The Mayor of Chicago stood in the dusty median of the unfinished expressway in his shirt sleeves. He raised the sledge over his head, then pounded the spike into the ground near the rail. The two dozen onlookers cheered.
The mayor was Richard J. Daley, the place was the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway at Pulaski. Though it looked like the old Golden Spike photos of the transcontinental railroad, this ceremony marked a beginning, not an end. The CTA was going to run trains up the middle of the expressway.
Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago had called for a major east-west highway along the line of Congress Parkway. That had evolved into an expressway. Then someone came up with the idea of tearing down the Garfield Park ‘L’ line, and rerouting the trains over the highway’s median.
Critics thought this would be a waste of precious city land. Why leave that empty space in the middle of an expressway, for trains that might never run? Put in a couple more lanes for auto traffic instead!
The expressway line was supposed to link up with the Logan Square ‘L’ via the new Milwaukee-Dearborn subway. But when the subway opened in 1951, the tunnel stopped abruptly at La Salle and Congress. Chicago now had its own Subway to Nowhere.
And it seemed that trains might always end there. The Congress ‘L’ project was running into trouble. Crews tunneling under the Post Office found 16 support caissons in their path. The caissons had to be reinforced, and that added 40% more to the project’s cost.
The mayor was right. When the Congress ‘L’ opened in 1958, it was universally hailed as a major innovation. Now cities routinely combine express highways with transit lines.