Building the Congress Expressway

In the summer of 1956 the city section of the Congress Street Expressway running from Michigan Avenue to Ashland Avenue was opened to traffic.  The opening of the newest section the expressway represented nearly 50 years of expectations for a West Side Highway.  The West Side Superhighway or Congress Expressway was referred to by some as the granddaddy of expressways because of its genesis in the Burnham plan presented to the Chicago Commercial Club in 1908.  Called the “Axis of Chicago” in the plan the buggy festooned Grand Boulevard would morph into an expressway by 1935.  In 1914 right-of-way for the boulevard was reserved in planning for the construction of Union Station, in the 1930's in the construction of the new post office building and later the new subway system were designed to accommodate an expressway.  In 1935 Governor Horner and Illinois Public Works Director Kingery offered over $21 million in state motor fuel tax to build the road, an offer that was accepted the following year by Chicago Mayor Kelly.  But despite the mayors urging the downtown business community could not settle on if and where the West Side Highway should began.  The Chicago Motor Club and a morning newspaper argued that the location agreed to by the state and city was too far south, too costly and 280 cross streets would have to be closed-the afternoon newspapers were in support of the proposed alignment.  Despite the lack of agreement, Philip Harrington, Commissioner of new Department of Subways and Superhighways quietly moved ahead in the years before and during war with plans and the purchase of parcels of right-of-way. 

In October of 1940 the City Council established the Westside Route as their first priority in a comprehensive superhighway system and allotted $2.2 million for right-of-way, construction and engineering.  On August 5, 1942 the City Council authorized the acquisition of the first nine parcels of right-of-way for the West Side Superhighway.  But despite numerous meetings between the city and the state and the approval by the War Department of the proposed crossing of the Chicago River, Governor Green's administration stalled on renewing their financial commitment.  In June of 1941, at the urging of the governor the legislature created a Cook County Highway Authority to advise him on the appropriateness of the city's proposed location for the West Side Superhighway.  Although the governor's appointee’s to the authority reported back to him within a year that they concurred in the city's proposed route, it was not until November of 1944 that the state agreed to participate financially. A year later on September 12, 1945 at a meeting at the Union League Club the state and the county each agreed to pay a 1/3 of the estimated $45 million cost of construction.  

The work on Congress was expected to began in earnest with the war over but skyrocketing costs, limited funding, extensive utility relocation, poor subsurface conditions, the need for agreements with three railroads and the Village of Oak Park and a cemetery stood in the path of a speedy completion of this expressway.  The temporary relocation of the Douglas Park CTA line and the accommodation of the CTA Congress Line in the median were only two of the rail lines that had to be accommodated during the construction of the Congress Street Expressway.  All added to the cost of the project and time to the scheduled completion date.

At the west end of the route the previously mentioned Baltimore and Ohio Chicago Terminal trackage had to be temporarily moved and a structure built to accommodate the railroad without impeding their operations.  Near the loop the CTA Douglas Park elevated line was re-located temporarily to street level on Van Buren Street from Aberdeen to Sacramento Boulevard.  A contractor under the direction the CTA built an inclined pile structure to bring the loop elevated down and then back up to connect to the Douglas elevated structure.  This temporary arrangement with the trains running at street level persisted for some time after the Congress was opened to auto traffic.  When the CTA rail line was completed in the median of the Congress Expressway it combined the old Douglas line in the new Congress extension west to Sacramento Boulevard where a permanent steel structure lifted the Douglas line to the old elevated structure. 

Further east the LaSalle Street Terminal used by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, Nickel Plate and the New York Central Railroads stood in the path of the expressway.  The main track platforms were above the planned expressway but the baggage, mail and rail express facilities would be bisected by the new road.  This required the construction of new facilities for these purposes north and south of the expressway.  At the same time existing columns holding up the main station platforms and track were too closely spaced to span the expressway.  This required the construction of more than 120 ft. of structure over the expressway to handle these platforms along with hundreds of feet of steam, electric and other lines running parallel to the tracks.  All of this was accomplished while maintaining the intercity and commuter operations of the two railroads.

