From Trails to Traffic Jams
The automobile eats Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
Hardly anyone likes to drive in Chicago, unless they are on Lake Shore Drive on a late spring day. Nonetheless, just about everyone moves around Chicago by car, save for weekday work trips on public transit. The city’s street and road network, like the city, just growed, unplanned. Later attempts to improve the system did not even try to remodel it but concentrated instead on avoiding it by means of expressways that cut through or went over or around the existing grid. If one counts the dollar value of the hours Chicagoans have spent in traffic jams, the street network is ruinously expensive, yet its basic premises remain unchallenged.
This brief history of the road and street network in greater Chicago was written for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
The Native Americans of pre-settlement Chicagoland moved from place to place month to month and season by season, planting or hunting here, making tools there during extended sojourns to specialized camps. (In their itinerancy they anticipated their suburban successors who live in one town shop in another, work in a third, and dine out in others.) This regular to-and-fro-ing left the region criss-crossed with trails.
As happened across Illinois, the routes of many of the trails laid down by Native Americans were appropriated by Euro-American traders and travelers. Consider State Route 1. An old buffalo path that ran up and down eastern Illinois was used by Native Americans and later Euro-American fur traders. Among the latter was Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who worked for the American Fur Trading Company. Hubbard in the 1820s, set up trading posts along that part of the trail between Chicago and Vincennes, Indiana. Hubbard's Trace, as it became known, later was given official status as the Vincennes Trail. The wheels of the wagons that trundled along it carved a rough road into the soil, making the trail the logical place for the State of Illinois to build the first official route in Illinois—Illinois Route 1—in 1833 and 1834. (State Street, that great street, is so named because it was on that route by which the state road entered Chicago.)
The routes traced by several of the old trails that crossed the site of the future city survive in the streets that were later built upon them. Chicago’s Vincennes Avenue, for example, follows Hubbard’s old path. A clue to the origins of such streets lies in the fact that mny of them they slash diagonally across the rectangular street grid laid out by later surveyors; thus does the street map reflect the intersection of two cultures, two ways of life. Among them:
The Sauk Trail connected the Detroit area to the Mississippi River, passing through the future Sauk Village, Steger, South Chicago Heights, Park Forest, Frankfort and others; a branch of the Sauk Trail followed Gostlin Street in Hammond and Brainard Avenue in Hegewisch, then turning north at Carondolet Avenue. This trail was later known as the Chittendon Trail and also as Indian Ridge.
A trail linking hunting grounds and villages in and around Chicago and the French trading post in Green Bay was the ancestor of North Clark St. in Chicago, Ridge Avenue in Evanston, and Green Bay Road north of that.
U.S. Route 12 (Rand Road) along the Des Plaines River followed an Indian trail between what is now Chicago and Janesville, Wisconsin.
Present-day Glenview Road was the Indian Lake Trail that followed the south edge of the big swamp the Indians called "Muskoki" from the Des Plaines River to Lake Michigan.
Today’s Waukegan Road was once known as Little Fort Trail, with present-day Shermer Road as a high-land alternate in wet seasons.
Fox River Trail is now followed by Illinois 31.
Ridge Road, running from Homewood to Lansing, was an early Indian trail.
Under the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, Indians ceded a tract of land 20 by 70 miles from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River at Ottawa, a tract that includes the future city plus the corridor in which would be built the canal that made it great; in the city, Rogers Avenue runs along the northern boundary of this tract, which also is followed southwest of Plainfield by Indian Boundary Road.
The moraine remnant in the Cook County Forest Preserve’s Dan Ryan Woods north of 87th at Western Avenue is marked by a granite boulder bearing a plaque that describes the spot as a former signal station on a major Indian trail that traversed the area. Similar trail markers may be seen beside opposite 164 Fairbanks Road in Riverside, where Indians and later traders and settlers forded the Des Plaines River, and at the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.
Commerce was why the first generation of Euro-American settlers wanted roads built; war was why Congress and the General Assembly usually built them. In the 1820s, Chicago Road was begun to connect forts at Chicago and Detroit; from Michigan City, Indiana, west to Chicago the Chicago Road followed the Lake Michigan, on beach sands whose condition varied with the weather; Milton Quaife noted that, depending on the day, the Chicago Road varied “from that of a splendid boulevard to the most exhausting and tedious roadbed known to civilized travel.”
Green Bay Road was backed by the feds in anticipation of military need in 1832. What became known as the Army Trail followed the route used by troops in the 1832 Black Hawk uprising from Chicago to Beloit along an old trail that crossing the Des Plaines at Maywood. From Maywood it passed into the southeast corner of modern Addison Township, Du Page County, a mile or so northeast of Elmhurst, crossed Salt Creek at the village of Addison, and passed on through Bloomingdale to the crossing of the Fox River south of Elgin.
