The Changing Transportation Landscape in Chicago

October 15, 2020

Rachel Cole, Public Services Librarian for Northwestern University’s Transportation Library, writes about the changing transportation landscape in Chicago through a selection of fifteen items from their collection ranging in date from the 1890s to the 1970s.


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(Detail) Airway Guide and Official Program, International Aeronautical Exposition, Chicago, 1928. Courtesy of the Northwestern University’s Transportation Library.

From its place in Chicago’s early history as the nation’s rail hub, transportation fostered a city growing and evolving with internal and external movement. Physical traces of this history remain in some of the transportation infrastructure we use today, as well as in abandoned infrastructures across the city, like rail tracks uncovered under pavement during road construction, or a train bridge built by a long-defunct railroad.

This history is also reflected in printed materials produced by transit operators and transportation companies. Much of it was created with the thought that it would be ephemeral: a timetable, used to check the schedule on a cross-country journey, then thrown away upon arrival; or a menu used to choose dinner selections in-flight and then discarded at the end of a meal. These materials served important utilitarian functions during their time, providing passengers with essential travel information. Today, passenger ephemera provides valuable historical documentation for researchers: all of the information that once helped travelers reach their destinations helps us to understand the traveler’s experience and the history of transportation companies.

The design of these materials served as advertising in its own right, communicating the excitement of travel, the promise of new destinations, full of possibility, and the luxury, efficiency, or technological advancement of the companies that produced them. For travelers, too, these items held value as material objects, souvenirs of long-remembered travel. And for collectors today, these items are sought after as elements of collections that form stories of transportation history with personal or historical significance.

Along with the current technical literature that makes up the core of the Northwestern University Transportation Library’s collections, a small but important component of special collections is maintained: timetables, system maps, menus, and other travel ephemera, as well as annual reports and planning documents from transit operators and governmental agencies. A selection of these items, ranging in date from the 1890s to the 1970s, reflects the changing transportation landscape in Chicago, as well as the ways in which the built environment has evolved.

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1. Union Pacific. World’s Pictorial Line Brochure, 1893 World’s Fair.
An extensive multi-fold brochure from the Union Pacific advertised the railroad’s services to destinations including Chicago, which, in 1893, hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Several maps included a Plat of the City of Chicago, extending to Garfield Park in the west, Lincoln Park in the north, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in the south. Other maps included the railroad’s Overland Route, the fairgrounds, and a full-color bird’s eye view of the fair. Full-color illustrations of twelve fair buildings were also contained within, including Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building.

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2. Entrance to Grand Blvd. Postcard, Postmarked 1911.
The corner of Grand Boulevard (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) and 35th Street in Chicago is populated by riders out in their horse-drawn carriages, a delivery wagon, a few pedestrians in the road, and a bicyclist at the center of the postcard pictured here. By the end of the decade, automobiles would outnumber horse-drawn vehicles on the roads, the bicycle industry would be in decline, and the idyllic streetscape shown here would be fundamentally changed.

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3. Illinois Underground Tunnel Postcard, Postmarked 1912.
Deep beneath the streets of Chicago’s Loop sits an abandoned narrow-gauge railway that carried freight and mail to the city’s central business district from 1906 until its abandonment in 1959. This postcard shows a rare subterranean view of the city, a contrast to typical postcard views of Chicago’s streetscapes, architecture, and other above-ground attractions. Addressed to a recipient in St. Louis with a brief note, “Arrived here this A.M. attend a meeting at U of C and just got up from the dinner table it is now 3:40 expect to take in show this P.M.,” it is postmarked October 29, 1912.

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4. North Western Depot Postcard, Postmarked 1915. Gary Gelzer Collection.
Chicago’s North Western Depot was located on West Madison Street between Canal and Clinton Streets. It is pictured here on a postcard postmarked September 24, 1915, four years after the station opened to the public. It was described as “the most modern terminal in the world, possessing all the accommodations of a modern hotel with the exception of the sleeping compartments” (that’s what sleeper cars are for!). This structure was razed in the 1980s to be replaced with the Northwestern Atrium Center (now Citicorp Center), designed by Helmut Jahn of Murphy/Jahn, and the station there would be renamed Ogilvie Transportation Center in 1997.

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5. Airway Guide and Official Program, International Aeronautical Exposition, Chicago, 1928.
Sponsored by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, the International Air Show of 1928 was held at the Chicago Coliseum, on Wabash Avenue and 15th Street (and home to the Chicago Blackhawks for a period in the 1920s). Unlike today’s Chicago Air & Water Show, the 1928 exhibition focused on exhibits rather than performances, with several dozen planes from manufacturers throughout the US on display in the Coliseum and Armory. Also note Navy Pier extending into Lake Michigan below the plane in the foreground and the large rail yard on the lakefront that is today Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park.

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6. Chicago Surface Lines Route Guide, 1929.
At the time of publication of the Chicago Surface Lines’ 1929 route guide, Chicago was the fourth largest metropolis in the world, served by the largest street railway system in the world. The Chicago Surface Lines operated on 1,082 miles of track around the city, providing over 1,600,000,000 rides annually, and carrying three-fourths of the city’s passenger transportation load. Illustrated by Ivan V. Beard, the guide’s cover pictures Chicago attractions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Garfield Park Conservatory, and the Union Stockyards.

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7. Chicago Rapid Transit Company “L” Map of Chicago, 1933. John A Swider Timetable Collection.
The “L” Map of Chicago pictured here features an illustration of the L traveling “above congestion,” and above the Century of Progress World’s Fair of 1933-34. Printed inside the timetable is a fold-out map of L service to the gates of the fair. Chicago Rapid Transit Co. (a privately-owned precursor to the CTA that operated the city’s rail service) promoted free motor coach transfers on coaches marked “Free Bus for L Passengers” between the Cermak Road station and the fair’s entrance at 22nd Street. In addition to illustrations of L trains, the map’s cover highlights the fair’s Sky Ride. With towers that rose 625 feet into the air, the Sky Ride ferried passengers across Burnham Harbor in rocket-shaped cars that each carried 36 passengers.

