The South Route

On June 6, 1956 the Chicago Tribune reported that the alignment for the South Route had finally been agreed to.  The controversy stemmed from Mayor Daley’s reluctance to accept the Cook County Highway Department design for a widely separated dual elevated highway.  The article said the county’s original alignment followed the railroad tracks near State Street and had to be changed to avoid the new CHA housing projects that were in the way of that alignment.  In the same piece Daly said he planned to ask the contractors to work double shifts to avoid “lagging like other expressways”, despite his desire to move quickly, it would be six years before the expressway was open to traffic.  The city's first priority was the Congress and county's was the Northwest so the push to build the South Route had to await the construction of the other two expressways.

According to Mike Hartigan, he and Shelly Schumacher wanted to eliminate a lot of the ramps proposed for the South Route, to have the ramps no less than a 11/2 miles apart.  The city was adamant that this was a highway for the people and therefore needed more frequent access.  The city would not budge on that point.  A compromise resulted in the freeway within a freeway concept.  This design produced a road with express lanes with access at 2 or 3 mile intervals and the outer lane for local traffic at the spacing the city desired.  Mike says an analysis in the early 1950’s forecast a need for two freeways-one within the State Street corridor and another further west in the vicinity of Western Avenue.  This proposal was taken off the table when Dick Van Gorp chief engineer for the city dismissed the 200,000 vehicles per day used in the design as more cars than were in the county. 

Knowing that congestion would be extensive between the junction with the Congress and Northwest Expressway and where the express lanes began on the split near 28th Street the approved plan called for a parallel expressway facility from what is now called the Chinatown Feeder along the east bank of the Chicago River.  Named the Franklin Street Extension it would be designed to tie into upper and lower Wacker Drive and a one way pair of improved Dearborn and Clark Streets.  That facility was in the 1962 CATS plan.  With the advent of the interstate system, federal money poured into the region for expressways freeing up dollars from the county’s 1955 bond, so Bill Mortimer proposed the bond money be used to build the Franklin Street Extension.  It remained in plans until 1975 when the Balandic administration made a deal with Governor Thompson to use the federal funds for this project for other city and suburban projects.  The states ability to substitute non interstate projects was a result of the 1970 Highway Act which included provisions for states to petition USDOT to program substitute projects against the inflation adjusted cost of a facility that was to be removed from the interstate system.  The provision was included in the act partly in response to the diminishing ability of states and cities to build urban interstates.  Another factor was the growing sentiment that the large inflation adjusted trust fund surpluses for these interstate projects belonged to the states and they did not want to lose the money.

The largest piece of property that had to be acquired on the route was the Goldblatt Warehouse that sat astride the alignment near 18th St. The massive structure took up a couple of city blocks and was three to four stories high.  A system of railroad spurs came in at different levels for the railroad cars to be off loaded within the building and distributed to the proper area for shipment to the various Goldblatt retail outlets.  Marshall Suloway who was the ROW engineer for the state (the state had the section which ran from Congress to the start of the county's section at 41st Street) says that this was the most expensive piece of property secured by the state and the only one over a million dollars.  After the negotiations for the price were completed Marshall told Goldblatt officials that they needed to be out by November.  They responded that was impossible, they could not leave until late January or February.  The explanation was that the store lost money ten months out of the year, broke even in November and made all their money in December.  All of their product was shipped out of this warehouse.  Marshall compromised, fearing that he would be in court until July if they pushed them on the issue, they vacated the warehouse in February.  Marshall noted that other protracted negotiation concerned the Progressive Church, the largest minority church in the city at the time.  The eventual agreement was to move the church by putting it on an rollers and placing it at a new location.  Marshall noted that all of the right-of-away decisions that involved purchases of more than $100,000 had to be approved by a state ROW Committee made up of real estate people who had the sign off on these large purchases.

Not everyone agrees that the decision on the alignment of the South Route and some of the other urban routes were pure engineering decisions.  George March pointed out that there are not necessarily perfect alignments and certainly political considerations were part of the decision-making.  In most cases the natural route, like an alignment adjacent to a railroad was chosen because it was obviously the best.  Other times other considerations could put an alignment through a property or around a property for a variety of reasons.  During a discussion with Marshall Suloway it was suggested that the slight curve on the Eisenhower near Kostner was the result of moving the alignment to take the property of some politically connected owner.  Marshall responded that if the alignment was moved, it was far more likely to avoid something than take it.  The decision to keep the South Route on the border of the 11th Ward could have been a political decision, but it worked.  Some of the twists and turns in the expressway are not as obvious as the curve in the Northwest to avoid St. Stanislaus Church or the bend in the Congress to skirt to the south of Columbus Park and align with the railroad tracks as the highway went through Oak Park and we may never know why the others exist.

Arcole Midwest had one of the major paving contracts for the South Route, on the Cook County Highway section from 71st to 97th.  The work they did was unique in several ways.  The specifications for this pavement section called for 8 inch pavement rather than the Illinois standard 10 inch.  To make up for that, the steel reinforcing was much heavier at 210 lbs. per hundred square feet instead of the 78 per square feet required in the 10-inch pavement.  The change in specifications for this expressway was a product of the findings at the Illinois Division Highways test road in Ottawa.  The motivation to use these new standards on the South Route was to the eliminate traverse joints on an expressway that was fourteen lanes wide in some sections.  The other innovation was the paving of 2-12 foot lanes in one pass.  This was accomplished using a paving train that included a roller for compacting the base, a self propelled cart that laid the steel reinforcing mesh, mobile cranes to dump the concrete, followed by spreaders to pave the concrete and finally by vibrators to work concrete completely into the mesh before the finishers completed the work.