In a 1952 article written for the Illinois Highway Engineer George Jackson the District 10 Engineer of Expressways said “the details and diversity of design encountered in urban area construction are staggering compared to normal requirements of rural construction”.  He went on to say that the disposition and relocation of utility lines that occupy every city street requires considerable work and cooperation especially in a depressed highway section.  Jackson added that some of the more unique problems were encountered in constructing the first few blocks of the expressway west of Michigan Avenue.  There were major buildings just south of the loop that either had to be torn down to accommodate the expressway or altered to permit construction of the roadway.  Several had to be arcaded so the sidewalk could be used to permit the proper roadway width, this required remodeling of storefronts and other structural changes to the first and second floors as part of the expressway construction contract.  Also partly in the path of the expressway was the Chicago headquarters of the Western Union Telegraph Company.  This eight-story building at LaSalle Street had two bays on the South Side that were within the right-of-way.  The decision was made to remove these bays and restore the south building wall without them.  Mr. Jackson said this work required the rearrangement of communications equipment, restrooms and standby power units and he described it as ”certainly foreign to usual highway construction”

A well chronicled problem encountered in building the Congress Expressway was the existence of “Chicago Blue Clay” in the depressed right-of-way from the Chicago River west 31/2 miles to Homan Avenue.  Prior to settlement Chicago was generally covered by swamp or soggy terrain that over the years got filled in with various material to a depth of 6-12 ft.  The bedrock below and the fill above confined this gray, plastic sticky clay.  This confining permitted footings that were wide and deep enough to be constructed on or near the Chicago Blue Clay.  Some loop buildings and the CTA elevated structure were examples of structures that rested on this material.   However because of the depth and width of the depressed expressway the confining fill or topsoil would be removed and the high moisture blue clay disturbed.  Testing several sections using different methods they found the one that worked required the de-watering and removal of up to 30 inches of the disturbed blue clay, replacing with it dry brown clay before the stone sub grade and pavement were installed.

One of the more complicated utilities encountered by the expressway engineers were the combined sewers that drained the sanitary and storm water runoff in the city and close-in suburbs.  The county encountered the problem in the late 1940’s when building the Edens and used an inverted siphon sewer to carry the water under the expressway.  Al Baker, State Drainage Engineer with District 10, said that one of the things that kept him at the state was the opportunity he was given to design the inverted sewer siphons that carried the sewerage under the Congress Expressway.  He said that there were main drains under the state section at Throop, Wood and Loomis Boulevard.  He designed the inverted siphon sewer, which took the 54-inch Loomis drain under Congress.  This design required it to drop down under the expressway and rise on the other side without mechanical pumping.  At Loomis the design required three different pipe sizes to collect the dry, normal and maximum flow from the sewer.  He said that Ken Brown, then the District 10 Design Engineer, asked him how long it would take to design the inverted siphon, his answer was about three months-he was off by about nine months. 

Bill Lynch the Drainage and Utilities Engineer for the Cook County Highway Department described another sewer related challenge on Congress Expressway.  In all three sections of for the main roadway drain from Mannheim to the Des Plaines River the expressway profile indicated tunneling construction was necessary.  In early 1956, in order to reduce the cost, the bid specs for the 78 inch main drain in this portion allowed contractors the alternative of bidding a jacking operation for the pipe in addition to the normal and more costly tunneling method.  One section had a low bid (21st Street to 9th Avenue) by the Hardin Construction Company using the jacking method to install the pipe at a considerable savings over the tunneling method.  The six manholes in the design were used as sites to dig 24 by 14 ft. vertical shafts into the hardpan subsurface.  Mucking crew's opened lateral holes slightly larger than the pipe at the bottom of the shafts.  The lubricated 78-inch pipe was lowered in four-foot sections into the shaft and forced through the hardpan using portable 100 ton jacks from manhole to manhole.

Shortly after the expressway opened the area experienced a very heavy rainstorm.  To the embarrassment of everyone involved, the expressway flooded closing it to traffic.  Mike Hartigan said It was quickly determined that the pumps near the Des Plaines River had silted up and could no longer pump sufficient water from the expressway drains.  In desperation several local fire trucks were brought in with their 600-gallon per minute pumps.  They made little headway in purging a drainage system that was dependent on multiple 30,000 gallon per minute pumps.  The assembly of experts trying figure out what to do included Expressway Engineer Roger Nusbaum.  Someone suggested to him that if the main pumps were shut off the silt might fall from the screens.  Convinced that everything else had been tried he agreed to turn them off for a moment and then restart the pumps.  It worked and the pumps went to full capacity. The shut down became the standard operating procedure to remove the silt from expressway pumps during a rainstorm. 

Not all the water problems involved drainage.  In order to accommodate the expressway the Westchester / Broadview water main that carried Chicago supplied water to the towns had to be relocated and rebuilt.  There was a lot of local newspaper coverage and hoopla the day the new main was reconnected.  But that night a pile driver operated by the contractor erecting the permanent expressway signs drove a signpost through the new water main.  The towns were back without water again.

