Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Blizzard of 1967 -- January 26 & 27

Cermak Road at the end of the storm (Chicago Sun-Times file photo)
The weather forecast on January 25, 1967 read as follows:  CHICAGO AND VICINITY [Thursday thru Monday]:  Temperatures will average near normal; normal high, 33; normal low, 19; colder on week-end; precipitation will total about one-quarter inch in rain or snow the latter part of the week.  [Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1967]

The next day, January 26, a revised forecast of five or six inches of snow began to fall just before dawn.  I was a junior in high school, waiting at a bus stop in Highland Park, headed for a semester final exam.  I took a protractor out and measured the snow that had fallen by mid-morning, and the total, it was easy to see, was way past six inches.  And it just kept on falling.

By January 27 The Tribune’s headline reported “Midwest Reels Under Paralyzing Snow – Traffic Bogs down Among Giant Drifts – School Closings in Hundreds”. 

Everything ground to a halt.  The Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago shut down.  Unable to staff stores adequately, Marshall Field & Co. and Carson Pirie Scott  & Co. shut their doors.  The Ford Motor company assembly plant at 12600 Torrence Avenue was shuttered with 8,000 workers unable to get to the job.

Servicemen at Glenview Naval Air Station and Great Lakes Naval Training center were told to stay in their homes and barracks.  The runway in Glenview was snowbound as well.

Pre-trial motions in the case of Richard Speck, accused of murdering eight nurses in the summer of 1966, were cancelled when a shortage of bailiffs made it impossible to escort Speck from the county jail to the courthouse. 

C.T.A. Buses waylaid on Laramie Avenue (Chicago Sun-Times file photo)
Funerals were cancelled, and Thomas J. Moriarity, executive director of the Funeral Directors Services Association, said, “It is strictly a matter of getting the processions to the cemeteries.  Some cemeteries have been able to get employees in and get internal roads open, but the outside roads are still blocked.”   [Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1967]

I began to shovel the family’s driveway first thing in the morning on January 27.  Drifts were, in some places, at chest level.  The wind was howling, and the work was slow.  It took two days before I reached the end of the driveway, which really didn’t matter because the city plow still hadn’t come down the street on which the house sat.

I was still shoveling when more than snow began hitting the metropolitan fan.  Forty-Seventh ward Alderman John J. Hoellen lambasted the city by its lack of preparation.  “Those city garbage trucks with plows attached to them are a waste of money,” he said.  “What good is it to clear the main entries if no one can get to them from the side streets.”

And the death toll began to creep up.  A 63-year-old man died on the Stone Street station of the Burlington line, waiting for a train.  A passenger on a C.T.A. bus stranded in drifts at Twenty-Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue died on the bus.  A man was found dead in his car, stalled on a ramp to the Stevenson Expressway at Mannheim Road.  Another man was found frozen to death 100 feet from his stalled car on the Tri-State in South Holland.

Harold W. Schumacher, a C.T.A. bus driver was found dead in the snow near his stranded bus at Harrison and Kostner.  Wilbur C. Vanderburg was found dead in the cab of his telephone company truck after hours of emergency work.  The chief of security at the Merchandise Mart, George Jankowski, died at his home after shoveling snow.  Dozens of others died of the same cause.  By January 30 the death toll in the Chicagoland area related to the snow had surpassed 60 persons.

Before it was over the 23 inches of snow that fell on that Thursday and Friday of 1967 left 50,000 abandoned cars on the area’s roads and 800 C.T.A. buses stuck on streets and expressways. Midway Airport had drifts that were ten-feet high on the runways, where during the storm winds were recorded at 53 miles-per-hour. 

It was the storm of a lifetime – at least until the overnight blizzard that shut down Lake Shore Drive in 2012 (but even though that was a nightmare for many, the havoc was nowhere near what happened over those 48 hours in 1967).

And about that driveway – after shoveling for two days, I finally got the thing opened up to the street, still unplowed, sometime around noon of January 28, two days after the storm first started. 

