Finishing the Work

With the completion of the Southwest Expressway only two additional segments of the original Cook County 1941 priority system was yet to be completed.  On the south side the west leg of the Dan Ryan Expressway running from 95th Street to the area of 167th Street and Steger Road had only a 1.3 mile section from the Dan Ryan to Halsted Street opened to traffic.  Most of the route would be built by the Cook County Highway Department and opened in three different segments, the last in December of 1970.  To the north and west the state would be responsible for the sections of the route referred to as the Congress Expressway Extension.   Fourteen miles of this route were opened between 1961 and 1972.

In March of 1964 as the Cook County Highway Department awarded the last paving contract for the Southwest Expressway, Superintendent Plummer said the department would now concentrate on the construction of the West Leg of the Dan Ryan Expressway.  He said that the estimated cost of the expressway from 99th Street and Halsted Avenue to 173rd and Cicero would be $67 million and completed over the next three years.  As was the case with most of the Chicago area expressways the West Leg was opened as buildable sections were completed, usually at the culmination of a construction season.  This expressway would open in three segments beginning in 1967.  Seymour Simon was Cook County Board president and Andrew Plummer was superintendent when construction began but by the time of the first opening in 1967 Richard Oglivie was president and Dick Golterman was superintendent.  County Board president George Dunne and superintendent Tom Cots would preside over the openings in 1969 and 1970. 

But there was an Andrew Plummer (Superintendent Plummer had died in July of 1967), kind of, at the October opening in 1967.  The author attended a meeting in Chicago Ridge on Tuesday morning October 24 and was headed back to the CATS offices via 127th Street.  As I headed east I unexpectedly came upon the new West Leg and the 127th Street ramps with the barricades pulled aside.  Assuming the new facility was open I drove down the ramp and was greeted by expressway pavement free of traffic.  As I drove along I noticed state police manning the ramps at 118th and 111th Streets so it began to dawn on me that maybe the expressway was not quite open.  I passed under the 103rd St. bridge and noticed a crowd forming on the southbound pavement and a portable speaker's stand that had been erected in the median.  As luck would have it I was in a well-marked state car and can only conclude that I made it unencumbered to 95thStreet because they thought I was doing a final inspection prior to the opening.  With a little more foresight I probably could have joined in the ceremony but nevertheless enjoyed a unique experience, being alone on a major Chicago area expressway.

At the ceremony that I just missed, Board President Richard Oglivie said that with this opening the county had built 63 of the 118 miles of Cook County expressways.  With the county almost finished with expressway construction he was quick to proclaim that ”beginning immediately our highway department is going to devote more efforts than ever on arterial type roads”.  Although the planned Crosstown was certainly a Cook County Expressway, Ogilvie either figured that would not be built by the county or if the county participated it would not be on his watch since he had plans to run for governor.  The opening of the next section south to 147th Street featured a revival of the 1950’s expressway-opening gimmick of having the dignitaries arrive in antique automobiles.  The opening on a Saturday in December attracted hundreds of cars lined up to drive onto the new pavement.  According to the Cook County Highways magazine the situation created a mini traffic jam on 147th Street that was only relieved when the new pavement was quickly opened. 

The last county section of the West Leg opened on December 5, 1970.  The ceremony at 147th Street took place a cold windy Saturday morning.  After a few short remarks by Congressman Derwinski the officials quickly returned to their warm cars, drove to the end of the county section at 167th and returned for a luncheon at the county’s Blue Island Maintenance Facility.  One of the more interesting right-of-way challenges for the County Highway Department involved a pine tree in Markham in this section.  The tree in question once helped mark the 1816 Indian Boundary Line for the tract purchased for the I&M Canal.  This was the lone survivor of 60 planted by early settlers to mark part of the line in 1860.  The 100-year old tree stood on the edge of the George Brennan Highway right-of-way.  Although clear of the earlier highway under the original West Leg design it would only be a few feet from the shoulder of the expressway.  With the advent of more accurate survey equipment, the marker had value only as a historical artifact.  Nevertheless the county engineers gave the new expressway a gentle curve that cleared the tree by 30 feet keeping it out of harm's way much to the delight the people in Markham. 

With the section to 167th open the West Leg (the state had referred to it as the Moline Expressway) officially became Interstate 57 because it now connected with a section partly in Cook County that had been previously opened by the state.  I-57 would open to as far south as Cairo the following year.  Interestingly, in numerous Cook County Highways magazine articles about the West Leg there is never any mention of the state section opening in 1968-CCHD liked to be first.  Built under seventeen contracts this newest Cook County Expressway included one pedestrian bridge, seven grade separations and nine miles of pavement in the last of the county's 20-year expressway construction program. 

The first section of the Congress Expressway Extension was opened to traffic on December 18, 1961 in a rather quiet ceremony headed by Governor Kerner.  The Monday afternoon opening ceremony was preceded by a weekend driving preview for the Chicago Tribune’s Hal Foust hosted by a District 10 Expressway Engineer Marshall Suloway and District 1 Engineer Dick Golterman.

This 31/4 mile section from Hillside to an interchange with Lake Street in Elmhurst runs mostly parallel to and 100 feet west of the Tri-State Tollway.  Although this section was in the 1941 plan, that plan had the Tri-state Expressway 3 miles further west and the River Expressway several miles to the east.  Governor Stratton’s Tri-State Tollway along the Cook/DuPage line eliminated those north south expressway that were in the plan but the alignment of the Congress extension remained the same.  This section of the route provided direct connections with Lake Street and North Avenue, two state routes.  As was the practice then and for many years afterwards, Illinois Tollway access and egress was limited to higher revenue generating directions, hence only northbound tollway entry and southbound tollway exits were available in 1961. 

The Congress Expressway Extension would not be completed for another eleven years when the last 41/2 miles were opened in September of 1972.  Segments totaling nearly 10 miles in length on either side had opened a year earlier one of which provided directed access from Woodfield Mall to the Northwest Tollway.  The “straight as an arrow” piece from the current I-290 Route 53 split was the last piece of expressway built in Cook County from the 1941 Plan.