The region’s flatness recommended it to road builders, but its lowness did not. Vast tracts were ill drained, lying only a few feet above Lake Michigan’s mean water level. When they could, the Native Americans sensibly traversed the region atop the ridges that carried them above the muck, most of this higher ground consisted of moraines and former beaches that had been stranded by the receding of the glacial lake that once covered the region. On the North Shore, Ridge Road in Wilmette and Ridge Avenue in Evanston are literal reminders of this frontier-era road planning.
Examples can be found across Chicagoland. In dry weather, when Mud Lake was too low to float a cargo canoe, traders moving between the Chicago and the Des Plaines rivers trekked overland via a trail that passed north of Mud Lake on a sandy ridge. That portage trail (which followed the route eventually laid out for Route 66 and Joliet Road) was part of a well-traveled land route to the southwest known as the Ottawa Trail. The Ottawa Trail passed through what has become the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s Ottawa Trail Woods, just off Harlem Avenue. The trail crossed the Des Plaines River at shallow rocky outcrops such as Stony Ford and Laughton's Ford. The latter was so named for brothers David and Barney Laughton, agents for the American Fur Company, who ran a trading post at the river crossing in the 1820s. Nearby is the site of Laughton's Trading Post, where (promises the CCFPD) “perhaps the ghosts of Indians and traders linger.” The old route takes in parts of Chicago’s Fifth Ave. Riverside Drive and Longcommon Road in Berwyn and Riverside, Barry Point Road in Lyons, and Plainfield Road from Ogden Ave. to Plainfield; north of 47th Street, one can still walk along the same ridge that carried so many travelers above the mire on their way to Laughton's Ford.
Nature’s elevated highways didn’t go everywhere people needed to go, alas, and as Chicago grew into a regional trading center, the need to move goods to and from the city reliably in all seasons took on a new urgency. Various expedients were tried, from ditching the roadside (to drain the road surface) to graveling. None worked well, and most did not work at all.
An exception was the plank road. Here the road surface was “paved” with thick planks, usually of oak. The planks made a far from ideal surface, as they soon warped, rotted, or came loose. (Local farmers also stole them when they could—a kind of reverse road tax.) The old Fairyland Park on Harlem Avenue between 39th and 40th street offered fun-lovers the chance to drive their own cars over a plank road called the “Whoopee Coaster.” It is safe to say that few farmers trying to haul precious grain to market would have found the bone-rattling passage fun.
For all their faults, plank roads were still better than mud, and several were built. Plank roads ran along today’s Archer Avenue, Clybourne Street, and Ogden Avenue. In 1848—the same year that Chicago got its first railroad and the I&M Canal opened—Chicagoland got its first wooden expressway. It was the Southwestern Plank Road, which was completed from Chicago to Doty's Tavern on what is now Joliet Avenue in Lyons, via Riverside, Berwyn, and Cicero; it is today known as Ogden Avenue. Ten miles long and eight feet wide, it was magnificent enough that travelers were charged 25 cents to use it—a lot of money in those days.
The new road worked well—and made enough money—that others were commissioned. In 1849, crews built the Northwest Plank Road along the trail known (for its destination) as the Milwaukee Trace; that plank road became today’s Milwaukee Avenue. It was built to carry the wagons of produce farmers and dairymen from the city’s northwest outskirts to Chicago’s Randolph Street market; the planks also bore stagecoaches three times a week loaded with passengers, packages, and mail. The Lockport, Plainfield, and Yorkville Plank Road connected those points; the Oswego-Indiana Plank Road ran through Plainfield.
In 1850, the Southwestern Plank Road was extended to the settlement now known as Hinsdale, and thereafter to Naperville. Plank roads led from Naperville southwest to Oswego and northwest to Sycamore in the valley of the Kishwaukee. In 1851 the Southern Plank Road was constructed along the lines of State Street and Vincennes Avenue as far as 83rd Street. In 1854 the Blue Island Plank Road carried travelers along Western Avenue to Blue Island Avenue. The future for the region’s oaks was looking grim.
Plank roads eventually would stretch across Du Page County into Kane County and nearly to Lake County. But what the owners spent to maintain a plank road quickly grew to more than could be earned from tolls, so they weren’t repaired. The Illinois and Michigan Canal and, later, railroads, proved more reliable means of moving freight, and none of the plank roads lasted more than ten years or so as going concerns.
The region’s dirt roads limited travelers to but a few miles per day, which meant that facilities to tend to their need for food and rest had to be placed every few miles too. A commercial infrastructure sprang up to serve them in the form of inns. These precursors to the ubiquitous motels, gas stations, and fast-food eateries of today thrived until the railroads killed the teamster traffic. Quaife reports that savvy travelers kept a look out for inns with a fat dog and a well-trodden corral. “The latter indicated that the place was patronized by teamsters, the former that a bountiful table was set, since otherwise there would have been nothing left over for the dog.”
