Tips for touring the Chicago Loop Bridges as they operate

Introduction   Spring Season  Fall Season  Planning   Vantage Points   Viewing Areas (map)

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Fall boat run on the South Branch. Bridges from W. Lake to W. Madison streets raised.


As a navigable river, the Chicago River can not have obstructions to vessels using the river. Federal regulations require that Chicago maintain the operable capacity of all 10 bridges on the Main Stem; the 5 bridges from Wolf Point to N. Halsted St. on the North Branch; and the 17 bridges from Wolf Point to S. Ashland Ave. on the South Branch. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) operates and maintains these bridges.

Large commercial cargo vessels, requiring bridge lifts, no longer use the Chicago River. Privately owned sailing vessels moving to and from dry dock on the South Branch and barges moving large pieces of construction equipment make up most of today’s Chicago River traffic that require the bridges to operate.

Bridge operations accommodating the movement of construction equipment are provided on an arranged basis between the city and the requester. Bridge operations accommodating the movement of sail boats are provided by a number of scheduled boat runs in two seasons.

Chicago Harbors are closed from Early November to mid-April so boaters dry dock their vessels over the winter. Some of these vessels are stored at two yacht yards on the South Branch. Vessels that can pass under the bridges can make the trip to and from Lake Michigan on their own schedule. Vessels that need the bridges raised must be moved from dry dock to Lake Michigan in the spring and return in the fall when the bridges are operated.

The schedule for these seasonal sail boat runs are set by the city. The storage yards manage the registration process for the individual boat runs on the schedule. The minimum number of boats required for a boat run is 1. The maximum number of boats allowed on a run is 25 (according to a Chicago Tribune article 4/10/2003).

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Spring Season

Spring boat run arrives at the Van Buren St. bridge.

The spring boat run season is mid-April through June (about 22 runs). These scheduled boat runs are conducted once per day on Wednesdays & Saturdays. Spring boat runs are one-way trips to Lake Michigan and the bridges are generally operated one-at-a-time as the run progresses through the system. CDOT usually publishes the full spring schedule by the the last week of March and it is posted on this page soon thereafter.

Boat runs begin at one of two Yacht yards - Chicago Yacht Works at Ashland Ave. (27 CDOT & 2 RR bridges from the lake) or Canal St. Marina (22 CDOT bridges & 1 RR bridge from the lake). Starting times at the yacht yards are usually 8:00 AM Saturdays and 9:30 AM on Wednesdays. Most boat runs originate from Chicago Yacht Yards.

When a spring boat run arrives at the edge of the downtown area (the Van Buren St. bridge) is a function of where the run started and how smoothly the bridges are operating. Assuming a smooth run, expect it to arrive at Van Buren St. when starting at:

✓ Chicago Yacht Works - between 10:30 AM and 11:30 AM on Wednesdays and between 9:30 AM and 10:30AM on Saturdays.

✓ Canal Street Marina - between 10 AM & 11 AM on Wednesdays and 9 AM & 10 AM on Saturdays.

Once downtown, the trip to Lake Michigan through downtown can take from two to four hours.

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Fall Season

The beginning of a fall boat run at Lake Shore Dr. The Odyssey (background right) only passed thru this bridge.

The fall boat run season is mid-September to early November (about 20 runs). Fall boat runs are one-way trips from Lake Michigan to the storage yards. The bridges are generally operated one-at-a-time as the run progresses through the system.

Like spring runs, these boat runs are conducted once per day on Wednesdays & Saturdays. They start at the N. Lake Shore Drive bridge at 9:00 AM on Saturdays and 9:30 AM on Wednesdays. CDOT usually publishes the full fall schedule by the the last week of August and it is posted on this page soon thereafter.

The trip through downtown can take two to four hours.

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Spring boat runs are usually festive occasions for the sailors as they look forward to boating season after a grim Chicago winter. This makes the boat runs a joy to follow as sailors make their way through downtown. However, the fact that there are several bridges between the boat yards and downtown make prediction of a boat run arrival downtown more art than science. This makes them more challenging to schedule around.

