Monday, March 31, 2014

The Big Bang -- March 31, 1954

The King explosion on November 15, 1954 (
Two events from March 31, 1954 – 60 years ago today – that can be properly be placed in the “Wow, things sure have changed and I am beginning to understand why my 60-something parents are so screwed up” department.

On this date back in 1954 the United States Civil Defense Chief (yes, there actually was such a position) Val Peterson announced that the government would show a censored film that would display the 1952 hydrogen bomb blast in the Marshall Islands, code named Operation Ivy. 

The first detonation, Mike, was the first full-scale test of a multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb.  In the second test, King, the largest nuclear weapon using only nuclear fission was fired.  That big boy gave off 500 kilotons of havoc, which was 25 times more powerful than the weapons used against Japan at the end of World War II. []  

Chief Peterson said that the footage of the blast would be shown to the American people not “’to scare them nor encourage hopelessness’ but to furnish basic facts they must have ‘about such new and terrible weapons.’”  [Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1954]  If you would like to walk back in time and get freaked out, 1950's style, here's the video . . .

Back in Chicago on the same day General Robert M. Woodward, the state civil defense director, said that a “semi-evacuation” of at least part of the city should be carried out to test the readiness of the evacuation plan “because of the terrific power of the hydrogen bomb, which makes bomb shelters futile.

The plan in 1954 apparently boiled down to this . . . “movement of buses, cabs, trucks and cars in steady streams out of the city to the north, south and west.  All vehicles would be loaded as they move along evacuation arteries, with passengers walking in the same direction.”  Sounds like folks living out there in Oak Park were screwed.

General Woodward observed, “Difficulties arising from a mere snowstorm indicate the tremendous problems of a panicky flight from the city.  Such a wartime evacuation is likely to be complicated by Communist agents using chemical and germ weapons and possibly carrying ‘suitcase’ A-bombs.”

See that little four-year-old covering his head under his little pre-school desk?  That was me . . . too scared to even say “That was I.”  Those suitcase bombs – man, oh man, they really were sphincter ticklers.

So much nicer today – a nice, gentle end of mankind over a series of centuries of global warming.  No need to crawl under the desks for that.  Eventually, the desks will be underwater, anyway.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Grant Park's Beginnings -- 1901

Chicago's Grant Park (JWB, 2011)
In March of 1901 between 300 and 500 wagonloads of rubbish were being carried to the east end of Van Buren Street and dumped in the lake.  Anything that citizens wanted to get rid of – rubbish, broken bricks, cinders, ashes – went into the water.  The process had been going on for three years, and in that time 40 acres of new land had been reclaimed from lake water that was six to fifteen feet deep.

If you’re taking a walkabout in the 319 acres of Grant Park today, you’re walking on the great dump that was begun before the twentieth century began. 

The other day I accidentally bumped into a fascinating article in The Chicago Tribune from March of 1901, a piece that was especially informative because it was written at a time when the work was still in progress and the history that led up to it was relatively recent.

The whole thing began on September 24, 1888 when the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois issued a decree in favor of the City of Chicago.  It was a complicated case, to say the least, and it’s tough to simplify and even tougher to underestimate the importance of its ultimate effect on the city.

Looking south toward Illinois Central Station with landfill ongoing, 1907
(Chicago Daily News Photo Archives)
In effect, the decision found against the Illinois Central Railroad, which had for some years had a trestle and extensive trackage along the lakefront all the way to the Chicago River.  The city was granted “among other powers, the power to establish, construct, erect and keep in repair on said lake front east of said premises, in such manner as may be consistent with law, public landing places, wharves, docks and levees . . .”    [Report of the Submerged Shore Lands Legislative Investigating Committee. Illinois State Journal Printers: 1911]  More importantly the riparian rights – or the rights to the land beneath the water were awarded to the State of Illinois, and through it, the city.

The effect of this decision was slow to take form, but in 1895 during the two-year term of Mayor George Bell Swift arbitration between the city and the railroad was completed.  The Illinois Central was to receive “a triangular piece of the basin at Randolph street, which it was to fill in, for certain necessary switch tracks.  In return for this it agreed to depress its tracks between Randolph street and Park Row [roughly an area within today’s park just north of Roosevelt Road]; build two retaining walls twenty-seven feet high, in which the fourteen tracks of the company were to lie, with all further riparian claims relinquished; it was to put 200,000 cubic yards of earth from the drainage canal on the surface of the old park laying between the tracks and Michigan avenue; and 1,200 feet east of the outer railroad wall it was to build a sea wall of piles, filled with stone, which had to rest in fifteen feet of water and which was more than 8,000 feet long.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1901]

The exquisite downtown lakefront that we fortunate Chicagoans take for granted began with this decision, carried out at a cost of $1,500,000, most of that sum borne by the railroad.  The South Park Commissioners must surely have been overjoyed at the good fortune but “There was no intent upon the part of the South Park Commissioners to spend good money for filling in this basin.”

