Construction of the Northwest Expressway

As Ed Jackson stood up to address his fellow members of the Northwest Federation of Improvement Clubs on the warm spring evening of May 17, 1935, he was confident he could get a positive vote on his latest idea to keep his dream of a northwest elevated highway alive.  The scheme he would try to get the members to approve that night required the help of former Chicago Progressive, Harold Ickes now Secretary the Interior.  Ed would turn to him for the funding necessary to build a Northwest Elevated Highway under the Federal Works Relief Program.  Ed and his fellow board members knew they were competing with other sections of the city for the very limited resources available but this was only their latest attempt to get the road built. 

Twelve years earlier the Federation began their quest when they asked the Chicago Plan Commission to review their proposal for the Avondale Avenue Improvement.  According to former Chicago Plan Commission member Benjamin Felix the proposed road would have run parallel to the Chicago and Northwestern tracks as an expansion of the railroad right-of-way.  “The downtown terminal was to be a plaza created by widening Canal Street from Monroe to Madison.  At the center of the plaza an inclined roadway 50 foot wide was to rise from Monroe to Madison and continue North on Canal Street at an upper level over the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad on a direct north south line to Chicago Avenue.”  The road was to extend northwest nearly 10 miles passing over and under the railroad until it reached Northwest Highway and Parkside Street.  Felix, a member of the federation, takes credit for getting the plan commission interested in the road and changing its name (at least temporarily) to the Pioneer Speedway. 

Mr. Hugh Young, Chief Engineer of the Commission in 1923, in his very positive review claimed that such a highway with four lanes in each direction would permit speeds of 30 mph reducing the travel time from the CBD to the northwest side by 20 to 30 minutes.  He agreed it should be built next to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad or above a streetcar or subway line and, incredibly, he calculated that the Pioneer Speedway would carry 250,000 vehicles per day and cost $16 million to build, both numbers were very high compared to those being used when the road was designed in 1956.  Years of promotion by the Federation followed the commission report on the roadway and in 1933 Ed Jackson again urged the city to move ahead by using the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad air rights on which to build it. 

In early 1939 the Cook County Board prodded along by the Federation and petitioned by their Road and Bridge Chairman, Dan Ryan passed a resolution directing the Cook County Highway Department to proceed with surveys, plans and specifications for a northwest area superhighway-for the first time this proposed highway would be officially embraced by a government body with the power to build it. The proposed alignment in the resolution differed from the earlier scheme’s in that it would begin at Higgins Road and run parallel to Bryn Mawr Avenue, Elston Avenue and Clyborne.  It was to terminate in a distribution system between Superior and Ontario Streets to serve the CBD, after which it would connect with the Outer Drive.  The estimated cost was $40 million, which was to be paid for by borrowing up to half of the anticipated MFT accruing in the county.  But in July of 1941 after the Illinois Supreme Court had rejected the legislation permitting the county to borrow against future MFT revenue, Major Quinlan recommended that the county limit their expressway construction to the suburbs and not move ahead on the Northwest Superhighway.

Undaunted and with Ed Jackson still on the board, the Federation decided in 1941 that a more comprehensive approach to getting their highway built was appropriate.  They called for the construction of a system of National Defense Safeway’s, whereby “no one section of the city would be unjustly discriminated against,” which was a departure from their previous position on the topic, of not supporting the constructing other superhighways in the city.  They expressed a concern for the problem of dumping large volumes of traffic onto arterial streets if just a single superhighway were to be built, a problem that the city and county would face in the late 50’s and early 60’s as portions of expressways were opened.  The federation recommended that an authority empowered to charge tolls and use these proceeds to pay off bonds to cover construction costs to build this system of Super Safeway’s.  Legislation permitting such an authority was passed in Springfield on July 21, 1941, but, according to Ed Jackson, World War II intervened, preventing the legislation from being implemented. 

By the time the war was over the notion of urban tollways had lost its appeal, at least in the eyes of the Federation, but in 1946 the City of Chicago acquired the former Douglas Aircraft plant and adjoining Orchard Air Field that according to the Federation history (published in 1950) assured that the Northwest Superhighway would be built. 

In 1949 the county began conducting traffic counts on a variety of proposed superhighway routes including the Northwest.  The Northwest Route was described as running north and west from the Congress Street Superhighway at Halsted Street to the proposed Old Orchard Airport after which it would skirt north of the airport and continue in a northwest direction to Route 83.  A status report in December of 1954 by the Cook County Highway Department indicated that 95% of the right-of-way for the Northwest Superhighway from Cicero to the airport had been acquired in a program that began in 1949.