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8. Chicago Department of Subways and Superhighways. Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress Subway Opening, 1951.
Chicago’s Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress Subway (a segment of today’s Blue Line) opened February 25, 1951. The second of Chicago’s subways, it connected the elevated Milwaukee branch through the Loop and, eventually, with the Congress branch: an integrated highway/transit project that extended a superhighway along what was once the route of Congress Avenue in Chicago, with rapid transit running down the center. The Dearborn subway project began in 1939, almost simultaneously with the State Street subway (now part of the Red Line), but construction was delayed on the Dearborn project during the war. The pamphlet shown here is illustrated with photos of the subway’s construction and completed stations, which look much the same today, as well as a section on facts, figures, and features.

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9. Naess & Murphy. Chicago O’Hare International Airport Engineering Report: First Stage Development Program, 1958. “View from Restaurant Building Overlooking Aircraft Apron.”
This early rendering of the Restaurant Building (now known as the Rotunda) at O’Hare International Airport is from the 1958 engineering report on the airport, produced by the firm of Naess & Murphy. The rotunda that we know and love today was designed by Gertrude Kerbis, an architect with what became the firm of C.F. Murphy Associates. While much of O’Hare has been remodeled in the decades following its construction, the jet age rotunda remains largely intact—though it is potentially vulnerable under the O’Hare Modernization Program.

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10. City of Chicago Department of Aviation Annual Report, 1963.
The Annual Report of the City of Chicago’s Department of Aviation for 1963 pictured a United Airlines jet flying over a lakefront view that has changed significantly in the 56 years that have passed since the report’s publication; the city’s aviation landscape likewise has undergone significant changes in those decades. The annual report celebrated the dedication, earlier that year, of O’Hare International Airport by President John F. Kennedy. Highlights included the opening of the new restaurant building, the beginning of operations at the airport’s international building (served by BOAC, Mexicana, Pan Am, TWA, and others), the installation of ground traffic radar, and award-winning architecture by C.F. Murphy Associates. The report’s authors also highlighted the city’s other two municipal airports: Meigs Field, which at the time was the world’s busiest single-runway airport, and Midway, “businessman’s commuter airport to cities of the United States.”

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11. Chicago Transit Authority, “See Chicago by CTA” Brochure, 1968. William Luke Transportation Collection.
A 1968 CTA brochure encouraged Chicagoans and other travelers to explore the city by public transit. The authors promoted such sites as the “lavish, teeming bazaar” of the Loop, and the Chicago Post Office, which “spans the Eisenhower Expressway, letting Chicagoland traffic pass beneath it while Chicagoland mail passes through it.”

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12. Southern Airways April 1, 1970 Timetable. George M. Foster Timetable Collection.
Southern Airways marked their new non-stop service between Memphis and Chicago with a view of the Chicago River on the front of its April 1, 1970 timetable. The bridges in the background are raised, allowing boats to pass in the river. The city is home to some 52 movable bridges, 43 of which are still operable today. Also featured prominently on the cover of this timetable is a view looking east down the Chicago River including Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, completed two years earlier, at left.

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13. Chicago Helicopter Airways December 1, 1970 Timetable. George M. Foster Timetable Collection.
Chicago Helicopter Airways operated out of Meigs Field, connecting travelers in Chicago’s downtown business district, O’Hare (ORD), and Midway International (MDW) Airports with a fleet of Bell 206A Jet Rangers and Sikorsky S-58Cs. Approximately five flights in each direction operated between downtown and each airport Monday-Friday, with seven flights in each direction between ORD and MDW each day. One-way fares totaled $10.80, tax included, with half-price flights for children under 12.

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14. CTA Transit News. April, 1971.
In addition to being Mr. Cub, and Mr. Sunshine, beloved Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks was also a CTA Transit Board Member. He appeared on the cover of the April, 1971 CTA Transit News, the agency’s employee magazine, to show off the agency’s new two-sided rapid transit baseball signs, which were posted before all home games. The signs carried messages on an orange background for Cubs games and on a blue background for White Sox games.

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15. TWA Menu, 1971. Transportation Library Menu Collection.
In October 1871, the Chicago Fire devastated much of Chicago. One of the few buildings in the central city left standing was the Chicago Water Tower, which remains today near Michigan Avenue & Chicago. The Water Tower was featured alongside the John Hancock Center, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, on the 1971 TWA menu shown here. Completed in 1869 and 1969 respectively, the buildings represent 100 years of iconic architecture in Chicago. The menu includes entrees such as Roast Rib of Beef and Double Cut Lamb Chops, as well as a section “For the Briefcase Set” (“for those who do not have time to enjoy our elaborate full-course service, or who desire something quick and low calorie”). There is also a note “TWA has pioneered the development of advanced aircraft ovens including microwave units which allow ‘cooking in flight.’ This feature enables us to provide you with freshly cooked food in a matter of minutes and assures you more flavorful meals—BON APPETIT!”

About the Northwestern University Transportation Library

The Northwestern University Transportation Library was founded in 1958 to support the curricula and research programs of the Northwestern University Transportation Center and Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety. With collections numbering over 600,000 items, the Transportation Library is one of the largest transportation information centers in the world, encompassing information on all modes of transportation including air, rail, highway, public transport, and bicycle and pedestrian transportation, and is used by researchers across the university and around the world.