All of the major expressways and the tollway that opened to traffic before 1960 did so sporadically over the course of several or more years.  In 1956 Hal Faust from the Tribune quoted authorities as saying as soon as “usable sections” of the highway were completed it would be opened to traffic.  He says that these same authorities defined a usable section as at least a half-mile in length The Congress Expressway optimized the problems that this caused.  The 14.5 miles of expressway were open in seven sections between 1955 and 1960.  The main reason for this was the political necessity of showing progress, that the planned system was underway not just a paper proposal.  But try as they might problems persisted such as the need to relocate 3762 graves at that Concordia, Waldheim and Forest Home cemeteries that cost $1.8 million and added nearly five years to the opening of the section west of Des Plaines Avenue.  Prolonged negotiations with Consumers Material Company over the cost of the land near their quarry at First Avenue added time as did the Cook County Highway Department’s decision to pause for federal Interstate funding and the need to wait for the commission to design and locate the Tri-State and East-West Tollways before completing the west end of the Congress Expressway.  The result was that various temporary access and exit arrangements were made to accommodate the abrupt termination of the expressway

In 1955 the Congress Expressway builders prepared for problems anticipated when the section from Ashland Avenue to Laramie was opened.  At a meeting at the Chicago Plan Commission offices, the city, county and state were determined to enforce a 45 mile an hour speed and to direct traffic on the east end to cross Paulina and use Harrison to reach downtown.  At the west end a single eighteen-foot lane was designed to permit traffic to go north to Harrison and on to Central Avenue for distribution.  But the 2 1/2 miles west of this section would not be open for another five years creating what was heralded as the worst bottleneck in the metropolitan area.  The completion of the city sections to the east added more traffic to the seven plus miles of expressway and the completion of a half mile to Central in January of 1960 only moved the problem further west.  During the half decade that it had taken to complete the expressway, vehicle registration in the metropolitan area had increased by over 400,000, pouring 45,000 vehicles a day on to an already over extended city boulevard and street system at either end of the expressway. 

Despite the problems four years after the passage of the Interstate Act the Congress Expressway was opened to traffic from the Tri-state Tollway in Hillside east to the Chicago CBD on October 12, 1960, a perfect fall day in what was described by the Chicago Tribune as “the finest fall’s we've had in many years”. The newspaper’s headline the described the day as welcoming ”two spectacular feats of engineering-a mighty highway and a fantastic atomic powerhouse”.  The highway of course was the Congress Expressway and the powerhouse was the Atomic Energy Commission’s largest nuclear energy plant at Dresden, Illinois.  The former was to ”finally become Chicago's newest weapon in the endless battle to speed traffic” and the latter the ” freshest hope for peaceful use of a force that could also wipe out the world”.The ribbon cutting was held at 2:30 in the afternoon at Lombard Avenue in Oak Park.  The festivities were highlighted by a campaigning Governor Stratton’s arrival.  According to the newspaper he provided ”a spectacular baptism to the speaker's stand by using it as a landing pad for the helicopter from which he was campaigning”.  Mayor Daley and Dan Ryan were the other speakers and they extolled the time and lifesaving attributes of the expressway.  Because it was opened a little early (no lights, paved shoulders or landscaping) the speed would be limited to 35 mph, which the Chicago Tribune noted would still yield a 12-18 minute savings in the trip from the Tri-State Tollway to Michigan Avenue.

As Mike Hartigan points out in his description of the genesis of the IDOT Minutemen the Congress Expressway was opened to traffic but not finished.  He says a major incomplete item was the shoulders near Harlem Avenue where an 8-inch drop existed at the edge of the traffic pavement.  Mike says the state construction Superintendent Zig Ziejewski, aware of the problem called him and suggested that “some type of safety patrol” be organized to help motorist and assist the Chicago Police with disabled cars on the section without shoulders from Central to First Avenues.  After a conversation with Bob Zralek, who had organized a similar operation during the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive, Mike put together a proposal for a patrol using existing department equipment and resources.  Roger Nusbaum, District 10 Expressway Engineer approved the plan and the initial patrol was in operation by mid-October of 1960 when the expressway opened.  The patrol was so successful and garnered such a positive response by the motoring public that by 1961 under Mike's tutelage and with the dedication of folks like Charlie McLean and Cliff Scherer the Expressway Minutemen would become permanent and would patrol all of the expressways that were and would be opened.  This history written by Mike Hartigan and entitled IDOT Expressway Traffic Patrol-“The Minutemen” contains a plethora of details on how the Minutemen came to be, how they got their name and anecdotes about some of the interesting people and events of the expressway traffic patrol.

With the October 1960 opening of the last two sections from Central to Des Plaines Avenue the Congress Expressway was complete west to the Tri-State.  The work that had begun on August 5, 1942, when the Chicago Department of Subways and Superhighways was authorized to acquire nine parcels of right-of-way for the Westside Superhighway, was over.  In the eighteen years that had passed much had changed.  Nevertheless this expressway, always the first priority of the city, was the first Chicago radial expressway completed even if it only preceded the completion of the Northwest Expressway by one month.