However, at some point the county decided their first priority was to build the Northwest Expressway northward to provide a connection with the Edens and the section from Edens westward to the proposed airport became a second priority.  For that reason in early 1954 the county accepted a request by the Chairman of the Tollway Commission, Evan Howell to buy the right-of-way from the county that they had previously purchased and to build that portion as a tollway.  However within two years the tollway, concerned with its finances and stung by the uproar against a tollway in the city, agreed to return the expressway to county jurisdiction.  Although no longer led by Ed Jackson the Federation spearheaded the fight to pressure the city and county to build their long anticipated superhighway as a free road.  Unlike 1954, the county was now enjoying the benefits of a 245-million-dollar bond issue and the major funding now available from the new Federal Interstate and Defense Highway System.  So after almost 25 years of effort the Federation would finally see the fruits of their effort as the construction of the Northwest Superhighway began.

According to the agreement that returned the Northwest to the county, the Commission was to complete the plans for the Northwest Expressway and provide them to the county.  In August of 1956 the tollway said they anticipated receiving $4.9 million for all of the costs they had incurred in the years they worked on the Northwest.  In detailing the costs they incurred, the commission said that although the county had acquired significant amounts of right-of-way by 1954 they had not re-located residents or demolished any buildings in preparation for construction.  The tollway had completed approximately 25% of that work when the project was transferred back to the county in 1956. The portion from the junction westward was built with the bond issue funds on with a 50-50 split of local/state and federal monies.  In 1960 it became Primary route 190 not becoming part of the interstate numbering system until years later. 

One of the more difficult to build projects on the Northwest Expressway was the tri level grade separation at Jefferson Park.  The structure, built by the Robert R. Anderson Company, consisted of the Northwest Expressway in the depressed section under Milwaukee Avenue with the bridge for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad over it.  The work was complicated by the need to keep Milwaukee Avenue opened to traffic and the railroad operating on run-around tracks during construction.  The depressed expressway profile at this point included four lanes in each direction plus room for two lanes of express and the double track CTA in the median. The steel girders for the railroad bridge were 127 feet long.  The angles for the girders were rolled by Inland Steel and delivered to the Allied Structural Steel plant in Hammond on a special set of railroad flat cars.  The three full-length flat cars operated as an articulated set with movable tie downs to enable the equipment to negotiate standard railroad curves.

The expressway passed through three railroad yards and over and under the three track main of the Galena and the Wisconsin Division’s of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.  Because of its proximity to the railroad the construction of the expressway required numerous temporary track relocations and the permanent relocation of part of one line.  Easily seen by a commuter on the upper level of a Union Pacific/Metra train is the parallel eastward curve of the expressway and railroad between Division Street and North Avenue.  The reason for the curve lies immediately up against and to the west of the expressway-St. Stanislaus Kostka Church and rectory.  This pillar of the Noble Square neighborhood counted among its parishioners enough who were politically connected to force the expressway alignment to the east.  The resulting conflict with the railroad right-of-way took several years of negotiations to resolve.  A settlement was finally reached when the Illinois Legislature authorized the use of highway funds to purchase substitute right-of-way for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad resulting in the gentle curve seen form the train.  Marshall Suloway adds that while he was the ROW Engineer he was involved in the negotiations with the pastor of the church.  He said the priest always seemed to be one step ahead of the engineers and knew the cost of everything from boilers to asphalt.  Marshall said when he went to the church to negotiate with the priest he often took fellow employee Stan Kumiega who was a parishioner of that church, but it did not seem to make much difference.  When the negotiations were complete the design people prepared a set of 1-10 drawings showing that the roadway would miss the rectory building by 10 feet which is exactly how far the building is from the roadway today.

Relocation and adjustment of underground utilities was extensive resulting in nearly 350,000 ft. of sewer being replaced even though substantial portions of the expressway at the southeast end are on structure.  A major sewer construction problem was presented by the Mayfair pumping station that was adjacent to the expressway near Foster Avenue and the junction with the Edens.  The new sewers needed to either go under or over the large mains serving this pumping station.  The solution involved an underground bridge constructed over the mains with earth fill placed above it.