Looking north toward the river, 1907 -- note proximity of lake to the Art Institute
(Chicago Daily New Photo Archives)
According to The Tribune the bulk of the dumping that was responsible for filling the space east of the railroad’s tracks was undertaken by the city’s “Street Cleaning department to wrecking companies tearing down old buildings or tearing up the debris from those burned, to ash collectors, and to every one who had had non-perishable refuse to dump from the First Ward.”

Interesting.  “Hinky Dink” Kenna (“Chicago ain’t no sissy town.”) and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, the “Lords of the Levee” ruled the First Ward for over two decades.  During that time there was more than enough “non-perishable” refuse to dump from the First Ward.  As the South Loop Historical Society puts it, “By the early years of the 20th Century, the Levee had become a haven for brothels and taverns, and the First Ward’s amoral fiefdom had crossed the line into a veritable pageant of political corruption.”

It is an interesting to exercise to examine the connecting points of history – to realize how many disparate parts must come together, some purposely and others by accident, for a wonder such as Grant Park to be revealed.  Would there have been enough public pressure, for example, to develop the lakefront, irrespective of the legalities, if the city had not held the great World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, two years before the Illinois Central finally agreed to the work described above.

The Tribune described what people saw when they came to the end of Van Buren Street and approached the railroad station to take the train to the fair.  “The Van Buren street station was a tumble-down, unsightly structure.  Barb wire kept pedestrians off the Illinois Central’s right of way.  Beyond were ugly temporary docks at which every kind of boat tied up and around which “barkers” roared and challenged one another and occasionally fought for passengers.”

Creation of a new park just south of the Art Institute, 1907
(Chicago Daily News Photo Archives)
Plans for the developing “Lake Front Park” were still vague, but there were high hopes for it, despite the South Park Commission’s unwillingness to do much more than watch the dumping continue.  The Art Institute of Chicago already stood west of the railroad tracks.  Plans were for the Crear Library to stand next to it.  The library got built, but at the northwest corner of Randolph and Michigan.  It now is part of the Science library at the University of Chicago.

“That the permanent building for the Field Columbian Museum finally shall be built in the new park is pretty generally accepted,” The Tribune assuredly stated.  Well, that obviously didn’t happen either, thanks to the tireless efforts of A. Montgomery Ward. 

An armory “capable of housing all the militia regiments of the city” was also proposed for the new lakefront land.  And they complained about a Children’s Museum!

The Tribune felt that “If property-owners along Michigan avenue are willing to concede place to the new Crear Library, it has been advanced that the Art Institute and the library will be the means of proving to these property-holders that such a class of buildings as proposed will be of only the slightest obstruction, that they will add to the general building effect of the avenue, and that in many other ways their influence will be to lend materially to the value of property as an investment.”

With the recent past in mind, filled with noisy smoky steam engines running at street level across the land that separated the city from the lake and with the knowledge that just the other side of Michigan Avenue lay the notorious First Ward, The Tribune snidely concluded, “When the Lake Front Park finally is completed it will require a new stretch of the imagination of the average Chicago man for him to realize that one of the good-sized parks of Chicago is lying just off the First Ward.”

Note that the retaining wall just the other side of the tracks has been completed, 1907
(Chicago Daily News Photo Archives)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chicago Water Tower Dedication -- March 25, 1867

The Chicago Water Tower (JWB, 2013)
Ask anyone who has visited Chicago to name his or her five most memorable sights and Chicago’s Water Tower (the fancy stand pipe and not the indoor mall) is sure to be among them.

It was on this day, March 25, way back in 1867 that the complex that made up the little city’s “Water Works” was dedicated and a cornerstone laid at Chicago and what is now Michigan Avenue (Back in those days it was Pine Street).

“Early in the morning the city was all alive,” The Tribune reported at the time.  “No formal proclamation had stopped the people from their labors, to watch the ceremonies which would attend the ushering in of the new water era, but the citizens generally recognized the importance of the occasion and turned out in great numbers to witness the proceedings and participate in them.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1867]

Despite a brief snowfall in the early morning, the day was “all that could have been desired at this period of the year” and “the ground was not hard, but the mud was only shallow, and it was not painful or unpleasant to walk through it.”  The mood was festive with “Everybody . . . in good humor at the idea that good water was here at last.”

Chicago Water Works (1886), Pine Street separating the two structures
(wikipedia image)
This was a very big deal, marking the culmination of the plan of Ellis S. Chesebrough to make the city a healthier place through the improvement of its sewage and water distribution systems.  In June of 1862 the Chicago Common Council adopted the city engineer’s plan for bringing uncontaminated lake water to the city through a “crib” located two-and-a-half miles offshore.  The first brick was laid at the crib on December 22, 1865. By that date workmen had already constructed a tunnel from the shore that was 4,825 feet long.  Less than a year later, on December 6, 1866 a section of tunnel leading from the crib was linked to the section leading from the shore. 

In a little over two years of work, most of it done with picks and shovels, a project that saved the city was completed.  It was an amazing, almost reckless, plan undertaken by a city that had no other options.  The fact that it worked so well was the highest testimonial to the expertise of Ellis Cheseborough.

The Chicago Water Works from Chicago Avenue, 1896 (Google image)
The Water Works at Chicago and Pine served to house all of the massive pumping equipment as well as the stand pipe necessary to keep the system pressurized.  Built on the site of the former old works, the style was “castellated Gothic, with heavy bottlemented corners, executed with solid rock-faced ashlar stone and cut-stone trimmings, all the details being of a massive and permanent character.”  [Andreas, Alfred Theodore.  History of Chicago from 1857 to the Fire of 1871.  Chicago, 1885. p.67]

The water tower, itself, was 154 feet tall, topped with a cupola with windows surrounding it.  In its interior a six-ton stand pipe was placed at its base.  From that a three-foot iron stand pipe rose to a height of 138 feet.  W. W. Boyington, the architect of the complex, designed a building that was “looked upon as thoroughly fire-proof,” [Andreas] which was borne out when the tower was one of the few structures left standing in the city after the disastrous fire of 1871.

On the day of the dedication a police contingent led the parade, starting out from the Court House on Dearborn Street at 9:00 in the morning, and as it moved north it was joined by various other elements coming from different directions.  The Tribune described the scene . . .

The Fire Department formed on Washington street, east of La Salle.  Before the marshaling and arranging of the constituent parts of the great procession, unutterable excitement prevailed.  Bands came marching from different quarters; Marshals galloped hotly to and fro; Masons with their plain white aprons or their gorgeous trappings hurried singly to the rendezvous; fire engines and hose carts rolled forward covered with sturdy firemen in their great hats and blue uniforms, and drawn by their powerful horses, looking s if they wanted to break into a run to the fire which must have called them out; men, women and children crowded the sidewalks in a state of excited admiration, making pedestrianism almost impossible; whole ominbuses, carriages, trucks and drays, on business met most vexatious delays and obstructions at every rod, and were often forced to work long detours in order to pass the living mass. 

At 11:00 the procession started slowly up Dearborn Street to Lake, headed west to La Salle, south to Washington, and then up Clark Street.  By 11:30 the band could be heard approaching the water tower.  At just about that time an accident occurred. 

According to The Tribune, “In their eagerness to gain an advantageous seat near the platform, a number of men clambered to the roof of a very frail wooden shed used for dressing the stones.  Suddenly the structure gave way beneath them, and about twenty luckless individuals were precipitated into the rubbish beneath.”  No one was seriously injured, but In the midst of the chaos, almost exactly at noon, the head of the procession arrived on the grounds of the dedication ceremony.

After preliminary remarks the cornerstone was raised up and the Reverend O. H. Tiffany led the crowd in a prayer which he ended with these words:

"And now we praise thee oh God, for thy great bounty unto us – we thank thee that thou hast stored our land with plenty, that our fields teem with fertility, and that our waters are glad with health.  We bless thee for the skill of our artisans and of our workmen and we thank thee that this day we are brought together to lay the foundation stone of this structure.  We earnestly pray that our best expectations may be realized, and that by it blessing may ever flow, from this great lake to all the homes of this great city.  We pray, also for Thy blessing upon all those who have been or are engaged in this great undertaking – do Thou protect, and preserve them from evil . . ."

The Chicago Water Works, 1943, now on Michigan Avenue
Virtually the entire dedication was a Masonic production, complete with the consecration of the cornerstone with “vessels delivered in form to the Grand Master . . . poured upon the stone”.  These “vessels” carried a scattering of corn and a flask of wine as emblems of plenty along with oil as an emblem of peace.

The Most Worshipful Grand Master Gorin then intoned, “May the all bounteous author of Nature bless the inhabitants of this place with all the necessaries, conveniences and comforts of life; assist in the erection and completion of this building; protect the workmen against every accident, and even preserve this structure from decay; and grant to us all, in needed supply, the corn of nourishment, the wine of refreshment and the oil of joy.”

At this point the stone was “thrice stricken with the mallet” and the Masonic ceremony concluded.

Then Mayor J. B. Rice got up to end the ceremony with a few remarks which went on and on and on.

Midway through his remarks he hit his stride . . .

. . . but the people were not satisfied with delay.  They could stand on the shore in the centre of the city and look upon the clear sparkling, pure water of yonder mighty lake, the coveted treasure so near – and they cried with one voice, who is the man who can give us this water for our use; the cry was heard; the man was there who, with the modesty that is ever the companion of genius, said he thought a tunnel might be built far under the bed of the lake – two miles in length – and there where the water was thirty-five feet in depth, pure and cool in all seasons, the supply could be obtained . . . It was novel, untried; the expense hardly to be estimated, and failure imminent; but the man of science was not to be moved from his position. 

Ellis Sylvester Chesebrough would not be moved from his position.  The clear sparkling, pure water of yonder mighty lake is still the lifeblood of a great city.  And the water tower still stands, a technological marvel of its time and an enduring symbol of a city that is willing to play the odds if there is the slightest chance for a big payoff.

The Chicago Water Works, 1974, with Water Tower Place
rising to the left (