A few of these primitive tollway oases survive. Stacy's Tavern was the stagecoach inn built in Glen Ellyn in 1846 at the intersection of St. Charles and Geneva roads and Main Street, a day's travel from Chicago; it has been restored on its original site. Timothy Garfield and his family built a brick inn on the family farm in LaFox in 1846 to cater to teamsters and other travelers; today, Garfield Farm and Tavern is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites.
What locals proudly consider the first hotel and tavern west of Chicago opened in 1834 in the center of Naperville. Before the Homestead Act settled a procedure for the orderly purchase of public lands, lawyers met at the inn help settlers file land claims by "pre-empting" 160 acres at $1.25 an acre—thus its name, the Pre-Emption House. (The inn was torn down in 1946, but a copy was later reconstructed on the grounds of the Naper Settlement, where it welcomes visitors again.) Such inns often were the largest structures in the early towns around Chicago, and this one was used over the years as a county courthouse and marketplace.
The poor surfaces made travel by road was expensive and tedious. A stagecoach that made 35 miles in one day in the 1840s was fairly flying. Seventy-five years later the roads were not much better. Most were dirt, or some indescribable blend of dirt, dung, and debris.
Mary Livermore moved to Chicago with her family in 1857 and described it in her autobiography The Story of My Life: The Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years (1897). She remarked, “In wet weather the streets were rivers of mud; in the dry season they were veritable Saharas of dust.” She came upon a common sight, or one that must have been common, considering how many travelers described similar scenes in their accounts of the old city: an omnibus that had become trapped in the mud until cold weather froze it in place. “All through the winter,” recalled Livermore, “it upheld a signboard bearing the prohibition, ‘Keep off the grass!’"
Here and there a town would lay down wooden blocks or crushed stone to provide a road surface less vulnerable to weather. A so-called Nicolson pavement, invented by one Samuel Nicolson in 1859, consisted of pine blocks dipped in tar are fixed to a plank base, then covered with pitch and gravel; weather and iron-rimmed wagon wheels made quick work of them. Stone cobbles made a durable but uneven surface; later, loaf-sized vitrified paving bricks offered the durability of cobbles with more smoothness.
By the 1890s Chicago enjoyed such marvels as elevators, telegraphs, and railroad trains, making it the very model of the modern machine city, but most of its streets would not have been out of place in Lincoln’s New Salem. One cause of the problem was remarked upon, as only he could remark, by the English socialist reformer Sydney Webb. On a visit to City Hall—perhaps the one place where with the sausage works in Packingtown, a fastidious foreigner should not go—he learned that street construction and repair costs that in Britain were paid out of ordinary taxes were in Chicago considered “improvements” that had to be paid by special assessments on the affected property owners—a policy that naturally dissuaded property owners from asking for them. As a result, wrote Webb:
whether a Chicago street shall be paved or not, whether its sidewalks shall be of rotting planks or stone, whether its roadway shall be dirt, or wood, or brick or asphalt, is made to depend on a vote of the property owners, largely little property-owners, in the street affected, the vote being in all cases biased by the feeling of the property-owners, not only that they will be mulcted in an indefinite sum for the “improvement,” but also by the well-grounded suspicion that the aldermen of the ward and the contractors will all get their picking out of the job.
Webb found that in spite of all the mulcting going on, Chicago’s pavements were “unspeakably bad!” As late as 1900 for example, barely 1,200 of the City of Chicago’s nearly 2,800 miles of streets were "improved," and of those, some 1,100 miles were “paved” with tarred cedar blocks or crushed stone.
The best roads were graveled or topped with asphalt but most remained dirt, improved only by having been leveled and drained. (The railroads served adequately for travel for most purposes, which dampened public ardor for improvements.) Transportation historian David Young reports that many of the area customers who bought new automobiles from dealers along Automobile Row in downtown Chicago had them shipped home by rail rather than try to drive them there.
The early automobiles were no match for such rugged surfaces, which is one reason the machine was slow to catch on in the Midwest. Chicago had plenty of bicyclists however, and it was cyclists who (with their counterparts in other cities in the U.S. and Europe) pressed local authorities to improve local streets and roads. Jackson Boulevard was made part of the boulevard system of the West Parks Board for example to placate the local cycle lobby, because boulevards could be paved as parkways, while ordinary city streets seldom were.
The Lincoln Highway
In Chicagoland, as elsewhere in Illinois, serious road-building of what recognized as modern highway system did not begin until the 20th century, when the gradual perfection of the motor vehicle in all its guises demanded roads that would allow its full potential to be exploited. Promoter Carl Fisher in 1912 began building support for a transcontinental highway, to be paid for by private investors along the way eager to reap—as investors in the early railroads had been eager to reap—the rewards of decent all-weather connections. He called it the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway, of course, goes nowhere near Lincoln the town and had nothing to do with Lincoln the man, although that veteran of thousands of miles on Illinois roads as a circuit-riding lawyer probably would have endorsed its construction.