In 1958 the country was in the throes of a recession.  In reporting on Cook County's plans for that year, Ryan said the highway department was doing its part by awarding the $123 million in construction contracts mostly on the expressway system.  In an effort to get as much money in circulation as possible, the county awarded 16 new major projects costing $18 million-in a single day.  Construction costs on the Northwest Expressway came in $3 million under estimate. 

the funding from the two-year-old Interstate program was slowing due to the national recession and threatened to adversely affect the Cook County urban expressway program. The county had the bond issue money to fall back on but the state and city were much more dependent on federal funding.  In response Ryan offered to temporarily sacrifice county federal interstate funds so the other entities would have enough money to continue.  But before the state and the city could take advantage of the offer, Illinois had established an interstate bond-issue program with the federal government designed to smooth out the flow of money and maintain the fast paced construction program they envisioned. 

Though there was reason for optimism, not everyone was happy with the pace of expressway construction.  In an October meeting of the City Council's Local Transportation Committee, Alderman Keane was giving the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association Director Nelson Forest trouble about not living up to his estimates regarding the amount of people using the new city parking garages in the associations area.  Forest responded by saying that the estimates for traffic growth in the greater North Michigan Avenue area were based on the assumption that the Northwest Expressway and the Ohio/Ontario feeders would be in service.  He told Keane that as soon as the city got the expressways open, the parking garages would fill up. Although Keane was skeptical, Forest’s assumption would later prove correct.

Like all of the Cook County expressways built up to that time the Northwest was opened in stages.  Mayor Daley opened the first six blocks from Congress Street Expressway to Washington Street with a brief presentation on December 4, 1958.  This section with ramps at Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Van Buren and Jackson were built by the city.  A connection to the already opened portion of the Congress Expressway would not occur for another two years. 

In late 1959 another four miles built by the county was opened from Cumberland Avenue to Central Avenue with a direct connection to the Northwest Tollway and the north-bound Tri-State Tollway.  In the newspaper announcement for the December 1959, opening Cook County Highway Superintendent Bill Mortimer took pains to explain how to get to O'Hare without paying the toll, he had signs erected at Cumberland Avenue advising ”last exit before tollgate”.  He also described the loop, Lake Shore Drive and Foster Avenue link to the newly opened segment.  Although open to traffic, this new expressway section was without interchanges and lacked guardrails, shoulders, lighting and landscaping.  The ceremony included many of the usual city, county and state officials but with the new Illinois Tollway Commission Chairman Charles Burgess, no governor and John G. Duba Chicago’s new mayoral executive assistant sitting in for Mayor Daley.  In September when another mile was opened all of this work on the section opened earlier was completed and the free road was now within a mile of the O'Hare entrance at old Mannheim Road and provided southbound movement to the Tri-State Tollway.

All of the stops were pulled for the opening the expressway billed as “America's newest urban superhighway” on November 5, 1960.  Prior to the official ceremony, a bus tour on the bunting bedecked expressway was conducted for the media, guided by a half dozen county and state engineers.  The tour included a side trip on the incomplete $10 million dollar Ohio/Ontario Bridge over the Chicago River and provided a photo op under the impressive Milwaukee Avenue/Chicago and Northwestern Railroad structure.  The ceremony, held on Saturday morning, included Mayor Daley, Dan Ryan and a soon to be defeated Bill Stratton (he was defeated the following Tuesday by Otto Kerner by half a million votes) Commissioner George Dement used his time at the podium to make it clear that the city “ would bear down in an all out effort to acquire the necessary funds to put the CTA in the median that had been set aside to service O'Hare”. 

The roadway itself was ready for traffic with all of the improvements in place except for shoulders in a 1500-foot section near Addison.  The delay was caused by the extra time to the blast through 14 feet of “Niagaran dolomite” that underlies most of the region and was near the surface at this location.  According to author Libby Hill in her book The Chicago River the rock that slowed down the construction was part of the “Niagaran Escarpment” a large serpentine shaped layer of prehistoric hard limestone that in circles much of the Great Lakes.  It gets its name from its exposure by the Niagara River at the famous falls in northern New York.  Where the stone is near the surface in large quantities it is quarried to be used in building material usually called Lemont Stone or crushed for use in everything from expressway sub grade, the ingredient for cement or bike path surface. 

When the Northwest Expressway was opened to traffic that November of 1960 over $255 million had been spent on its construction.  Although the cost had been split about equally between the City, County and the State, the county had completed almost 9 miles while the state had been responsible for about five and the city less than 3 miles. Huge quantities of concrete and steel were used to build 16.2 miles of four-lane pavement, 50 vehicular bridges, five railroad bridges and three pumping stations.  Within a week of its opening, sections of the expressway as far west as Nagle Avenue, were carrying 50,000 vehicles per day.