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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Grand Rapids Railroad Bridges Spanning the Grand River

by Carl Bajema

The Detroit & Milwaukee Railroad built the first railroad bridge across the Grand River in the Grand Rapids area in 1858. Three other wooden bridges were built across the Grand River after the Civil War. These wooden bridges were replaced by iron bridges, and three of these nineteenth century bridges were destroyed in one day, July 26, 1883, when a log jam containing 100,000,000 board feet of saw logs finally crushed the Detroit Grand Haven & Milwaukee RR bridge and rushed downstream taking out spans of the Grand Rapids & Indiana RR (GR & I) and the Chicago & West Michigan RR(C&WM) bridges as the logs flowed down the swollen river. Only the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern RR (LS & MS) bridge survived the rush of logs downstream on that fateful day.

Six railroad bridges have proven to be the real survivors of the golden age of railroading in Grand Rapids. The two oldest bridges date back to 1892 (GR & I) and 1893 (LS & MS) while the two youngest bridges are 85 years old. The following list of the six railroad bridges that still span the Grand River in the Grand Rapids area at the beginning of the Twenty-first century contains historical as well as technical information that has been compiled by the author from a number of sources.  The bridges are listed in order from the northernmost to the southernmost railroad bridge.

The Grand Trunk/Mid Michigan/Grand Rapids & Eastern RR Bridge built in 1906 is a 12 ft. wide 675 ft. long simple steel I-beam, nine-span bridge. This bridge is located between Leonard and Ann Streets north of downtown Grand Rapids. The first bridge at this site was built in 1858 by the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway and connected Detroit with the Lake Michigan port of Grand Haven. This bridge is still is use by the Grand Rapids & Eastern RR. A wye (a triangular shaped arrangement of tracks with a switch at each corner) on the east side of this railroad bridge enabled passenger trains from Detroit, Grand Haven and Muskegon to reach the Grand Trunk deport on Bridge St. (The US Post Office now occupies the Grand Trunk depot site) between 1906 and 1948. This wye includes two Grand Trunk Western RR bridges, also built in 1906, that span Monroe Ave. south of Sweet St.

The Michigan Railway Interurban Downtown Union Depot Railroad Bridge was built over the Grand River in 1915 to enable the Holland and Kalamazoo interurban cars to reach the new Union Interurban Depot. The 27 ft. wide 486 ft. long reinforced concrete, four-span bridge now serves pedestrians and has been renamed the Richard Gillette Memorial Bridge. It is just north of the Pearl Street Bridge and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The Welsh Civic Auditorium now occupies the site of the Union Interurban Deport (1915-1931).

The Grand Rapids & Indiana/Pennsylvania/Penn Central/Conrail Railroad Bridge over the Grand River is located between the Pearl Street and Fulton Street bridges. This bridge is the oldest of the Grand Rapids railroad bridges having been built in 1892. This 24 ft. wide, two track bridge has five spans. The westernmost span is a 125 ft. long simple steel I-beam while the remaining four spans are of steel Pratt truss design, the three westernmost spans being 110 ft. long while the easternmost truss span is 120 ft. long. Trains crossed this bridge on their way to Mackinaw City and to Muskegon. The first GR & I railroad bridge at this location was completed on September 12, 1868. The current bridge was abandoned when Conrail began using the CSX railroad bridge over the Grand River in the 1980s. The GR & I bridge is painted a bright blue and now serves as a pedestrian bridge.

The Pere Marquette/C&O/CSX Railroad Bridge located just north of Wealthy St. was built in 1902 as a swing Pratt truss bridge to allow steamboats to enter the steamboat channel and dock on the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The swing span turntable is rusted shut and has not been used since WWI. This 30 ft. wide double track bridge consists of four spans; the easternmost span being 120 ft. long, the swing span is 231 ft. long, and the two westernmost spans are 152 ft. long. The Chicago & West Michigan RR built the first railroad bridge at this location in 1882. This bridge became part of the Petoskey division of the Pere Marquette RR. Norfolk Southern (ex-Conrail), CSX, Marquette Rail and Amtrak trains use this bridge which is just west of the Amtrak depot.

The Michigan Railway Interurban/NYC Railroad Bridge south of Wealthy St. was completed in 1915. This gauntlet track bridge enabled the Holland and Kalamazoo interurban cars to cross over the Pere Marquette railroad tracks, Market St., and the Grand River. This four-span steel girder bridge is equipped with a turntable to swing open a span to allow steamboats to pass through. The first span of this bridge is 200 ft. in length and spans Market St. and the east bank of the Grand River. The span is 100 ft. long, the swing span is 200 ft. long, and the westernmost span is 180 ft. long. The New York Central RR purchased this bridge and operated steam trains over it in 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This bridge has been purchased by the city of Grand Rapids and is destined to become part of an expanding Kent County “rails to trails” system.

The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern/New York Central/Penn Central Railroad Bridge over the Grand River is located in Wyoming just south of Grand Rapids. This bridge was completed in 1893. It has four 12 ft. wide Pratt truss spans, three of which are 100 ft. long resting on stone piers and abutments. The fourth Pratt truss span is 138 ft. long and is equipped with a turntable so that the bridge could be swung open to allow steamboats to pass through. The swing span is supported by a round ashlar pier. An approximately 400 ft. long trestle carried the trains over river bottom lands on the west side of the railroad bridge. The Kalamazoo, Allegan & Grand Rapids Railroad built the first bridge at this site in 1869. The bridge became part of the Kalamazoo Division of the LS & MS Railroad, and this bridge was abandoned in 1976 when Conrail took over Penn Central. The bridge which is now part of the Kent County Trails system is easily accessible via Market St. which becomes Indian Mound Dr., and via exit 73 on I-196 expressway just south of Grand Rapids.

Passenger and freight depots as well as round-houses and repair shops have been demolished, turntable pits have been filled in, track has been torn up, numerous railroad diamonds (intersections where two tracks cross, creating a diamond shape) have been take out, and railroad right-of-ways abandoned. Few railroad structures in the Grand Rapids area have survived into the twenty-first century. Railroad bridges across the Grand River are the major exception to the almost universal destruction of abandoned railroad structures in the Grand Rapids region.

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