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Columns

Reflections: Oswego bridge a link to Kendall County's pioneer past

Oswego's Route 34 bridge under construction in 1937. John W. Chapman's original limestone piers were lengthened to the north (upstream) side to accommodate a wider bridge deck. The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and converted for use by pedestrians and cyclists in the early 1990s as the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park.
Oswego's Route 34 bridge under construction in 1937. John W. Chapman's original limestone piers were lengthened to the north (upstream) side to accommodate a wider bridge deck. The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and converted for use by pedestrians and cyclists in the early 1990s as the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park.

After the first settlers arrived, they found the area’s rivers more hindrance than help. Damming the state’s streams to create water-powered mills was definitely possible, but their shallowness meant that, with a few exceptions, navigation just wasn’t in the cards.

That’s the way it was with the Fox River, which was often more a barrier to overland travel than anything else. So finding places to cross the river was a major challenge for the folks laying out the region’s first roads. The initial road from Chicago to Naperville and then west toward the Fox ran to Montgomery, where the river narrowed. At first there was only a ford there, but late in the 1830s Daniel Gray built a timber bridge to (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) lure stagecoach traffic to his new settlement.

At Oswego, one of the things that drew settlers to the new village was a fine ford at the narrowest point anywhere on the river. Unlike most of the river’s bottom, which was gravel and broken stone, the bed of the Oswego ford was hard, smooth limestone. Decolia Towle established an early inn near the ford to serve the traveling public, something that was a welcome addition to the other businesses then just getting going at Oswego.

The Oswego ford was the only way to get across the Fox at Oswego until well after voters decided to move the county seat to the village in 1845. Depending on which source you favor, the village built its first bridge across the river in either 1848 or 1852. The Rev. E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County says it was 1848, but a short item in the July 13, 1851, issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon reported the bridge was then just under construction. Oswego builder, politician and hotelkeeper John W. Chapman got the contract to build the timber-framed bridge for $2,250. Chapman came to Oswego in 1835, stayed a few months, and moved west to Dickson until 1842 when he returned to live the rest of his life in the village.

On Sept. 5, 1855, a correspondent of the Kendall County Courier boasted of Oswego, “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Unfortunately, the timber structure had a bad habit of being washed out during the era’s periodic spring floods, called freshets back in the day. Successive freshets in 1856 and 1857 washed the bridge away and required rebuilding. A decade later, rotting timbers caused the Oswego Township Board to condemn the bridge and to vote to build a new iron bridge to replace it.

The board hired one of its own, township Trustee Chapman (who’d built the original bridge) to build new piers and abutments of native limestone. And they contracted with the King Iron Bridge and Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, for the bridge itself. The bridge design – a bowstring arch truss (also called a tied arch truss) had been patented by the company’s founder, Zenas King, in 1861, and then improved for an additional patent in 1866.

The new iron bridge was completed and opened just in time to be damaged by the Freshet of 1868, although this time the bridge was not washed out but was repaired and quickly back in service.

The King patent bridge stood until construction of an interurban trolley line from downtown Aurora to downtown Yorkville was built, running through downtown Oswego. The trolley cars were to run on the Oswego bridge, but King’s design was not sturdy enough, so taxpayers footed most of the bill for a new iron bridge, this one a box truss design built by the Joliet Bridge & Iron Co. That taxpayers and not the trolley company were footing most of the bill didn’t please many residents. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

The new bridge, with trolley cars sharing it with road traffic, opened in November 1900.

Thirty-seven years later, automobiles, buses and trucks had driven the trolley line out of business and the state of Illinois was busy linking towns together with the final phases of an ambitious hard road project. One of the last local phases of the work was to extend what’s now U.S. Route 34 through Oswego across the Fox River on a new bridge to link up with the existing concrete highway from Aurora to Sandwich.

To that end, a new continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and decorative concrete railings replaced the box truss bridge. Chapman’s old limestone piers, which had been reused in 1900 with only minor repairs, were widened and strengthened to carry the new bridge across the river. Construction, which began in July 1937, was largely completed by December when the bridge opened to traffic.

In the early 1990s, plans were being completed to widen U.S. Route 34 through Oswego to four traffic lanes, and that meant the 1937 bridge had to be replaced. But instead of demolishing it, thanks to the efforts of local residents Dick Young and Bert Gray, the Illinois Department of Transportation agreed to rehab the old bridge and leave it standing next to the new four-lane structure for use as a bridge-park. The new four-lane bridge opened in November 1993 and the rehabbed 1937 bridge, renamed Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, was opened 23 years ago this fall in September 1994 by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

From a well-used ford across the Fox River to the busy four lanes of concrete whisking motor vehicles across the river there today, the Oswego bridge really is a connection to the pioneer past of both Kendall County and Oswego. That’s especially so when you consider that portions of the piers supporting Hudson Crossing Bridge Park today were built 150 years ago by John W. Chapman, who came to Oswego in 1835, the year Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold laid out the village along the banks of the Fox River.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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