The highway was never built in its intended form, but the convenience of even macadam roads was a revelation to many Illinoisans. The Lincoln Highway passed through Chicagoland from Lynwood on the Indiana border to New Lenox, Joliet, Plainfield, Aurora, and Geneva before heading west to Iowa. When the Federal Highway Act was passed in 1921, Illinois adopted the private road as part of its public highway system and set about completing it. (In the 1920s the Lincoln Highway route in Illinois was appropriated by the new US-30; later, when US-30 was rerouted, the Lincoln Highway was renamed US-330, then Alternate US-30, and in the 1970s was given its current designation, IL-38. In 2000 the entire Lincoln Highway in Illinois was designated a national Scenic Byway.)
Local streets were still the responsibility of poorer local governments, and most streets in even the advanced Chicago suburbs were not paved until 1930 or so. (Opinion is divided over which was first to pour concrete; Roosevelt Road, then 12th Street, is sometimes described as the first road in Illinois to be paved with concrete.) Just as the automobile created a constituency for better streets, the city’s post-Depression prosperity provided the means to build them. By the late 1940s the public resources once devoted to canal- and railroad-building were being lavished on the highway. Towns spent themselves into debt building new streets and roads, American voters being deeply resistant to paying for what they demand in the way of services.
Making the Wheels Go Around
The “first adopters” of the new (and expensive) automobile technology were upper-middle to upper-income households, who puttered around Chicago and its posh suburbs for a generation while middle- and working-class Chicagoans rode streetcars. No wonder that the region’s first auto-oriented shopping centers such as Market Square in Lake Forest and Spanish Court (later, Plaza del Lago) in Wilmette opened in places whose residents had money enough for cars. Chicago’s first “Auto Row”—a strip of car dealerships on South Michigan Avenue that was the pre-Depression automotive Oak Street—set up in the posh South Michigan Avenue mansion district of that era partly because so many potential customers lived nearby, but also because the streets in that part of town were among the few smooth enough for demonstration drives.
An innovator in a dozen major industries in the mid-19th century, Chicago in the early 20th role played only a minor part in turning the automobile from a gizmo into a way of life. The better histories of the auto age will note that the first motor car race in America was held in Chicago, in 1895, at the instigation of the Chicago Times-Herald. The event was less a speed contest than a test of the viability of self-propelled vehicles. Eighty vehicles had promised to race, but on race day, a snowy Thanksgiving Day, only 11 agreed to run, and of these only six started. These machines rattled over a course from Jackson Park in Chicago to Evanston and back, for about 50 miles in all.
The winner was a one-cylinder machine built by the Duryea brothers, Charles E. and J. Frank, late of Canton and Peoria. The brothers are generally reckoned to have built the first successful gasoline-powered car in America in their Springfield, Massachusetts shops. The Duryea won, having averaged less than 10 m.p.h., and taking more than nine hours to make the trip. It didn’t take long for speeds to improve. Speeding was a special problem in the suburbs as rich Chicagoans raced to and from their summer houses.
It was long an article of faith in Chicago that the only reason Chicago did not become the Detroit of the auto age was that a conspiracy on the part of a local industrial elite. A major car-making industry in Chicago would raise demand for labor and drive up costs of existing industries. David Lowe, in Lost Chicago, recalled the story this way: The city was “offered” the infant auto industry—by whom was not made clear—but “its industrial barons said no. They didn’t want the competition for workers from another giant. That is not the answer William Ogden or Potter Palmer would have given. The second-city virus had indeed triumphed.”
Other observers blamed it the vanity of the very big frogs who then dominated Chicago’s pond. When A. J. Liebling visited in the 1950s, a Chicago stockbroker explained, “The big boys let it go by default; they didn’t want an industry in here that would dwarf them.”
The evidence suggests that this is what could be called an old CEO’s tale. Like most industrial cities of any size of that period, Chicago was host to many would-be Henry Fords. Before World War I nearly two dozen firms tried to build cars and a dozen actually did—to no permanent effect on the city’s industrial economy. Kenoshan Thomas B. Jeffery built and sold Rambler bicycles in Chicago from 1878 to 1900. While here he experimented with automobiles, and in 1902 opened a plant in Kenosha to make them. The name survived longer than the company did, such cars being produced by several successor firms. akers of specialty vehicles did better. Smallish firms did establish themselves as makers of farm vehicles and electric carriages, although these too were out of business by World War I.
An immigrant Russian clothing manufacturer named Morris Markin in 1921 acquired a defunct Joliet auto body manufacturer that made body panels for the makers of Mogul taxis, which supplied vehicles to Chicago’s Checker Taxi Company. Markin merged the two firms into the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, whose famous Checker “Marathons” were used by the cab industry nationwide for more than 60 years because of the roominess and reliability of the vehicles.
