Last of the Radials-The Southwest Expressway

It could be argued that the story of the construction of the Southwest Expressway began in 1816 when the allied tribes, the Potowatami, Chippewa and Ottawa Indians ceded a 20 mile wide swath of land to the federal government for a freight canal.  Thirty-two years later when the Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened, that mode of transportation had already been made eclipsed by the railroads.  The productive life of the I & M Canal therefore ended quickly in 1858 but was partially brought to life again in 1941 when the Canal Superhighway appeared on maps prepared by the city and the county.  Fast forward to September of 1963 when a Democratic juggernaut of Mayor Richard J. Daley, Cook County Board President Seymour Simon and Governor Otto Kerner decided to open this road, now named the Southwest Expressway, before the national elections the following year.  If the crash program was designed to boost the candidacy of national and local Democrats in 1964 it hardly have mattered since President Johnson's over whelming victory over Senator Barry Goldwater that year swept a host of Democrats into office with little help needed from the new expressway. 

Major changes also occurred to the Cook County Board in July of 1962.  President John Duffy who had replaced Dan Ryan just a year earlier, died.  That same month former president Clayton Smith passed away.  Duffy during his twelve years on the board was known for his concern for the people who were being displaced by the expressway construction and was directly involved in establishing the county procedures to replace the housing for those people into upgraded housing wherever possible.  Clayton while president was instrumental in moving the Cook County Highway Department to its leadership role in expressway construction.  Seymour Simon on the county board for less than a year became president and the Duffy vacancy was filled by George W. Dunne who would serve as a board member and president for over 30 years.

The speed with which the southwest was completed was in sharp contrast with many of the rest of the expressways constructed in the county.  The Congress was under construction for nearly six years and even the Dan Ryan, which had opened the previous year, took almost three years to construct.  The rest of the expressways all opened in sections including the Dan Ryan when the county opened a portion of their section from 71st Street to 95th Street a year before the formal opening in December of 1962.  But the Southwest from the Dan Ryan to the county line including the connection with the Tri-State Tollway would open on the same day.

This miracle of construction, as some dubbed it became the real story of this, the last of the major Cook County expressways. The ability of the county and the state to build 151/2 miles of urban expressway, most of which occurred during a eleven month period prior to October 24, 1964 was unprecedented.  Not everyone at the initial meetings of the expressway design committee felt that accelerating the construction of the southwest was feasible.  According to Marshall Suloway at an early 1962 expressway design committee meeting that included Governor Kerner, Bill Mortimer said it would take at least three years to build the Southwest.  Marshall, then the newly appointed Illinois Division of Highways District Engineer for District 10 disagreed and said it could be built in much less time.  It turned out that Marshall was a lot closer to the actual length of time it took to build it than Bill Mortimer.

To build this expressway, in a little over a year after the decision was made, was a daunting task.  This was not a rural roadway sailing through the wide-open prairie in Livingston County.  It was an urban expressway built partly in an abandoned canal bed, adjacent to and in the path major canals, rivers and transcontinental railroads.  The fact that it happened is a testament to the hundreds of dedicated professionals in the city, county and state highway departments who put in countless extra hours, the 40 contractors who employed over 3000 workers under 124 separate contracts working efficiently and not getting in each other's way. Almost 90 consecutive days without rain during the prime construction season in 1964 didn’t hurt and a new critical path method of scheduling construction staging provided a new tool to manage the vast and complex project.  As late as September 1964 Rex Whitton who had been appointed the Administrator of the Bureau of Public Roads by President Kennedy in 1962 predicted that the expressway would not open on time.  But it did, in part because his bureau staff “joined readily in the heightened tempo of the project” that was critical to the ultimate successful conclusion.

As the opening date approached, more and more media scrutiny was paid to the speed with which the expressway was being built and the extra costs that were being incurred.  Frances Lorenz, the Illinois Director of the Department of Public Works defended the overtime wages and expensive simultaneous operations by citing figures from CATS that estimated a savings of 15 lives and $16 million in time that would result from the earlier opening.  He did not mention the national election to be held eighteen days after the opening. 