During the construction of the Cook County expressways, there was a lot of competition between the steel and concrete providers for the business of providing bridge beams.  With national steel shortages a constant problem the use of concrete for these beams became more prevalent.  Initially Material Service Corporation exerted a major influence over who got that business.  That influence was the result of their extensive supply and control of concrete, sand and stone.  That changed when the South Route was constructed.  The north end of the South Route from Harrison to about 27th St. was one huge eight-lane bridge requiring many structural members.  According to some people Ernie Bederman the owner of Arcole Midwest Construction decided to fight that situation and purchased several quarries so he was not subject to the control of his material by Material Service Corporation. 

Despite the experience gained in building over 70 miles of expressways, the South Route posed some unexpected problems.  George March said this was especially true in building elevated sections that looked reasonable on a map but in actual operation proved to be something else.  He said a classic example was the gore on the South Route where the expressway separates into express and regularly lanes at 28th Street.  The southbound roadway in that area was on a vertical and horizontal curve with restricted site distances as the roadway shifted over to the old State Street alignment.  In place before the expressway was opened were signs directing traffic into the regular and express lanes, followed by two signs with down arrows on either side of the gore.  However, in the days after the opening a considerable number of drivers managed to hit the gore, but the problem proved to be one of more than design.  According to George, around the day that the expressway opened, Egan Chevrolet turned on a massive lighted sign that what was right in the sight line of people needing to make the decision at the gore.  With their attention diverted by the dealers sign and the need to negotiate the curve while deciding on which portion of the expressway to use, a good number of drivers did not make the decision in time.  A solution was quickly devised by the erection of a 10 by 48 foot sign with massive lettering warning “stay in your lane” flanked with double arrows pointing at a 45-degree angle toward the two options.  George said the day after they came up with the idea he and Roger Nusbaum went to Mayor Daley’s office to identify the problem and gave him their plan.  He agreed to the plan and the assumption is that he talked to Egan Chevrolet because their sign was subsequently toned down. George noted that the revised design stayed in place for over ten years until the State Traffic Engineer Carl Kowalski took it down as not being of the best practice. 

When building the South Route the Bureau of Public Roads said they would not allow 90/10 Interstate funding for the express lanes, the state would have to use 50/50 urban funds. They made a different decision on the Northwest Expressway from Armitage to the Edens junction where the city would not allow any additional right-of-way.  In this section, which has reverse express lanes and the CTA, the Bureau allowed 90/10 split because they decided the additional pavement provided lane balancing.

At noon on December 15, 1962 the $209 million Dan Ryan and Calumet Expressway was opened.  The newest Cook County expressway provided non stop traffic on the 16 miles from the Congress Expressway to 130th Street.  The City of Chicago had built the portion from Congress to Pershing Road; the State of Illinois from Pershing south to 63rd Street and the County had built from 63rd to 99th Street as well as the East Leg leading to the Calumet Expressway.  Before the expressway was opened and after Governor Kerner, Mayor Daley and Seymour Simon had left the podium, Chicago Police Chief Terrance Doherty cautioned drivers to be careful as he expected a flood of sight seers unfamiliar with a 14-lane wide expressway.  He planned to add extra patrol cars and Bill Payes the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Works promised a cadre of the new emergency patrol trucks would be available to help motorists. 

At the luncheon following the ceremonies, Governor Kerner presented the ribbon cutting scissors to County Commissioner Ruby Ryan, widow of Dan Ryan former president of the Cook County Board and for whom the expressway had been named shortly, after he died in April of 1961 and before the expressway was finished.  The South Route was renamed the Dan Ryan Expressway by a proclamation of the county and the city several weeks after Dan Ryan died in 1961.  In a scene, reminiscent of the death’s of President's Adam’s and Jefferson, Ryan and his long time partner in planning and building the Cook County Expressway system, former Superintendent George Quinlan died within hours of each other on April 8th, 1961.  Ryan's role in building the Cook County Expressway system began with his 1939 proposal for the construction of a superhighway from the Chicago business district to the Northwest Side of Chicago.  This expressway would be named for another Irishman by the name of John Kennedy.

Despite the warnings of Chief Doherty the following day, a Sunday, a throng of motorist, mainly just sightseeing, descended on the new expressway.  They were greeted by an expanse of pavement wider than they had ever seen before.  From 27th Street as far south as the Chicago Skyway near 63rd Street there were four express lanes in each direction and three distributor lanes in each direction designed to accommodate up to 100,000 vehicles per day.  It was a great day to get a taste of high-speed travel, free of traffic lights, to a degree never a before experienced.  Motorists could now get to most major and almost all the important and interesting portions of the Chicago region much quicker than ever before, even during the commute periods.

The first ticket on the new expressway was issued to a self-employed caterer who tried to crash the opening ceremonies by entering the expressway using the exit ramp at 18th Street. That was the location of the opening ceremony and where he hoped to sell coffee and rolls.  The first accident occurred on the express lanes after a southsider blew out a tire and hit the guardrail.