasoned oak and featuring pedestrian walkways and wrought iron railings on either side. Treusdell delivered a bridge he promised was both beautiful and strong.

Truesdell Troubles in Elgin and Elsewhere

A photo of the Truedell bridge in 1871, note the beauty of its lattice iron work. The large building that can be seen at the end of the bridge on the right is the old Lynch Building at 100-110 West Chicago Street. It was home to Friedrich’s Furniture, which was victim to a large fire in 1958 that caused over $150,000 in damages. (Photo from the collection of the Elgin History Museum)

While no one questioned the bridge’s beauty, its strength and structural design would soon be challenged. Just over two years later, in December 1868, more than 90 head of cattle with a combined weight of 50 to 60 tons was driven across the bridge, causing it to collapse.

Thinking it was a fluke, the bridge was rebuilt in the Truesdell style; an ultimately fatal decision.

Just a few months later on the Fourth of July 1869, a festive crowd gathered to watch a tub race on the Fox River. This crowd proved to be too much weight for the bridge to handle, and the east abutment gave way, throwing 150 spectators into the water.

Luckily, the river was barely 4 feet deep at that point, and there was only one fatality. The bridge was rebuilt once again in the Truesdell style.

The Chicago Street bridge in Elgin was not the only bridge built in the Truesdell style; a Truesdell bridge was also built over the Rock River in Dixon, IL, and as you may have guessed, this bridge also had its problems. It collapsed on May 4, 1873, only four years after it was built, resulting in 46 fatalities.

The news of this horrible accident began to make its rounds, and some local farmers decided that fording the river would be safer than using the Elgin Truesdell bridge at Chicago Street.

But they weren’t the only ones who refused to use the bridge. When the circus arrived in Elgin the lead elephant put one foot on the bridge before backing off and refusing to move. The herd of elephants had to be led down the river bank and driven through the water to the other side.

The End of the Truesdell Bridge

A photo of the collapsed Truesdell Bridge following the flood of 1881, which was a result of melting snow after one of the worst winters ever seen in Elgin. It was this collapse that led to the Elgin Ferry Boat Disaster, in which eight people lost their lives after the town’s makeshift ferry capsized while crossing the river. This was the Truesdell Bridge’s final collapse before an entirely new bridge was built by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway later that same year. (Photo from the collection of the Elgin History Museum.)

In 1881 a flood broke the dam up river and again washed out the Truesdell bridge at Chicago Street. The bridge would be rebuilt but finally shake off its bad history.

The new bridge was built by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway for a cost of $1,200 (less than a tenth of the cost of the Truesdell bridge). The railway drove piles deep into the river bed and constructed an ordinary wooden bridge.

The new bridge was deemed “homely but nice” by the weekly Elgin Advocate, and didn’t collapse a single time.

Keeping Score?

That’s six bridges over the Fox River at Chicago Street between 1837 and 1881, with three being collapsed Truesdell models between 1866 and 1881. That’s a new bridge nearly every seven years!

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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