Jefferson Ave. / Rouge River

mdot historic bridges wayne county Jefferson Ave. / Rouge River

County:  Wayne

City/Township:  Detroit

Location:  Jefferson Ave. / Rouge River

Year Built:  1922

About this Bridge:
The West Jefferson Bridge is eligible for the National Register as a significant monument to early twentieth-century engineering. It is also eligible as a noteworthy product of the Wayne County Road Commission.

The city of Detroit was responsible for maintaining bridges over the Rouge River at West Jefferson Avenue and West Fort Street. By the late 1910s, new bridges were urgently needed for both crossings, which were served by narrow swing bridges. The swing spans also interfered with the federal government's plans to dredge a deep channel in the river so that Great Lakes freighters could reach the Ford Motor Company's expanding Rouge plant and other factories upstream. The city and county agreed that the county could better oversee the construction, but legal restrictions prohibited county involvement until a change in state legislation in 1919.

By September 1920, plans were drawn up for a "Chicago city type of single trunnion, double-leaf bascule bridge" for each crossing, with a combined cost estimated at $2 million. A plate on the West Jefferson Bridge credits Hugh E. Young as designing engineer and Lewis M. Gram as consulting engineer; Harry A. Shuptrine was chief bridge engineer for the county road commission. Gram, who had worked for a number of bridge and engineering companies, joined the faculty of the University of Michigan's civil engineering department in 1912 and was involved with the design and construction of the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit in the late 1910s.

The Wayne County Board of Supervisors planned to issue bonds to help fund the construction. Voters approved of the bond in May 1920, but questions about the legality of the bonds delayed construction for many months. In the meantime, engineers worked to devise an adequate detour to handle the heavy traffic demands on Jefferson Avenue. They developed a route that crossed the river about 200 yards upstream, but concluded that the existing structure at Jefferson was too weak to be moved there. Ultimately, the commission obtained an old truss that the Michigan Central Railroad was replacing half a mile upstream. To move the span, the county arranged "a flotilla of scows" which they "pumped nearly full of water and towed under the [railroad] bridge. . . . By unwatering the scows the 600,000-lb. bridge was raised clear of its foundations and towed downstream to its new resting place as a detour for Jefferson Ave. traffic. By filling the scows with water again the bridge was successfully landed on its new foundations." The old bridge was closed and the detour opened on 13 November 1920.

When the bonds were finally issued, the county was ready to proceed with construction almost immediately. The Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company of Leavenworth, Kansas, signed a contract on 1 December to build the substructure for $408,280. The road commission's 1920-1921 annual report observed that the work "presents some of the most difficult problems of underground and underwater foundation work, which are further complicated by the dangerous nature of the soil of the Rouge River district." Below each leaf were four 12-foot-square concrete footings, which were sunk pneumatically to bedrock 70 feet below the water line. The footings supported a 50- by 80-foot reinforced-concrete pit, which was built within a coffer dam, for the counterweights and machinery. The Strobel Steel Construction Company of Chicago won the bid to provide the superstructure for $378,005 in March of the following year. Bids were opened for the operators' houses in July, but all were rejected as too high. At the next letting, held in October, the Cooper-Widenmann Construction Company of Detroit received the contract for $78,700. At the same time, the Fowler Electrical Supply Company of Toledo, Ohio, was awarded a $34,809 contract for electrical equipment. Other contractors involved on the project included the Grilling Brothers, Bethlehem Steel, the Electrical Equipment Company, and the Wolverine Engineering Company. Work to grade and pave the approaches was done by county crews.

The two bascule leaves were lowered simultaneously for the first time on 21 August 1922. The bridge was opened to traffic on 17 October, while work on the approaches was still underway, since the operating machinery on the detour bridge failed and the temporary span, which was blocking river traffic, had to be removed. In 1923, the federal government completed dredging the Rouge River to permit passage of the largest lake freighters in operation.

In the early 1980s, the city completed $2.2 million in repairs on the West Jefferson Bridge with the assistance of federal funds, as well as similar work on the Dix Avenue bascule. While the repairs altered the West Jefferson Bridge, it retains sufficient integrity to qualify for the National Register.