No City Like Chicago

The Hub of America

New York may have its subways and California may have its highways, but when it comes to transportation, Chicago has it all. "I’d argue there’s no other city in North America and maybe the world that has had the kind of transportation predominance that Chicago has—and Chicago is barely 150 years old," says David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston.

"I believe Chicago is unique in North America in that it was a water hub of the West; it became the railroad hub of the continent; it was—if not the highway hub—one of the highway hubs of the continent; and it is clearly the aviation hub of the continent," adds Schulz.

Not bad for a city that was built basically on a mostly uninhabitable swamp. The metropolitan Chicago area is a "lab case" for transportation development in the U.S., Says Schulz and others. "There’s been a combination of geography, technology and bold leadership that has allowed Chicago to be at the cutting edge of transportation development," says Schulz. In each area of major development in transportation—water, rail, horse drawn, commuter rail, highways and aviation—Chicago "was on the forefront," he adds. "It was right there." "Our commerce rests on our transportation," says Ann Keating, an associate professor of history and the chair of the History Department at North Central College in Naperville. "Without that transportation, there would be very little to distinguish Chicago from Milwaukee or Ft. Wayne or St. Louis." "It is a strategic location in terms of being between the two watershed systems—the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes," says Keating. "This afforded Chicago an edge over places such as Milwaukee." "When this country was founded, we primarily relied on water transportation," says Schulz. "And the reason that anyone settled here in the first place was it was a place that was on the west shore of Lake Michigan that was within relatively easy portage distance of the Illinois River, which offered access to the Mississippi River and the South. That development mirrors that portion of the nation’s history."

That geographic advantage was bolstered by strong leadership, such as the work to create the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the 1840s, which linked the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, says Keating. By the 1850s, the railroad was replacing waterways as the main mode of transportation and Chicago reflected that. "By the mid 1800s, the center of the country and population was shifting west so that Chicago was in the right place at that point in time," says Keating. "Chicago became an end point for so many of the railroad lines coming out of the East Coast." The railroads were buttressed by the aggressiveness of Chicago’s leadership. "Take someone like Stephen Douglas, our Democratic senator in Washington, who gets federal funding in the 1850s for the Illinois Central Railroad and runs it to Chicago," says Keating. "The railroad didn’t have to go to Chicago. But the first time the federal government puts money into a line that’s going to cross states and go from New Orleans all the way north, Douglas was doing a lot of wheeling and dealing.

"The federal government putting money into the Illinois Central and the Transcontinental Railroad was especially important for Chicago becoming a railroad hub," she adds. "That basically made Chicago the center for all the northern activity that was going to go south and west from the city."

In the 1890s, Chicago’s leaders turned their focus to commuter railroads. "American cities at that time expanded to their limits in terms of the distance that people could walk to a job from their h mes," says Schulz. "Commuter railroads and then streetcars and elevated railroads allowed the cities to expand significantly beyond those limits. "And if you look at the development around what is now the Metra stations and the elevated stations in Chicago, it clearly is a mirror of that," he adds. "In fact, Chicago was the poster child for that type of transportation development."

In the 1910s and 1920s, Chicago took the forefront of road development. "You had the so-called `get us out of the mud’ movement," says Schulz. "Suburbanization and sprawl began because of this movement, and these roads functioned as a reliable way for farmers to get their products to market and to hook up communities. Today, they’re seen as a lifeline."

Next came aviation.

"Clearly, Chicago again had an interesting position as Midway Airport very rapidly became the busiest airport in the world," says Schulz about a period that lasted from the 1920s through the early 1960s. "That could have happened to another airport situated closer to the geographic heart of the country," he adds. "But it happened in Chicago because the combination of significant transportation activity already here and also because of the drive and entrepreneurship found here." That leadership in aviation would repeat itself several decades later in Chicago, say the historians.

"With the opening of O’Hare International Airport in 1959, you now had a world airport serving the area," says Schulz. "Again, that happened because of the city’s boldness in seizing this old aircraft manufacturing plant and annexing this isthmus of land to Chicago to create O’Hare. And again, that could have happened anywhere. It didn’t have to be in Chicago." Shortly before the opening of O’Hare, as cars and trucks became the dominant form of transportation, came the national highway system. "This was a period where Northeastern Illinois really anticipated the development of the interstate highways with projects such as the Chicago Skyway and the Tri-State tollway and the Edens Expressway," says Schulz. "These projects were all built before there was an interstate highway system created in 1956."

"In terms of leadership, you have (Mayor Richard J.)Daley coming through and making sure that the interstate system continued to connect Chicago in," says Keating. Transportation undoubtedly will keep Chicago a leader in moving people and things, say Schulz and K eating. "I believe that whatever happens next in terms of new developments in transportation is going to be decided by the price of oil," says Keating. "But whatever happens, Chicago will be there on the forefront." "Rather than see Buck Rogers-like new technology, I think we’ll see much better and more precise management of existing modes of transportation— everything from vehicle guidance to advanced dispatching for public transportation," says Schulz. "So there’s some challenges out there on the horizon, but I’m very bullish on Chicago’s long-term future," he adds. "As long as people need things and need to eat and have places to live, Chicago will remain the transportation hub of North America and will increasingly be a major—if not the major—transportation hub in the world economy."

By Jim Sulski. Special to the Tribune Web-posted Sunday, October 26, 1997