When the decision was made to move up the date of the opening of the Southwest expressway by a year, much of the pre construction work including the negotiations and purchase of right-of-way was still underway. Although a major portion of the right-of-way consisted of the old canal bed, which had become public property by state statue in 1917 and1949, it was only used on the portion from Damen to Harlem Avenue’s.  According to Marshall Suloway building on the old canal property with the railroads immediately adjacent was still complicated.  The public titles to the canal property were not totally clear because the Santa Fe and Illinois Central Railroads claimed rights to portions of the property.  Fortunately their claims were not very strong and agreements were worked out that had the railroads give up whatever rights they had and in turn the state agreed that they could continue to use the property.   Many important pieces of right-of-way were required before construction bids could be taken in January of 1964.  One of the major right-of-way problems, if not the major problem on the Southwest, was where the Santa Fe, Illinois Central and Gulf Mobile and Ohio tracks occupied an area proposed for a 30-foot embankment between Halsted Street and Ashland Avenue.  Fortunately the county started negotiations in 1960, but it was a complex situation involving titles connected to the joint railroad ownership, out of date city permit ordinances and a design and agreement that would allow the shifting of train movements.  This certainly was in the critical path since the right-of-away for the embankment also involved three grade separations.  According to the County Highway Department News the prompt and cooperative participation by the railroads, helping to build what could be considered a competing facility, was very important.  One of the key figures negotiating for the railroads was Frank N. Barker the former Chief Engineer for the Illinois Division of Highways. He left the department shortly after responding unfavorably to Governor Stratton’s demand that the department make a portion of Route 66 a four-lane highway before the state fair in 1954.  The County's section required the purchase and removal of three steel plants, several large truck line terminals along with numerous other industrial operations, totaling 183 separate transactions and over $11 million in payments. 

In October of 1963 an issue arose when it was discovered that a year old apartment building would need to be torn down to make room for widening Harlem Avenue as part of the construction of the Southwest Expressway.  Preliminary plans had been completed several years earlier but no official notice had been provided to the Village of Summit where the apartments were located.  The county agreed that without official notice, which should have been sent earlier, there was no reason why the construction of the apartment should not have moved ahead.  Interestingly, the Summit village clerk, Jack Kirk said that he had heard that Harlem might be widen for the expressway but decided to take no action because it was not official.  Nobody appeared to blame Summit for their lack of follow through.

But not all of the right-of-way procurement was a problem.  Late in 1963 the county began work on acquiring a strip of property for the widening of Central Avenue in conjunction with the Southwest Expressway.  One parcel of 60,000 square feet was owned by a Transamerican Properties Incorporated and valued by the county at $176,270.  The offer was made but the owner expressed a desire to assist in the expressway project and cut the price by $176,269 taking the dollar as a matter of legal form.  A grateful Seymour Simon personally delivered the $1.00 check.

As 1963 came to a close the city, county and state pushed to prepare plans and specifications for the major construction lettings to occur in early 1964.  On January 17 of that year the Cook County Highway Department let over $58 million in construction contracts prepared by the draftsman and engineers in Hugo Starks Bureau of Design.  The county got a running start in 1963 when they let contracts for several structures including a unique curved bridge over the Chicago River, the main drains for their section, demucking the old I&M Canal bed and filling with stable material and a variety of demolition contracts.

Thanks to the Cook County Highways magazine many of the unique situations encountered by the County Highway Department are documented in the following paragraphs.  On a normal project schedule the engineers who staked out of the project waited until the buildings were removed and the surveyor’s line of sight unimpeded.  Not so what the Southwest.  With time so critical the engineers went ahead of the demolition contractor and when necessary ran off set lines around the buildings that were still standing.  In two of the sections that were the responsibility of the county it was necessary to abandon the water mains under all streets terminated at the expressway while gas mains were rerouted, sewer lines changed and in some places street lights and traffic signals re-designed and replaced.  In the case of one, soon to be abandoned steel company, the utilities had to be left in place until negotiations were finally finished despite the construction taking place all around the area. 

Actually some of the county work started as early as October of 1962.  That very first contract for the county was to clear 110 years of silt, at places 4 foot deep, the from the old canal bed.  As the silt was removed, the contractor back filled the bed with material from two 2000-foot high piles of material stockpiled near Harlem Avenue from the excavations from other expressways.  Despite these mountains (called that by CCHD Resident Engineer Ernie Presto) of fill material, outside material had to be brought in to fill the old canal bed west of Cicero Avenue.  The county section ran half mile west of Harlem at which point the state took over and the alignment deviated from the canal bed leaving the partially water filled canal and tow paths undisturbed.  The nine-mile state section ran all the way west to the Cook DuPage county line.  The County also had the section from Halsted to California while the city was responsible for the 2.1 miles from the Dan Ryan to Lake Shore Drive (which did not open until 1966) and the first section of Franklin Street Expressway to 22nd Street that opened on the same date as the Southwest. 