But as I put my shovel over my 16-year-old shoulder and headed back to the house, a road grader – not a plow – came north on Dato Avenue.  And as it neared our house, our neighbor to the south who had not been out of the house since the storm started, waded through the drifts of his driveway with a mug of coffee in one gloved hand and something I couldn’t see in the other.

The grader stopped, and my neighbor handed the operator the coffee and what I now realize was a donation to the city for services rendered.  The grader made a series of maneuvers and ended up backing up the neighbor’s driveway, where in less than three minutes it cleared the entire driveway down to the asphalt.  After another series of maneuvers, the operator continued north, past our house, depositing a levee of snow at the end of our driveway that would cost me another hour of work.

With over a year left in high school, I had been given a civics lesson far more practical than anything that I would ever learn in school.

Lake Shore Drive at storm's end (

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- January 23, 1900

Chicago River at Rush Street, circa 1900 ((
On January 2, 1900 water was allowed to flow into the brand new Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal for the first time.  The president of the Chicago Sanitary District, William Boldenweck, said at the ceremonies, “Water is now in the channel, and I do not see how anybody can stop us . . . it will not be longer than a few weeks before the people of Chicago will be enjoying the benefits from the canal, that has cost them about $33,000,000 . . . I predict that before the canal has been opened a month the improvement in the quality of water sent down the valley will be so marked that all opposition will be removed.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1900]

Initially, Mr. Bodenweck was right.  The Tribune reported the next day “The clear waters of Lake Michigan have invaded the Chicago River as far as Harrison street bridge in the South Branch.  At sunset last night the water had taken on a clearer tinge as far south as Twelfth street bridge . . . Even the South Fork of the South Branch, known as the Stock-Yards Branch, shared in the benefits of the opening of the drainage canal.” [Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1900]

And that’s the story as it has come to be told:  The citizens of Chicago in a bold and unbelievably expensive engineering enterprise reversed the river that flowed through their city by digging a canal of unprecedented scope, completing the whole thing in eight short years.  And everything worked marvelously.

Not quite.

Almost immediately there was trouble, and by this time in 1900 the first hints of the trouble that was to come began to darken the euphoria over the new canal, a canal that was to make the city one of the most hygienic places on the planet.

In fact, on this date, January 23, the river fell three feet at Bridgeport, making it impossible to operate the pumps that kept the water in the original Illinois and Michigan canal flowing.  Mills in Lockport that depended on this flow of water through the dams in that city were forced to shut down and it was said “a crisis in its [the I & M canal] affairs had been reached, and the use of the upper end of it, at least as a navigable water course, was at an end.” [Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1900] The cause of the fall in water level was directly attributable to the opening of the Lockport dam on the new Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Chicago Commissioner of Public Works McGann said, “We did not expect such a happening as this . . . “  A trustee of the Chicago Sanitary District said, “This development argues no failure in our plans . . .”

Ominously, there was a swift current that had begun to flow in the main stem of the river, which was attributed to the wind.  But the city’s Chief Engineer noted that 220,000 cubic feet of water a minute were flowing away from the lake and toward the dam at Lockport, which was also handling 80,000 cubic feet of water from the Desplaines River.

It was a delicate balancing act, and it would take years and many more millions of dollars for it all to work as it was intended.  January 23, 1900 brought the first hint that all might not be well. 

By March 2 of 1900 a party of insurance executives and tug line managers made a trip up the Chicago River and their report must have been shocking.  One of the men, George L. McCurdy, observed, “Something must be done at once if Chicago’s water commerce is to be preserved.  With a current I do not see how traffic of big boats can be carried on at all.  The boats will be driven away from Chicago . . . It is not possible for an insurance company to discriminate against a port, but the vessel owners themselves will solve the difficulty by keeping their boats away.”