More substantial was the region’s record as a truck manufacturer. Farm equipment giant International Harvester had branched out from tractors to trucks early in the twentieth century. By the 1930s IH had become the nation’s leading manufacturer of trucks. Over time the firm’s farm equipment business shriveled, but it continued to make trucks; a successor firm, Navistar International Corporation (headquartered in suburban Warrenville) was by the end of the century the country’s biggest maker of big trucks.
Most Chicago carmakers failed because they mistakenly believed that the secret to success in the business was to make good cars, rather than to make ordinary cars cheaply. The most celebrated of these naifs in his time was Preston Tucker. Detroiter Tucker was part-creator and full-time promoter of the Tucker 48, a car that anticipated by a half-century technologies that have since become standard in production automobiles, from rear-mounted engines and disc brakes to independent four-wheel suspensions and safety features such as seat belts and padded dashboards. The City of Chicago, looking for tenants for its suddenly empty collection of World War II factories, leased to the Tucker Corporation the sprawling plant on South Cicero at 76th where the Dodge Motor Co. had assembled aircraft engines. That facility could have produced cars by the hundreds of thousands—it was then the largest single-story building on the planet—but only 51 Tuckers were built, in 1948. The company was accused of stock fraud—a charge manufactured by rivals in Detroit, in the opinion of Tucker’s many admirers—and was forced out of business in 1949.
Chicago eventually made cars in numbers but only at assembly plants owned by companies based in Detroit, such as the Ford plant on Torrence Avenue near Lake Calumet. If Chicago did not make cars on the industrial scale, it influenced how they were made. Henry Ford applied the technology he had noted during a visit to the “dis-assembly lines” in Chicago’s Packingtown plants, and installed in his car plants a similar moving assembly line in which conveyor belts pulled each car past the workers, who, unlike their predecessors, added parts to it as it went by rather than removig them.
The automobile takes over
Chicagoans may not have made cars but they bought plenty of them. There were fewer than 10,000 cars registered in Chicago in 1910, more than 400,000 in 1930. The automobile not only changed how Chicagoland citizens lived, it changed where they lived. People who had flocked to the old city center had been pulled or carried there by horses; the first suburban settlers—the urban version of the pioneers—moved into the wilds of the suburbs on steel rails. The auto triggered a third wave of pioneering. In the 1920s there were still vast tracts of unbuilt land within Chicagoland, indeed within the corporate limits of Chicago, isolated between rail lines; the automobile penetrated this last frontier, and opened virtually all of Chicagoland to settlement. Cars were still too few to revolutionize land use the way that commuter rail and the streetcar had done 40 years earlier, but the car allowed upscale railroads suburbs to expand beyond walking distance from the railroad stations that were their respective centers.
The more places people could drive to, the more people drove. As traffic volumes swelled, streets and roads designed for carriages and wagons were quickly overwhelmed. Getting drivers in and out of the city center was especially acute. The solution was a road system that sliced through the existing street grid to provide high-speed limited-access access to the city center. The idea was not new. Frederick Law Olmsted had hinted at it with his plan for a paved, limited-access carriage road between the city and suburban Riverside. This was to have been a multi-lane affair whose outer lanes were to be used for local access, including freight delivery, with the center lanes reserved for carriages and horse-back riders. (The boulevard system begun in Chicago in 1871 borrowed some features of Olmsted’s road, but they were meant as pleasure drives, not commuting avenues.). Daniel Burnham called for a network of such traffic arteries in the 1909 Chicago Plan, although these of course were meant for horse-drawn vehicles.
Chicago’s first expressway of the auto age was Lake Shore Drive. Though intended—and still officially described as—as scenic thoroughfare, this limited access highway incorporated the basic design concepts of the modern superhighway. It began as Lincoln Park Drive, a rich man’s pleasure drive (the development of Lincoln Park Drive owed much to Potter Palmer, past whose mansion it ran) that was laid out through the south end of the park in 1893 and it was gradually extended south to Ohio Street and north to Belmont Avenue by 1910. This Lake Shore Drive was an ordinary street, or at least as ordinary as a street can be that is lined with mansions.
The Plan of 1909 had called for a more elaborate “parkway” in the form of a connected series of scenic pleasure drives. The north side already having a passable version of such an amenity, the city just after World War I began to build one on the South Side. Over 18 years beginning in 1917, the new lake shore drive was built between Jackson Park north through Grant Park to the Chicago River.
The popularity of cars had by then outraced planners’ original hopes for the road. What was conceived as a leisurely pleasure drive ended up as a high-speed auto bypass of the Loop. It was built in sections, as money allowed; the southern stretch was called Leif Erickson Drive, and the later downtown segment was known as Field Drive, after the museum past which it runs; the name “Lake Shore Drive” dates from the 1940s. Lake Shore Drive was a mini-expressway of a type that later became familiar: the cloverleaf intersection made its local debut on the drive between Belmont and Foster, and until the 1970s it also boasted reversible rush-hour lanes of the type still used on the Kennedy.
