Matt Clement contorts his body deep in the slag-filled guts of the Lake Shore Drive bridge and turns on his blowtorch.
As car and pedestrian traffic crosses safely above, the burly construction worker — clad head to toe in safety gear — wedges himself into the housing of a massive steel wheel that helps raise and lower the bridge’s iconic double-leaf spans. His current mission: to cut a cantaloupe-sized nut off of a bolt so that the aging parts around it can be replaced.
The blue flame of Clement’s tool meets steel and white-hot sparks ricochet off his protective face shield, yet he can’t quite complete this task while laying on his side in the dark.
“My torch is only a two-footer and I think I need a four-foot-long one because I can’t reach any farther in and still be able to see it,” says Clement, as a mix of sweat and grease rolls off his face and goatee.
Power tools are precision instruments in the rugged hands of Clement, a 16-year veteran of millwrighting for the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1693. If his job title sounds old-timey — it’s because it is.
Profession dates to antiquity
One of the world’s oldest professions, millwrights are an elite group of craftsmen who first designed and constructed various mills and waterwheels starting with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Up until the Industrial Revolution, they worked primarily with wood — hence the long-standing connection to carpenters — but now deal with metals and electronics. They specialize in installing, calibrating and repairing many of the world’s largest and most expensive industrial machines.
Never heard of them? You’re not alone.
“Millwrights make the world go ‘round, you just never know we’re there,” said Clement, a South Side native who currently lives in northwestern Indiana. “It’s the truth. We’re behind the scenes making everything work — whether it’s power plants, factories, you name it.”
In the last few years, Clement has quietly played a role in the recent $1 billion upgrade of the Ford Assembly Plant in Chicago, the overhaul of UPS’s package delivery facility in Addison in 2017, and the installation of robots at Amazon warehouses.
“That’s what I did most last year,” said Clement. “I traveled all over a good part of the country and just stopped in, installed a robot and then would head home.”
Exciting stuff, but he’s especially thrilled to be part of the large crew working every day on the Lake Shore Drive Bridge, the longest, widest, and heaviest bascule bridge when it was completed in 1937.
“It’s a [near] hundred-year-old bridge. It’s Lake Shore Drive. You’re staring at Navy Pier all day. You don’t get more high profile than this,” said Clement. “I’m going to look back at it and say, ‘That was pretty neat.’”
Most of the time, Clement doesn’t have time to enjoy the picturesque lakeside view because he’s laser-focused on his key role in this structural repair project — expected to last into 2020. He’s fixing the heel locks and other mechanical parts that raise and lower the bascule bridge over the Chicago River so tall boats can pass underneath.
Every inch matters, even when you’re dealing with a 264-foot-long machine.
“Yes, the bridge is huge and you wouldn’t consider it a precision piece of equipment, but it really is,” said Clement. “Some of this — if you’re a hair off — it’s not going to run right.”
To complicate matters, construction continues on the final phases of the $64-million Navy Pier flyover, which involves drilling a tunnel through two limestone bridge houses on the east side and connecting an adjacent 16-foot-wide flyover path to expand the Lakefront Trail’s pedestrian and bike path.
Using the original blueprints and some math, Clement’s team has to calculate how exactly to retrofit the bridge to accommodate the new flyover.
“It’s a counterweight thing, we’re adding more weight to one side of the bridge so we have to compensate a little bit on the other side so the integrity of the bridge doesn’t get messed up,” he said.
The stakes are high, and not only because this is a $25 million infrastructure project for a major thoroughfare that tens of thousands of Chicagoans use every day.
It’s also precarious for Clement personally. Structural iron and steelwork are routinely ranked among the top 10 most dangerous jobs and there’s evidence of that danger everywhere.
Dotted throughout the worksite are orange signs warning of lead and other hazardous chemicals. “We work safe, but you’re exposed to things; there are lots of chemicals in the air all the time and sometimes you’re breathing fumes,” he says.
There’s also the everyday wear and tear that comes with the territory of bending, twisting, and wrenching his body while drilling, bolting, and welding in tight spaces. The average life expectancy of a millwright, he says, is about 13 months after retirement.
But at 35, Clement figures he has about 20 good years left on the job. He loves it so much — he has no plans to do anything else. He’s married with a 12-year-old child.
“We’re kind of like matadors,” he said. “It’s just one big thing at a time you’ve got to attack. Sometimes it’s a thing with 200 tons of force on it and it doesn’t want to come out, but you’ve got to hit it little by little until it finally pops.”