There’s Always A Logical Reason

Sometimes we don’t agree with that reason or it’s obsolete, but people never do things for no reason. It can be difficult to understand some old structures, particularly if they have been demolished for a century or more, but the starting point that they made sense to someone when they were built helps. The 1901 picture above, labelled “Viaduct at Streator, Ill.” caught my eye because it seems so odd. There’s not a great deal of readily-findable information about it, but I believe I’ve pieced together the basics.

The viaduct itself is supported by two lines of knee-braced frames parallel to the deck, with rod cross-bracing perpendicular to the deck. The deck cantilevers past the frames on both sides (asymetrically – it cantilevers more on the side near the camera) and has a very light handrail. The photo shows the underside of the deck rather than the top, but this structure is simply too light for a 1900 railroad bridge and so must be a road.

Streator is a small industrial city in western Illinois, apparently most well known for a large glass factory, where beer bottles have been made for over 130 years. Most of the city is east of the Vermilion River, but there’s a chunk to the west; the river takes a pronounced U bend where Main Street (the major east-west street through downtown) crosses it.

The same photo session that gave us that viaduct picture gave us a photo of a handsome, if lightweight, river bridge:

And there are two linked photos labelled “Viaduct and Bottle Works”:

The most important piece of information in linking this all together is a history of the city written in 1962, Biography In Black: A History Of Streator, Illinois by Paula Angle. (In my experience, every small city and every county in the country has at least one of these histories. They often obsess about minutia, but isn’t that what these blog posts do?) Ms. Angle describes a bridge with “a metal substructure and four-inch boards on top” carrying Main Street over the river and “stretched all the way to First Street.” Looking at the map, the tongue of land inside the bend of the river is undeveloped; looking at the pictures, it appears to be part of the river’s flood plain that might flood fairly often. First Avenue is (excluding two small streets that appear to be serving a modern shopping center) the first north-south street west of the river and that undeveloped land. A bridge proper over the river coupled with a viaduct over land that was often flooded makes sense. Ms. Angle includes a photo that shows the same upward bend in the viaduct visible in the top-side photo.

The photo showing the viaduct top has an interesting omission: we don’t see the river. That means that picture was taken looking west from west of the river span. The original bottle plant “opened at the location of the Streator High Athletic Fields in 1880″ and was there until 1930; the map shows those fields to be on the east side of the river north of Main Street, but well to the west of the bridge location because of the bend in the river. So if the last picture above was taken from the viaduct looking to the right, we’d be looking past the floodable tongue of land, past the river, and towards the factory.

The bridge story has an unhappy ending: “But something was wrong. It was ungainly to look at and unsteady to travel on. Young men in the area found that they could create a thunderous reverberation when they raced horses across it.” A suit over design defects was decided in favor of the city; the Lafayette Bridge Company (of Lafayette Indiana, not the Lafayette Bridge Company of Pittsburgh) was order to remove the bridge and subsequently went bankrupt. There is currently a modern viaduct on the same route.

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