As if to underscore Mr. McCurdy’s remarks that same day the schooner Armenia grounded itself on the roof of the Washington Street tunnel, lying just beneath the muck of the river bottom, a bottom was much too close to a ship’s keel when a wind out of the west blew lake water away from the mouth of the river.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chicago Building Height -- Up or Down? (January 21, 1902)

The Railway Exchange Building of 1904 (left) & The People's Gas Building (1910)
One hundred-twelve years ago on this day, January 21, the Judiciary Committee of the Chicago City Council made a recommendation to that body that all restrictions on the height of “full fire-proof construction” buildings be lifted. [Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1902]

There was a considerable amount of pressure placed upon aldermen to remove the height restrictions, and The Tribune observed, “Representatives of building firms asserted that in Chicago alone of all great cities in America were such limitations in effect and they declared that the competition with other cities would force the removal of restrictions here.”

Mayor Carter Harrison went on record as favoring the removal of restrictions on building height even though he was in favor of restriction four years earlier when a 130-foot height limit was imposed.  “The unfortunate thing in this city is the fact that Chicago is a sort of wheel, the loop district being the hub, with the spokes radiating into the outlying wards,” he said.  “With rentals being where they are and space so valuable in the district bounded by the loop, it is impossible to get enough out of property to make it a good investment unless the buildings are allowed to go up.”

There were a number of arguments put forth as to why the height limit should be kept in place.  Some felt that tall buildings were ugly, belching smoke and blocking the sky.  Others felt that tall buildings made for an unhealthy city, cutting off light and air from anyone at ground level.  Still others argued that with tall buildings holding as many people as a good-sized town, the congestion they caused was insufferable.  And, of course, the owners and developers of tall buildings erected before the 1898 set of restrictions were not especially joyful at the prospect of taller and more modern structures competing for leases.

Members of the city council were inclined to agree.

Chicago Building of 1905 (JWB Photo)
Sensing that council members were opposed to raising the height limit, the First National Bank applied the pressure, announcing that it was abandoning its proposed building projects, threatening to remove nearly $12,000,000 from the construction calendar and the tax rolls.

D. R. Forgan, the president of First National said, “Why the owners of the Masonic temple property should be permitted to erect a building of over twenty stories and many others of sixteen and seventeen and the same privilege denied to the First National Bank, which is at the center of the loop, I fail to understand.”

Owen Aldis, the agent behind such great buildings as the Marquette, the Rookery, and the Monadnock, said, “The attitude of the Council is short sighted and narrow in the extreme.  It may please the present owners of high buildings, but it is certain to check contemplated large improvements.  It is stated that building to cost $12,000,000 are involved.  The figures really are much larger, as I know of several other large plans which will be abandoned if the Council stands on Monday night’s action.”

In the end a majority of City Council members voted to end the restrictions – sort of.  The last section of the ordinance read, “No buildings shall be erected in the City of Chicago of greater height than 130 feet from the sidewalk level to the highest point of external bearing walls.  No restriction contained in this ordinance regarding the height of buildings shall apply to any building to be hereafter erected which shall be erected in full fire proof construction.”

A Tribune editorial on February 6, 1902 provided the final word on the subject – at least until 1920 when the height restrictions were once again changed.  “Without any reference to individual cases,” the piece read, “The Tribune is decidedly of the opinion that the high buildings—meaning thereby structures of more than ten stories – are a public advantage.  Arguments are advanced against them, but those arguments did not convince the Council, nor do they have influence with the general public.”

University Club of 1909 (JWB Photo)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Bridge Not Far Enough (La Salle Street, Chicago) -- January 18, 1925

The Fire Tug Graeme Stewart, launched in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1918
(Maritime History of the Great Lakes)
Here’s one for the “Think You’ve Got It Bad – Things Could Always Be Worse” department.  It happened on this date, January 18, in 1925.

George D. Buckley started down the incline leading to the La Salle Street bridge when he realized that there was no bridge across the river at La Salle Street.  By the time he made the connection (about the fact that there was no connection) it was too late and car, driver, and companion slid to the edge of the river where they dropped ten feet onto the deck of the fire tug Graeme Stewart. [Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1925]

I would imagine that the crewmembers of the Graeme Stuart were surprised at the landing. 

If Mr. Buckley had just waited a few years . . . a bridge across the river at La Salle was dedicated on December 12, 1928.  That was the first bridge at that location although a tunnel under the river at La Salle Street had begun operation around 1871.