Saturday, March 15, 2014

Spring Thaw -- Chicago in the Early 1900's

Stuck Cart, early 1900's (Chicago Daily News Photo Archie)
Ah . . . the thaw comes to the Big City, and the river turns green!  

I know, I know, it’s going to make some folks a little hot under the collar for a guy who has spent all those below-zero days a-tanning down here in southern Florida to be writing about the welcome changing of the weather (if, indeed, that does occur).

But you can be a student of history under a palm tree just as well as you can wrapped up in long johns and fleece, and my research assures me that back in the early 1900’s this time of year was even messier than it is today.

Here’s what The Tribune had to say around this time of year back in 1900 . . . “Pools of water and slush, ankle deep, dotted the down-town streets and sidewalks yesterday.  Commissioner McGann said that the condition of the streets was the worst in the history of the city . . .” [Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1900]

The specifics were as follows: 

The entire extent of the down-town portion sof Van Buren and Lake streets and Wabash avenue were covered with half-liquid slush which was plashed on pedestrians by every passing wagon.  The crowded sidewalks forced many people to step into pools deeper than the height of rubber shoes.  In La Salle street, north of Randolph, two alley sidewalk intersections were flooded with water several inches deep.  Along Lake street the water inundated the sidewalks in many places.

Goose Island Street, early 1900's (
A year later the same thing occurred as The Tribune reported, “Chicago is wading these days—men are paddling down-town through the slush and mud, going about their business with wet feet, and then trudging home again over streets that are thick with slime and dotted with puddles.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1901]

The article went on to report that

Freed of much of the snow by the recent thaw, but not of the mud or the slush, streets in all parts of the city are almost impassable.  With the slush on an even level the ruts are concealed, and at the crossing the pedestrian runs the risk of sinking to his ankles—in some places to his knees—in the filth that fills the holes.

Not fun.

Imagine being one of the poor souls among the 10,000 folks who lived along Western Avenue between Thirty-Ninth and Fifty-Fifth streets that year.  The entire area was without sewers and open ditches provided the only drainage.   They overflowed, covering the neighborhoods in six to twelve inches of water.  Water in the basement of the Shields School at Rockwell and Fifty-Fifth streets was so high that it put out the fire in the school’s furnace.
Michigan Avenue at Randolph Street, 1893 (

The following day The Tribune printed the final insult in the whole mess in an article entitled Dirtiest of All Cities.  [Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1901]  The paper printed this slam . . .

People returning to the city after a trip to cities of this country, or, indeed any other, are surprised to find to what a low point municipal uncleanliness has fallen.  Many Chicago people have visited Havana this winter and there, although the city formerly was held the synonym of uncleanliness, they find the streets 
looking—by comparison to Chicago—like well swept floors.

The whole mess continued for years and years.  In fact, in 1903 The Tribune dispensed with the straight reporting entirely and published a whole page of poems about the condition of the streets written by “versifiers” whose stanzas might have been “lame and halt, but it may have been the poets were trying to carry the idea of rough streets by using irregular feet.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1903]

One such gem was entitled Halsted Street . . .

Halsted Street

Would you see the worst?
  Go take a view
Southward from Ar-
  cher avenue,
Where the street cars run
  Through miles of slush,
A measley, blackened
  Horrible mush;
A thoroughfare
  Where people trudge
Through nasty, sticky
  Bottomless sludge;
Where the wagons bump,
  Ker-chuock!  Ker-chock!
O’er the frazzled and worn
  Old cedar block!
A dirty, pasty,
  Slobbery mass,
A six-mile stretch
  Of foul morass;
A smear on the face
  Of the town of Lake
Is Halsted “street”—
  It takes the cake!

“Slobbery mass” and “foul morass” . . . nice rhyming.

1 comment:

  1. This is quit the story. I honestly don't know how people dealt such difficult conditions. This winter may have been bad, but this was even worse.