Sunday, December 15, 2013

Congress Expressway Opening -- December 15, 1955

The Congress Expressway under construction,
looking west from the Post Office (Chicag Tribune photo by Gary Quinn)
On this date in 1955 a significant four-and-a-half mile section of the Congress Expressway, between Ashland Avenue (1600 West) and Laramie Avenue (5200 West) was opened in a ceremony at which the governor of Illinois, William Stratton, the new mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley and the Cook County president, Dan Ryan, officiated.

The Congress Expressway, or west side superhighway, was first proposed in 1940, but the war and a shortage of steel and other crucial supplies immediately after the war delayed construction by over two decades.  It was one of the greatest infrastructure projects in the city’s history, involving the massive use of the powers of eminent domain to level a huge swath of railroads, industrial buildings, homes, churches, even a cemetery, for a distance of seven miles.  Between 1948 and 1956 over 6,000 Chicago families lost their homes to superhighway construction, primarily on the west and southwest sides of the city.  [“America on the Move.”]

The Eisenhower, as it is known today (Mike Royko famously called this Chicago’s only Republican expressway), is the only expressway in the country to run underneath a United State Post Office and was the first expressway in the country to include rapid transit lines in the median.  It is the only expressway in Chicago to cross the river by way of a moveable bridge.

The scope of the project was monumental, impressive from an engineering
perspective . . . not so much from a sociological one (Tribune photo)
“This is a milestone, a first milestone in the modernization of Chicago metropolitan area traffic facilities,” said Governor Stratton.  “In the next four years 700 million dollars will be spent in this program.”

The Tribune’s reportage of the event seems to indicate that government officials may have been a little too quick with their early Christmas present to the city’s motorists.  Entrances and exits at Ashland, Damen and Western avenues were only temporary one-lane ramps, and “Traffic was jammed at these bottlenecks and on the streets leading to and from the ramps.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1955]

A year earlier a two-and-a-half mile section of the expressway was opened, heading west from First Avenue in Maywood, and was already carrying 20,000 cars a day.  It was estimated that when the entire project was finished (which it was in 1956), the road would be carrying 120,000 cars a day Chicago’s lakefront to the DuPage County line.

By 1959 the highway was at full capacity (CTA photo)


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