Fall boat runs, while not as festive, are much easier to plan for because they start at the N. Lake Shore Dr. bridge downtown. A fall boat run is still subject to the same vagaries as a spring run, but you won’t be wondering where it is. While these runs are easier to schedule around, they start relatively early in the day.

Regardless of season, a boat run will proceed at its own pace. It is great fun to watch, but it will not respect your schedule. If you have decided to follow a spring boat run for the fun of it, I suggest that you not schedule another activity that day until after 3 PM. For fall boat runs, I would suggest you allow at least three hours for this activity in your schedule. This will allow you to leisurely enjoy the event without the stress of a tight schedule.

Note that scheduled boat runs are subject to sailor demand and other unforeseen situations. So a scheduled boat run could be canceled. The decision to cancel a run may not be made until 24 hours before the run is supposed to begin. Generally, CDOT does not publish these cancellations. I make every effort to post boat run status 24 hours before it is scheduled on Facebook, Twitter, and the “Bridge Lift Schedule” page on this site.

I have followed most boat runs for the last eight years or so. Based on my experience, I offer the following observations / suggestions:

⨷ Weather - Be aware that there is little protection from the elements (rain, wind, sun, etc.) provided along the South Branch. The situation is somewhat improved on the Main Stem, because you can seek refuge under each bridge along the Riverwalk. It's not unusual to experience cold winds in April- early May or late October-November.

⨷ Facilities - The South Branch runs through a business district focused on the weekday work schedule. During the Saturday spring boat runs, there are few restaurants open and few public restrooms available. There is more availability of these facilities on the Wednesday runs.

The Chicago Riverwalk along the Main Stem has some public restroom facilities that will be open during May through October. Find them between Wells and La Salle streets and on either side (E or W) of the Dearborn St. bridge.

⨷ Bridge Operation - The process to raise a bridge involves clearing the bridge deck of traffic and pedestrians; unlocking the bridge leaves, and then raising the leaves. Warning bells provide the first indication that a bridge will rise. Next, CDOT personnel will work to clear the deck, then sidewalk and traffic gates will be lowered. Once clearing is complete, you may be able to hear the electric motors operating the locks (low growling sound). When the bridge is unlocked, the leaves rise, reaching the “open” position in about a minute (motors raising the leaves are audible, but quieter than the lock motors). Once vessels are through the raised bridge, the process is reversed. When the bridge is locked back into place the sidewalk and traffic gates are raised and warning bells stopped. For normal operations the total time for a single bridge is 5 to 15 min, depending on number of boats in the flotilla.

Getting ready to raise the W. Monroe St. bridge

⨷ Pace - Because the bridges are generally raised one-at-time, keeping pace with a boat run is not difficult. That said, it is easy to get engrossed in activities at one bridge and find that the run has progressed quicker than anticipated. The boat runs almost always pause at three bridges allowing you to catch up. These bridges are: W. Lake St.; N. Wells St.; and N. Michigan Ave. / DuSable. The bridges at W. Lake and N. Wells are L bridges, and extra time is needed to clear the train traffic (CTA controls power at these bridges). N. Michigan Ave. is a busy two level street and requires additional time to clear traffic.

⨷ Bridge Decks - In theory, photographing a bridge operate from a neighboring bridge's deck is a good place to observe the activities. In practice, it can be problematic. If you are in front of the run, it’s not unusual for the bridge clearing operation to begin on the bridge you're on before you are able to capture all the action with your phone/camera. CDOT personnel are mostly easygoing, but their safety enforcement responsibilities beats your photo op. If you are following the lift, it can take longer for a bridge to be locked in place and become accessible than you may expect. Shooting from the deck is worth a try, but be prepared to move when the bells ring.

One bridge leaf raised at Dearborn St. as a fall boat run passes through.