The $7.5 million construction job at a Damen Avenue set a record for speed.  The work involved the widening of the old structure over the railroad tracks to accommodate the increased traffic generated by the expressway.  It also required the reconstruction of the piers to permit the expressway to run underneath.  Because the bridge had to be left open to traffic during construction this was considered a two year project but in fact was started and finished in nine months.  The railroads were required to abandon several tracts on the south edge of the expressway right-of-way and despite the cooperation of the railroads there was a delay while the Santa Fe installed and tested a two-way signal system necessitated by their need to abandon several of their tracks.  The retaining walls and related structure at Fuller Street were therefore delayed but the use of critical path method (CPM) for tracking progress and the gusto of the contractors eliminated this as an impediment to meeting the October 24 deadline.  Due to the limited right-of-way width where the expressway squeezed next to the railroads the retaining wall on the other side of the expressway came within a foot of the rear of Saint Bridget’s Church at 2954 Archer.  The highway designers and the church agreed that was too close, so a unique cantilevered retaining wall was designed.  Moving the base of the wall in five feet and cantilevering it out and over the rear of the church provided the additional five feet of space at the rear of the church.  The right shoulder of the east bound roadway rests on this cantilevered section. 

Like the Congress where almost 4000 bodies had to be moved, the Southwest required a major move-the Des Plaines River.  West of Harlem Avenue at Lawndale Avenue the Southwest enters into a complex of ramps and bridges possibly more elaborate than the interchange with the Dan Ryan Expressway.  To accommodate the Lawndale interchange the Des Plaines River had to be moved to a new bed.  This location is in the vicinity of the portage between the Des Plaines and the Chicago River systems that was used by early explorers to bridge the Saint Lawrence and Mississippi River water sheds.  The old meandering riverbed was moved to the west, straightened out and spanned by the new Lawndale Avenue bridge to provide access to the Southwest Expressway.  On top of the old riverbed an embankment was constructed to enable the Southwest to gain the height needed to curve and cross over the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Where the Southwest crosses the tracks of the old Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio Railroads just west of Western Avenue it spans a much smaller bridge that crosses the old I & M Canal.  This old railroad bridge just clears the canal indicating the railroad line was built or upgraded after the canal was no longer used but still full of water.

Beyond the overtime put in by all the Cook County Highway employees involved in getting the Southwest built in a year, several other factors certainly contributed.  The preparation of detailed CPM diagrams in advance of construction permitted prior consideration of many vital factors critical to the construction sequence and workable procedures once construction had begun on a particular activity.  For it the county CPM became the accepted standard by which progress was determined, problems can be corrected and certain steps accelerated if necessary.  The county also used a computer to provide field engineers with bridge elevations and some other important calculations.  All of the construction decisions could be made in the field due to the establishment of a fully staffed field office that virtually eliminated the need to consult with the central office for decisions.

The construction of ramps for Harlem Avenue at its interchange with Southwest meant a significant increase in traffic on that road.  In order to handle the increased traffic, major work was to be done south of the ramps.  A new four-lane bascule bridge over the Sanitary and Ship Canal and a grade separation at Archer and 55th was deemed necessary.  Traffic congestion would be a major headache in the area until those two major projects were completed in 1967.

After nearly a year of intense effort the Southwest was open on Saturday October 24, 1964 providing Cook County with 98 miles of expressway.  The Southwest was one of the last major route from the original 1941 Plan to be completed.  It was of course unique because of the construction schedule, but it was different in other ways also.  For instance the ramp spacing on the Southwest was approximately 2-3 miles compared to 1/2 mile or less on the other expressways.  That anomaly was partly the result of the expressway being adjacent to the Des Plaines River and Sanitary and Ship Canal for much of it’s length limiting access to the few routes that crossed these obstacles.  It was also unique when it opened in 1965, it ran from one logical terminus to another-the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Tri-State Tollway.  After doing the usual opening day drive on the new pavement, the celebrants retired to the Palmer House for a luncheon featuring Francis Lorenz as Master of Ceremonies.  The three who instigated the crash program to build the expressway were present and spoke along with Rex Whitton who reiterated that he did not think he would be attending the ceremony on this date.  In discussing the $195 million cost he noted that it only costs a motorist ? cent per mile to drive on a new expressway and that same mile would cost 1-? cents on a rural road.  Frank Lorenz lauded the governor as the nation's leading road builder while being very creative with the figures he used to claim that Illinois was half finished with its interstate construction.  He made a point of noting that the Southwest unlike the Northwest Expressway did not provide a connection with the proposed Crosstown because the location of the proposed facility had not been identified in the area of the Southwest.  A more plausible explanation certainly could have been that Richard J. was still holding back on total support for the proposed Crosstown Expressway.  In his speech Governor Kerner credited his father-in-law, the late Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, with conceiving of the idea of a superhighway in the I & M Canal location.  Kerner was quoted as saying that Chicagoans should be grateful to two presidents, Kennedy and Johnson for this “realization of the Cermak dream”.