The popularity of the new Lake Shore Drive inspired plans to build a viaduct and bridge to connect the two halves of the lake drive at the Chicago River, although it would not be until 1937—thanks to New Deal public works money—that the new Link Bridge was built. And from Ohio to Belmont new, widened drive was added in the 1930s. The result is what Carl Condit called “this most celebrated of all urban parkways.”
Burnham and Bennett in the 1909 Chicago Plan had proposed a whole system of “ring highways” that would circumvent the crowded city. The concept of these proto-expressways was refined in a crucial 1939 "Comprehensive Plan for Superhighways" produced by the City of Chicago. This conceptual blueprint for big roads was expanded in 1946 when the Chicago Plan Commission proposed more than two hundred miles of such roads in Chicagoland. Because it was, like all other building in Chicago, delayed by the Depression and World War II, building an expressway system conceived in the 1930s did not begin until the 1950s.
Construction took some 20 years after World War II and cost more than a billion dollars in the days when a billion dollars was real money. First off the drawing boards was the Edens Expressway (1947–52). It was followed, in a fury of dust, by the Calumet (later the Bishop Ford) Expressway in 1950–53, the Congress (later the Eisenhower, (1949–1960); the South (later the Dan Ryan, 1957–62) which was linked by 1969 to both the Tri-State Toll Road and the Calumet Expressway; and the Southwest (later the Stevenson) in 1959–64.
With the opening of the region’s expressways, however, transit became truly diffuse. The result was profound. People left the central city for the edge of town and beyond in waves. While many Chicagoans still live much as they did in the 1890s, getting around on buses (today’s streetcars) and els, Chicagoland’s suburbanites have become almost wholly adapted to—meaning dependent on—automobile transportation. In recent years, households in the city have owned one car on average; in the suburbs, an average household owns two.
The Federal Interstate Highway System, officially the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, was begun in 1956. The interstates were intended to move troops and tanks speedily in a war that never came, but they quickly proved to be essential for the movement of people and goods essential to carrying on the daily combat that is modern free enterprise. The funding made available for the federal interstate system, which was authorized in 1956, is widely assumed to have been the fuel that got the cement trucks in Chicago running, but the rudiments of today’s system—today's Bishop Ford, Kingery, Edens, and Eisenhower expressways—were planned and/or built by (variously) Cook County, the State of Illinois, and the City of Chicago.
The new roads required the demolition of thousands of structures and, in the case of the Congress/Eisenhower, whole neighborhoods. They also paved over a lot of history. The easternmost segment of the Southwest Expressway interred the long-abandoned I&M Canal. The Eisenhower’s eastern end, from Halsted Street to Grant Park, usurped the grand axis of Burnham Plan’s ceremonial boulevard; the space envisioned for Burnham’s grand civic plaza was used instead for expressway interchanges.
The origins of all of Chicagoland’s early limited-access highways of the scenic drive era were betrayed in their original names: the Edens Expressway, which opened in 1951, was originally the Edens Parkway. (One could be forgiven for assuming that the name referred to the suburban paradise on earth that the new road connected Chicagoans to, but it was named after William G. Edens, a banker and early advocate for paved roads.) By the 1950s, traffic engineers had run down the city’s parks planners, so to speak; in the 1960s the city Department of Public Works and the Park District announced a plan to widen and straighten South Lake Shore Drive from 47th Street to 67th Street, the better to accommodate traffic. The “improvement” would have meant real damage to the scenic lakefront, including the loss of some 2,000 trees. The plan led to protests (long since celebrated in local lore) in which citizens chained themselves to the threatened trees. South Lake Shore still curves to this day, a monument to Richard J. Daley’s capacity for embarrassment.
The big new roads worked all too well. Interstates 90/94, which skirted the Loop one mile to the west, provided relief for drivers (especially of trucks) who used to have to pass through the Loop on the old state and federal surface highways. But the Kennedy/Ryan was soon crippled by congestion. The solution was the same as that hit upon by freight railroads facing the same problems a century earlier: a “beltway” that allowed through traffic to bypass downtown. A beltway for the beltway was built—the TriState Tollway, some 16 miles west of the Loop. That was followed by a beltway for the beltway’s beltway—I355/I290/US53—which was opened in 1989 a further six miles to the west.
One of history’s lessons for Chicago road planners is that more roads attract more drivers. The 1974 Guide reported that the interstates (which had been designed, like the old Lincoln Highway, to skirt cities for the sake of cross-country speed) “provided expressways that eliminate traffic congestion and permit speedy passage between distant points.” But within urbanized Chicagoland, the expressways at peak periods created traffic congestion that prevented speedy passage between near points. What happened to the railroads in the 19th century happened to road builders in the 20th. As happened in every American big city, interstate and kindred highways intended to speed long-distance intercity travelers were exploited by local commuters. The tollways in particular came under political pressure to add exits and entrances. Seventy percent of the traffic on Chicagoland toll roads in the 1970s was long-distance travelers; a generation later, 70 percent of the traffic consisted of local commuters.
