Sunday, September 21, 2014

Delray Backdoor Shut -The West Jefferson Avenue Bridge Still Out of Commission

Rouge River Bridge on West Jefferson Boulevard
After ninety-one years of accident free operation, the Rouge River Bridge, aka the West Jefferson Avenue Bridge, sustained serious damage to its northeast side. Shortly after 2:00 AM on May 12, 2013, an intoxicated bridge operator prematurely lowered the bridge onto the Great Lakes Class freighter, the Herbert C. Jackson. It instantly collided with the north section of the double-leaf bascule bridge. The bridge's hydraulic gearing and its electrical equipment were unharmed in the accident.

The bridge was closed immediately to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, both ends of the double-leaf bridge were left fully open to accommodate unhampered freighter use of the Rouge River. With this bridge in its down position, Great Lakes Class freighter access to the Ford Rouge Plant would cease. 


The single-leaf bascule bridge has a long history. It originated in Medieval Europe to help defend castles and walled towns by using winches and counterweights. Commonly known as drawbridges in English speaking countries, this style of bridge was used for crossing a moat or narrow river leading to the castle gate. Drawn upward with winches and counterweights when under attack, these single-leaf bascule bridges prevented easy access by invaders.

Tower Bridge in London
Probably the most famous double-leaf bascule bridge in the modern world is the Tower Bridge in London. Construction began in 1886 and the bridge opened in 1894. Many people mistake it for London Bridge. The Tower Bridge is a combination of suspension bridge and drawbridge on the Thames River.


The Rouge River Bridge was completed in 1922 after some jurisdictional legal wrangling and some new law writing. The previous narrow swing bridge had needed replacing since the 1910s, and the federal government had plans to dredge the Rouge River to accommodate direct freighter access to Henry Ford's new, massive Rouge Plant Complex. The inadequate Rouge River Bridge and the Fort Street Bridge would both be replaced with double-leaf drawbridges at the cost of one million dollars apiece. Wayne County voters approved a bond issue to fund construction.

To reroute traffic across the Rouge River while the new bridges were being built, an out-of-service railroad truss bridge owned by Michigan Central Railroad was detached from its moorings. A flotilla of scows pumped full of water to lower them in the river were towed under the truss bridge. When the water was pumped out of the scows, they rose and floated the bridge with the help of tugboats to a location 200 yards upstream of W. Jefferson Ave. The Fort Street Bridge and the W. Jefferson  Avenue Bridge were closed on November 13, 1920, after the makeshift railroad truss detour was in place.

Rouge River Bridge fully open in winter.

Each leaf of the dual-leaf bridges is supported by four 12 foot square concrete footings sunk in the clay to the bedrock 70 feet below the waterline. One worker died of "the bends" during construction because he decompressed too quickly after working in a caisson.

The bascule double-leaves of the Rouge River Bridge were lowered for the first time on August 21, 1922. It opened for traffic on October 17th of the same year. Finally, the bridge reconnected the Detroit neighborhood of Delray with the city limits of River Rouge and the rest of the Downriver area. In 1923, the federal government completed dredging the Rouge River and Great Lakes freighters were now able to navigate upstream, unload their cargo, and turn around in a massive turning basin built by the United States government expressly for that purpose.

In our present time, it is estimated that twenty to twenty-five freighters navigate this narrow waterway weekly. The bridge handled 6,400 vehicles daily in 2012, according to Southwest Michigan Council of Governments data.

Once again, after its ninety-one year record of service, the Rouge River Bridge is closed. The collision with the Herbert C. Jackson on May 12, 2013 was the first accident of its kind in the bridge's history. None of the crew on board the freighter were injured. The 670 foot-long ship sustained a 2 inch gash in its hull about 15 feet above the waterline. The freighter's cargo was 23,000 tons of iron ore pellets destined for the Severstal North American plant in Dearborn.

Bridge's Control Station
Cindy Dingell, spokesperson for the Wayne County Operations Office, told reporters that the bridge operator was immediately tested for drugs and alcohol and was fired from her job, but no charges have been filed in connection with the incident.

Dingell said that Wayne County doesn't have the resources to rebuild the bridge and may have to ask voters for a bond issue to fix it to the tune of $850,000 to $1,250,000. The Rouge River Bridge is the only surviving pony truss bascule bridge in the state of Michigan. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 10, 2000.

For more information on how a Chicago Type, double-leaf bascule bridge operates, tap on this link:

For information on my upcoming Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel book talk September 30, 2014: