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)

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