Thus were beltways turned into driveways. The new roads expanded the numbers of vehicles that could be served by roads but at the cost of speed; drivers in rush hours poked along in some sections no faster than a horse and buggy on a boulevard a century before. In 2002 Chicago area motorists spent the equivalent of 1 1/2 workweeks every year stuck in traffic, according to one respected national study. Indeed, being stuck traffic is one of the few universal experiences for Chicagoland citizens. The old jest—“I live on the expressways”—is becoming literally true, as cars and vans equipped with all the comforts of home, down to the TVs. The streetcar-bound shop girl and factory hand cited by Donald Miller moved about in the city and thus came to know it; today’s car commuter remains doubly separated from the city, by the road and by her car, and remains fearfully ignorant of the city.
The suburbs have their own expressway system. Washington would not build all the highways the hinterland needed and the State of Illinois could not. Funding shortfalls led to innovation in the form of the Illinois Tollway Authority, which began a system of pay-as-you-go roads in the 1950s consisting of both new roads and extensions and bypasses of existing interstates built to interstate standard.
The railroads spawned new towns as they reached into the hinterland, and so did the interstates and their tolled cousins. Sometimes those old railroad suburbs and the new automobile suburbs were the same towns. When the East-West Tollway opened in 1963, Naperville said goodbye to its past as a railroad stop and hello to a future as one of America’s fastest-growing edge cities. Schaumerg also was turned into a boomtown. As a hundred municipal histories attest, location is destiny.
The Tollway Authority has long been plagued by corruption and inefficiencies, from too many contracts let as political favors to too many low-bid contractors. So while the tollway authority is accepted by suburbanites as a necessity, it is perhaps more appreciated in the city, for proving to the world that politics and corruption are not vices exclusive to Chicago.
New Problems, New Solutions
Moving vehicles were the cause of congestion in downtown Chicago in the horse and streetcar eras, but as the numbers of private automobiles rose, parked ones caused the problem.
As fast as drivers parked them, architects and engineers came up with ways to store them. Just at end of World War I, for example, new skyscrapers were built with garages equipped with Rube Goldberg-ish machines—spiral ramps, elevators, turntables, transfer carriages—to move cars in and out quickly.
The Hotel LaSalle Garage at 215 W. Washington Street, was built in 1918. Designed by the distinguished architectural firm of Holabird and Roche, it was Chicago's first multilevel parking garage and thought by some experts to be the oldest surviving commercial parking garage in the U.S. until it was demolished in 2005. Bertrand Goldberg incorporated a parking ramp into his corn-cob Marina Towers that became part of the façade. Stanley Tigerman did a parking garage whose façade resembled a classic touring car (but revealed how little he knew about cars by borrowing his colors from the 1957 Chevy).
Chicago being Chicago, it usually just made things bigger rather than smarter. O’Hare Airport boasts one of the many “biggest parking garages in the world.” Grant Park North garage when it opened in 1954 was thought to be the world’s largest underground parking facility with space for 2,359 cars.
The parking garage was only one of the new building types that the auto age demanded, and some of the city’s master architects tried their hands at designing them. The august Mies designed a gas station, in a style consistent with the rest of his IIT campus; that bulding was razed in 2001 to make room for a new IIT student center. The Illinois Tollway Authority was the first to put the ubiquitous roadside gas station and restaurant above the road, atop a bridge accessible from the highway from either direction. Adopted to save land, the oases were also striking landmarks, or rather roadmarks, on highways that otherwise have very few. Five were built at first on the Tri-State and Northwest tollways and two were added later; all seven were recently the target of a $100 million renovation—new architecture (offering great views of other drivers hurrying to the next oasis), new food choices, new amenities—whose first phase was completed in 2004.
Just as Chicagoland was site of innovation design in the railroad suburb—Riverside—it was home to innovations in auto-oriented urban planning. In 1916 Lake Forest’s Market Square was unveiled as the first prototype of a kind of mixed-use development that has since become standard in the better suburbs. This landscaped faux-European mini-village included 28 stores, 12 office units, 30 apartments, and a gymnasium and clubhouse grouped around an off-street parking lot. Market Square is considered by the National Register of Historic Places to be the first planned shopping district in the U.S. While Market Square accommodated cars, its scale was, and is quite cozy—so much so that a project that pioneering in car-friendliness is touted today as pedestrian-friendly compared to more recent shopping centers that more resemble community college campuses.
