Tuesday, March 12, 2019

March 12, 1903 -- Lake Street Miracle

March 12, 1903 – Two traditions are a part of life in Chicago as the winter begins to wind down. There is the dying of the river on St. Patrick’s Day.  And there are potholes.  In February 20 crews were out, working seven days a week, trying to limit the damage that potholes would inflict on automobiles.  Maybe this is a good time to consider the fate of one William Rensteed, in 1903 a poor soul from Udine, Illinois who, having missed the elevated stop at Oakley Avenue, decided he was going to walk from Campbell Avenue back to Oakley on the elevated structure.  Bad idea. Somehow, in climbing from the two-story platform to the tracks, Rensteed slipped and fell head first onto Lake Street. He survived … because the paving stones of Lake Street were under such a deep covering of mud that the out-of-towner escaped with nothing more than scalp wounds.  Recovering from shock in the County Hospital, Rensteed, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, “was thankful to be alive, but wondered that he escaped drowning.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, March 12, 1903]  The grainy photo published in the Tribune shows the conditions of the street at the time Rented fell.

March 12, 1883 – The United States Supreme Court hands down a decision in the case of the Escanaba and Lake Michigan Transportation Company vs. The City of Chicago, a case that tests the validity of city ordinances providing for keeping the bridges over the Chicago River closed during certain morning and evening hours.  The city maintains that in the hours specified in the ordinance there are three times the usual number of pedestrians going and returning than at other hours of the day and that “Any unusual delay in the morning would derange their business for the day and subject them to a corresponding loss of wages.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, March 13, 1883] The city further maintains that the ten-minute limitation on vessels passing through open bridges in the morning and evening “is ample time for any vessel to pass the draw of a bridge, and the allowance of more time would subject foot passengers, teams and other vehicles to great inconveniences and delays.”  The railroad argues that “the rights of commerce by vessels are paramount to the rights of commerce by any other way,” an argument that the court quickly disallows.  “Independently of any constitutional restrictions,” the justices state, “nothing would seem more just and more reasonable or better designed to meet the wants of the population of an immense city consistently with the interests of commerce than the ten-minute rule and the morning and evening hours which the city ordinance has prescribed.”  Although Congress has full control over navigable streams within the United States, the decision explains, “nowhere could the power to control the bridges in that city, their construction, form, and strength and the size of their draws, and the manner and times of using them be better vested than with the State or the authorities of the city upon whom it has devolved that duty.”  The decision concludes with this thought, “All highways are subject to such crossings as the public convenience may require, and free navigation is consistent with bridges across a river for the transit of persons and merchandise, as the necessity of the community may require.”  Thus does not end the battle; the city battles over the opening and closing of bridges for nearly another hundred years. 

Dr. Philip M. Hauser
March 12, 1978 – The Chicago Tribune interviews Dr. Philip M. Hauser, a sociologist and population trends expert, who starts off the Q and A with this statement, “This city has lace pants in the front, and soiled drawers behind.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1978] Hauser spends much of the interview talking about the plight of the city’s minority population, saying, “It would be naive to assume that Chicago’s minorities will indefinitely accept their lot.  Continuing frustration, alienation, despair, and hostility can readily translate into extreme forms of violence.  History should have taught us that there is nothing as dangerous as a nation, a group, or a person with nothing to lose.”  Tribune reporters ask Hauser, “On the assumption that the statistical trends will not significantly change, what can be done to save the city?”  His answer is not very encouraging.  “Not very much unless someone does something about changing the trends . . . Chicago’s leaders have been very busy putting up statues and making the lakefront pretty, but it is people who make cities what they are, and at the moment Chicago is in an apartheid situation, both residential and business.”

March 12, 1849 -- A year after the Illinois and Michigan Canal joined the Chicago River to the Illinois River, an event occurred that must have caused some questioning of the wisdom of that engineering feat. It had been a snowy winter, followed by a rapid thaw and three days of rain. The interior of Illinois was waterlogged, and the rivers and streams were over their banks. At about 10:00 a.m. a massive ice dam on the south branch of the Chicago River gives way with results that are devastating. There are at least 90 vessels of various sizes on the river, and most are swept from their moorings and pushed toward the lake. As the mass of ice, water, and entangled ships is swept along, a small boy is crushed to death at the Randolph Street bridge. A little girl meets death as a ship's mast falls into a group of onlookers. Late in the afternoon a man is spotted waving a handkerchief form a canal boat about ten miles offshore, but there are no undamaged boats to send to his rescue. 40 vessels are completely wrecked, a dozen float free on the lake, the lock at Bridgeport is totally destroyed, and not a single bridge is left spanning the river. Three weeks later cholera breaks out and before the year is out, 678 Chicagoans will have died from the disease.

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