Then and Now, Clark-Foster

1958-Clark Street @ Foster Avenue, view south

2018–the same location

The 1958 photo captures Clark Street in a time of physical transition.  The streetcars have stopped running and the overhead wires are gone, though the tracks haven’t yet been covered over.  Along the sidewalk, the old incandescent street lamps are being replaced by the latest in Mercury vapor lights.

Sixty years later the buildings here look much the same, but further south some new structures are visible.  The sidewalks have been cut back and the pavement widened at this intersection, to make way for a left-turn lane.  The Mercury vapor streetlights have themselves been replaced by two different styles of retro light standards.



Then and Now, Ashland-Jackson

1909–Ashland Boulevard @ Jackson Boulevard, view south

2018–the same location

In 1909 Ashland between Lake Street and 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) was a  Park District street.  That meant the Ashland streetcars jogged a block west and operated on Paulina Street for that one-and-a-half miles, before returning to Ashland.  in the distance in the older photo, the main line of the Metropolitan ‘L’ can be seen crossing over Ashland.

Today this stretch of Ashland has been widened and is now a regular city street, open to trucks and any streetcars which may show up.  The ‘L’ viaduct in the distance of the newer photo is a ramp used for moving non-revenue trains between the Blue Line and the Pink Line.


The Smoke-Filled Room (6-11-1920)

On this date in history, the President of the United States was chosen in a suite at the Blackstone Hotel.  And a new phrase entered the political dictionary.

In 1920, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was finishing up eight years in the White House.  The Republican Convention was being held at the Chicago Coliseum that June, and it looked like a good year for the party.  The country was in the mood for change.

Blackstone Hotel, 1920

The political conventions of today are nothing more than media events—by the time the opening gavel is banged, one candidate has locked up the nomination.  That wasn’t the case in 1920.  Back then local party bosses controlled things.  Several roll-call ballots were usually needed to pick a nominee.

When the Republicans gathered, there were two front-runners—General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.  The balloting began.  Neither man could get a majority.  The party elders called a recess, then met behind closed doors at the Blackstone to work out a compromise.

Warren G. Harding was a Senator from Ohio.  He was one of the minor candidates, and few people outside his state had ever heard of him.  His main selling point seemed to be that he “looked like a President.”

Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, had predicted the convention deadlock.  Then, he said, at about 2 in the morning, 15 or 20 men would be sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room, bleary-eyed from heat and lack of sleep.  The men would be looking for the best presidential candidate.

“At that decisive time,” Daugherty declared, “the friends of Senator Harding will suggest him.”

Daugherty was quite a prophet.  After several hours of wrangling, the party bosses summoned Harding to the power suite at the Blackstone.  It was just after 2 a.m.

Harding said it, 40 years before JFK (though not as poetically)

Harding was asked if there were anything in his past that might embarrass the party.  He said there was not.  He didn’t mention that he’d fathered a child outside his marriage, which would not have played well with the voters in 1920.

So the bosses annointed Harding.  He was quickly nominated, and won the November election in a landslide.  When he died in office in 1923, he was one of the most popular presidents in history.

And today—even with all the restrictions on smoking—we still call a private gathering of political fixers a “smoke-filled room.”


Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.


Jack Johnson Sentenced to Prison (6-4-1913)

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was sentenced to 366 days in the Joliet penitentiary and fined $1,000 today.  He’d been convicted of violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

The law was supposed to curb prostitution.  But for the federal government of 1913, the big problem was that Johnson was black, and the woman he’d brought from Pittsburgh to Chicago was white.

“This defendant is one of the best known men of his race,” the judge said.  “His example has been far reaching.”  Johnson was allowed to remain free on $30,000 bail while his conviction was under appeal.  Rather than take his chances with the appeal, he jumped bail and left the country.

Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in a 1915 bout.  In 1920 he returned to the United States, served his prison time, and was released.  He died in an auto accident in 1946.

Recognizing the injustice done to Johnson, President Donald Trump granted the boxer a posthumous pardon on May 24, 2018.


Then and Now, Calumet-44th

1912-Calumet Avenue @ 44th Street, view north

2018–the same location

The opening of Chicago’s first ‘L’ line in 1892 sparked a building boom along its South Side corridor.  By 1912 the area around the 43rd Street station was fully developed.  The population was largely German Jewish—including the still-unknown Marx Brothers, who then lived in a Calumet Avenue walkup two blocks south.

During the 1920s the neighborhood here became African American, which it remains today.  Some of the old buildings still stand, though others have been demolished.  Now that a mini-park occupies the northwest corner of Calumet-44th, the ‘L’ station is visible from the intersection.



The Great Chicago Statue Quiz #7—Answers

(1) WHO is this?  Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

(2) WHERE is this?  4800 N. Lincoln Ave. (Lincoln Square)

(3) WHY does this person deserve a statue?  President of the United States