Chicago gave the world no Octave Chanute of automotive technology, no Armour or Swift of car-making, no Sears Roebuck of car selling. But it did give the world someone who thought more clearly about the car and its place in modern life than most. Like most Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright saw the car as a liberating technology that could simultaneously make huge swaths of land accessible for development and make it possible to live on it without foregoing social connection. More than most, Wright realized that in an environment so physically attenuated, communities would be bound by telecommunications and transportation. Wright designed a whole automobile city—Broadacre.
Chicagoland outside the Loop is a poorly designed version of Broadacre City, but Wright’s dream is the model for much of post-war development. Daniel Burnham might get credit for re-inventing Chicago, but Frank Lloyd Wright lived to see his version of the new city built. ●
Relics of a Modern Age
The early years of the automobile age are now nearly a century past. Here and there in Chicagoland the sharp-eyed visitors can spot vestiges of this antique era. An stretch of alley behind the official residence of Chicago’s Roman Catholic archbishop at 1555 N. State Parkway is one of the very last instances in Chicago of street paving using cedar block, which in 1900 covered 749 miles of city streets; within a few years cedar and pine blocks would be replaced by much more durable brick.
A few narrow roadways and rights-of-way are still in use, relegated by newer, inevitably more elaborate facilities into frontage roads when Commerce passed them by. One of hundreds could be seen in Highland Park, where Deerfield Road (now Old Deerfield Road) an important east-west artery, crossed the former Skokie Valley Road (now the Old Skokie Road). At that corner is a Tudor Revival Pure Oil gas station from the mid-1930s that retained enough of its original historic features to merit listing on the National Register, but it was razed anyway.
The Lincoln Highway is still remembered in Chicagoland by local historians who are alert to its significance to the nation’s transportation history. Commemorative banners, road signs, and sign posts have been installed marking its location in towns such as Frankfort, Rochelle, Morrison, Plainfield, and New Lenox; in the Chicago Heights area utility poles along that stretch of the road that follows the Sauk Trail have been painted red, white, and blue in imitation of the original highway’s markings. Here and there the original route markers survive—on Smith Street and Redwood Street in Aurora, and in the displays of the Aurora Historical Society, on the grounds of the Fairfield estate in Mooseheart and Geneva’s Oscar Swan Inn Bed and Breakfast. Here and there a bit of actual pavement even survives; in Frankfort a mile-long remnant is used as a hike-and-bike path.
Chicago, specifically the downtown intersection of Jackson and Michigan, was the starting point for one of the fabled highways in the U.S.—Route 66, one of the earliest and most celebrated legs of the new national highway system that debuted in the 1920s. From the Loop, US66 ran west on Adams to Ogden Avenue, then to Harlem Avenue, whence US-66 headed south a mile or so to Joliet Road which carried travelers to Joliet before heading southwest on its way to St. Louis and beyond.
Nostalgia for the old road is general enough to sustain a small tourism industry. Local governments have been prevailed upon to erect markers showing the location of the old route to the curious. That requires a lot of signs, as Route 66 was renamed and rerouted several times. Between Bolingbrook and Gardner for example the original route through Joliet (today used by IL53) was shifted round Joliet via IL126 (into Plainfield) and IL59. Bypasses were built at many towns, with the result that some towns have as many as four different alignments of US66 in and around them.
Things are no less confusing at the Chicago end. To the annoyance of buffs, who care about such things, Adams Street at Michigan Avenue is today marked as the starting point of the highway. But the original start point was at Jackson and Michigan, and in 1933 it was moved to Jackson and Lake Shore Drive. Jackson, however, was made one-way eastbound in 1955, so the westbound highway could no longer start there. The westbound start was moved to Adams, but not to Adams and Lake Shore Drive—that intersection does not exist—but Adams and Michigan, which does exist, but from the historic Route 66 never began. It is not the first time that tourists’ convenience has compromised historical accuracy.
Compared to Chicago’s old streetcars, the motorbus is in many ways a superior vehicle, being more flexible for one thing. Motorbuses appeared after World War I, serving parts of the city not served by streetcars. Today they are as ubiquitous as the streetcar once was. The CTA and Pace between them operate nearly 3,000 of them. City buses have been tested that use exotic fuels and that offer handier boarding, but they vary little in their basics from a design that was pioneered by the Chicago Surface Lines in the 1927, in vehicles designed for CSL by the Twin Coach Company of Ohio which became the standard city bus in the country.
One of the national icons of the auto lifestyle is in Des Plaines: the first McDonald’s drive-in restaurant in the style that would become world famous. Ray Kroc opened the Des Plaines restaurant in 1955. based on a drive-in restaurant he had admired in California. That building was razed in 1984 after several remodelings; it was rebuilt to the original blueprints, not as a restaurant but as a museum. The reborn drive-in contains McDonald's memorabilia and artifacts, including original equipment and mannequins dressed in the 1955 uniform—a place that will seem as quaint and strange to today’s infants as the Garfield Tavern does to their parents. ●