Introduction

As the half way point of the of the 50’s decade approached Cook County was experiencing its largest population boom in history.  During the decade 3/4 of a million people would either move in or be born in Cook County making it the most populous county in the United States at 41/2 million people.  Much of this population increase would reside in newly incorporated suburban towns such as Rolling Meadows, Buffalo Grove, Sauk Village, Country Club Hills, Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Palos Hills.  During that same decade the city of Chicago would record its first population decrease of about 70,000 people according to the 1960 US Census.  The few miles of expressways served none of these new towns.

The accelerated move to the suburbs spawned the automobile dependent shopping center considered to be an obvious answer to the very limited downtown parking since the typical urban shopper now arrived in an automobile.  The move to shopping centers was led by a postwar phenomenon called national discounters.  Whereas discounters had previously been side street or Maxwell Street operations, their new business model made them fore runners of the big box stores with names like Robert Hall, Korvettes and Topps.  The downtown merchants who could afford the move followed them into the centers.  Old Orchard with Marshall Field’s as their flagship (one of the downtown merchants that could afford to expand to the suburbs) had a regional draw due to their location next to and at an interchange of one of the first expressways.

By 1955 five million TV sets per year were being sold.  This was in contrast to the earlier peak in radio sales, which never reached 2 million per year.  At parties businessmen and salesmen were showing friends and fellow workers “little rectangles of plastic issued by Diners Club-ahead lay the wonders of credit card living”.  The American public was on a buying spree and needed a way to get some place to spend their money.

The automobiles that would grace the expressway as they were built in the next decade would be significantly different than those of the early 50's.  Flat head six cylinder engines would be largely replaced by the big hit the small block V8 engine.  It’s introduction in the 1955 Chevrolet ushered in an era of more powerful and faster and probably more reliable automobiles.  Some of the more enduring automobile icons such as the Corvette and Thunderbird were a product of this mid decade period.  This period was also the time of sheet metal excess in automobiles.  A Cadillac El Dorado costing $13,000 with tail fins that were nearly as high as the car roof and the ill-fated Edsel were an examples.  During the 50's the cars that were produced grew bigger and gaudier each year.  But the October 1957 launch of Sputnik prompted much soul searching on the part of the American public.  This introspection resulted in a more serious view of consumer consumption habits leading to the demise of the 250 million dollar investment by Ford and a change in how the cars where marketed in Detroit.  By 1959 when the last of the Ford Edsel’s come off the production line momentum had shifted to more practical and powerful cars to meet the demand of the American public and operate on the high speed facilities in the offering. 

Meanwhile Cook County was still following the program set out by former Cook County Highway Superintendent George Quinlan when the Illinois Supreme Court set aside the 1939 bonding legislation.  Without the bonding the highway department focused its efforts in suburban areas where the minimal amount of available county funds could provide meaningful results and forged a self contained Highway Department designed to build expressways when the city and state could not.  Between 1950 and 1951 parts of three suburban expressways designed by the county were opened to traffic-the Kingery Parkway and the Calumet Parkway in 1950 followed by Edens Superhighway in 1951.  It would not be until 1954 that the state with their new gas tax increase could become a real partner in building Cook County expressways and the city had to await the federal interstate money before they could sign on as a full participant.  The rest of the urban expressway construction would not be as easy but would be much more of a joint effort as envisioned back in 1939 when the original plan for the Cook County expressways was approved by the partners.