⨷ Bridge Leaves - The leaves of a bridge can be operated independently and there is a good possibility that not every bridge will have both leaves raised during a boat run. During a season, electrical/mechanical issues in the machinery can arise that preclude the raising of both leaves. Because the vessels involved can easily pass through with one leaf raised, non emergency repairs are made as budgets allow. Any emergency repairs are taken care of immediately.

⨷ April - Unless this is the only time you have to see a boat run, skip April. Early spring boat runs rarely seem to go smoothly and the weather can be cold.

⨷ May - The largest number of boats make the trip to Lake Michigan in May. These boat runs seem to have fewer issues and the weather is usually pleasant. Note that historically no boat run is scheduled on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

⨷ June - Boat traffic usually tapers off in June. There is a greater chance of boat runs being canceled in late June because most of the sailors are already in the lake. That being said, the last run scheduled in June often happens. The temperatures in June can be warm enough to cause thermal expansion problems with the bridges, which can significantly delay a run.

⨷ September - Normally the number of sailors wanting to leave the lake in September is small, which can lead to cancellation of the early runs. Weather is usually pleasant.

⨷ October - This is the busiest month for sail boat traffic leaving the lake as the Chicago harbors close in early November. Weather is pleasant, but can be unpredictable toward the end of the month.

⨷ November - These boat runs are for the die hard sailors wanting to maximize their time on the lake. There are not large numbers of boats in the runs and the weather can be unpleasant.

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Vantage Points

My full appreciation of these bridges came from watching them operate from multiple perspectives. These include the traditional profile (side-on) view from both water and street level; the street level face-on view; the underside view; face-on view from the lower deck; the rack & pinion view from the sidewalk; and the multiple bridges raised view.

The face-on and profile views can be had at all bridges at street level. Main Stem bridges from N. Columbus Dr. to N. Franklin St. on the Riverwalk provide the underside and profile views from water level. I think these views are self explanatory.

The time-lapse videos below provide examples of the underside, lower deck, and rack & pinion views. Hopefully they will give you of the sense of awe of being so close to these huge structures.

Underside view of the N. Dearborn St. bridge closing.

Face-on view of N. Michigan Ave. rising from the lower deck.

Sidewalk view of rack & pinion at N. Wells St. bridge.

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Viewing Areas

The easiest viewing on the Main Stem is on the south bank of the river along Wacker Dr. (at street level) or on the Riverwalk. This is the best choice for the first trip.

If you would like add a different perspective there are additional viewing areas on the north bank (see map). Areas marked in gray are at river level and the green areas are at street level. The north bank provides access to river viewing from Centennial Fountain to La Salle St., but it’s not a continuous path.

Viewing on the South Branch is most continuous on the west bank along Riverside Plaza. This street level viewing will eventually extend from W. Jackson Blvd. to north of W. Lake St. once the tower at 150 N. Riverside Plaza and River Point Plaza are complete (first half of 2017). This new section is shown in purple on the map.

There are two areas on the east bank that provide alternative perspectives. A street level view is provided between W. Madison and W. Adams streets (shown in green on the map). Between W. Adams St. and Jackson Blvd. there is water level access near the Shoreline water taxi stop. (shown in gray on the map).

The locations marked by X’s on the map are the bridges that offer the most unique vantage points for operating bridges. They are listed below going from east to west on the map.

If possible, check with CDOT personnel at the bridge to verify if both leaves or only one leaf will be raised. This can help to avoid the disappointment of waiting for a leaf that won’t be moving.

⨷ N. Lake Shore Dr. & N. Michigan Ave. - These two bridges offer a close view of operation from the lower deck.

⨷ N Wells St. & W. Lake St. - These two bridges offer a close-up view of the operating rack and pinion from the sidewalk.

Having two or three bridges raised at the same time is not an unusual sight when there are several boats making the trip. It can happen on both the South Branch and the Main Stem, but the best viewing will be the on Riverwalk between N. Wells St. and N. Michigan Ave. It is a magnificent sight!