Monday, February 02, 2009

Driving Uphill (in Chicago)

(Note: updated 2-6-09)

The university where I work, National-Louis University, has a bunch of campuses. In Chicagoland, there's downtown (where my office is), Wheeling (where the primary offices of the National College of Education are), North Shore (which is in Skokie), Lisle, and Elgin. (There are also campuses in Wisconsin (Beloit and Milwaukee) and Tampa Florida, and one in Poland. The one in McLean Virginia was recently closed. )

The multiple campuses in Chicagoland (and the fact that we offer the Technology in Education program on three of them, and have meetings at various times on all of them) mean that I'm doing a lot of driving these days. I've put almost 80,000 miles on my minivan since I bought it in 2004. And NONE of that is commuting to my office, where, unfortunately, I don't get to spend a lot of time. On any given day, I might be driving to Wheeling, Lisle, Skokie, or a combination of two of those. Anyway, all of this driving is a real drag, although since I've discovered how to use my laptop to read me student papers and other things I have to read, it's less of a drag than it used to be.

When I'm not listening to something interesting--especially when I'm driving during rush hour--I have a lot of time to think. This is often a good thing. I also look at the "scenery." I use this term advisedly, because much of what one can see from the expressways is hardly scenic: grungy roads, light (and some heavy) industrial buildings, (way too many) billboards. There are a few scenic highlights that make it less deadly than it could be: the lake, the skyline from various directions and at various times of day, the Chicago River and associated canals, all kinds of railroads. There isn't a whole heck of a lot of terrain to look at (what with Chicago being pretty flat and all), but even though I've lived in Chicago for most of the past 20 years, I still don't tire of the bustle of the city, and occasionally find myself fascinated with what's visible out the car window.

Well, one thing that has caught my attention numerous times is that when I'm driving outbound on the Kennedy Expressway (headed toward our Wheeling or North Shore campuses), there is this very long, slow grade up from the city. (Or, driving the other way, a long grade down to the city.) From near the "top" of this hill (which is close to what they call the "Junction" where the Kennedy and Edens expressways come together, one gets a pretty good view of the city; it certainly looks like one is looking down at it. I've often wondered whether this grade is mostly a matter of the expressway going from UNDER street level to OVER street level, or if there was something in the underlying topography that contributes to the hill.

Knowing a little bit about Chicago's history had added to my curiosity. I know that the city was originally mostly a swamp. Before it was settled by the white man, the Indians used to travel around the area on a few well-worn footpaths that followed several ridges in the area. These ridges were formed quite a long time ago by the receding shoreline of Lake Michigan. This map from the Encyclopedia of Chicago shows the original shoreline of the lake (shaded area is the lake 10,000 years ago):

A little known fact is that just west of Chicago is a subcontinental divide. Water to the east of that divide flows eastward down the Chicago River to Lake Michigan, and water to the west of it flows down the Desplaines, Fox, and Illinois Rivers to the Mississipi River. It was that divide that was originally called the Chicago Portage and which was cut by the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. In 1900, the Chicago River was reversed and forced to empty into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal so that the waters of Lake Michigan (used as drinking water by millions of people) wouldn't get polluted from the sewage that made up the primary volume of water in the Chicago River. "The project involved the construction of a 28-mile channel through a glacial moraine and bedrock ridge." (source). According to The Chicagoist, this ridge was 8 feet high. Not quote enough, I don't think, to account for the upgrade on the Kennedy.

The original Indian footpaths along the ridges around Chicago have been immortalized in a few major roads around the area:
the major ancient Indian trails in and around Chicago, as well as additional trails that developed before 1830, are still visible on modern road maps, often as diagonal streets: Lincoln Avenue, Clark Street, Ogden Avenue, Archer Avenue, and Vincennes Avenue. With the coming of Europeans, the trails first became bridle paths, then roads for wagons, then stage and mail routes. For information on individual major trails in the area, see entries under Sauk (Sac) Trail, Vincennes Trail, Hubbard Trace, Calumet-Tolleston Beach Trail, Trail Creek Trail, Lake Shore Trail, Green Bay Trail, Portage Trail, Lake Trail, Cottage Grove Trail, Archer Trail (Old Chicago Trail), Berry Point Trail, and the Fort Dearborn-Detroit Road. [from Early Chicago: A Compendium of the Early History of Chicago to the Year 1835]
One of those trails was the "Northwest Trail." In this image, a map of Chicago from 1833, you can see the beginning of the Northwest Trail by the red asterisk:

That "Northwest Trail" became the basis for a long series of transportation developments. First, it became Milwaukee Avenue. Then,
In 1849, the Northwestern Plank Road was constructed on Milwaukee Ave. to Oak Ridge at what is now Irving Park Blvd.; thence to Dutchman's Point (now Niles); and finally to Wheeling. The Western Plank Road was built westerly from Oak Ridge to Bloomingdale in DuPage County and thence to Elgin. [source]
[Note: I have come to the conclusion that the quote above is in error; the Northwestern Plank Road wasn't built to Oak Ridge, which is now Oak Park. Rather, it was built to what would now be called Irving Park.]

The following map (Chicago Historical Society) shows the principal transportation routes in Chicago from 1852 (modern roads are in red).You can see how the "Northwest Trail" has become the "Northwestern Plank Road," (it's labeled only "Plank Road" on the map) leading toward an important junction (called "Oak Ridge" in the quote just above), where the "Western Plank Road" heads to the West, the "Milwaukee and Chicago Road" heads northwest, and the modern "Chicago-Waukegan Mil. Road" (I'm guessing "Mil" is an abbreviation for Milwaukee) heads north. Just to the northwest of that junction, "Higgin's Road" heads more to the west.

That spot where the Western Plank Road separates off from the Northwestern Plank Road is the modern-day intersection of Irving Park Rd., Milwaukee Avenue, and Cicero Avenue (so-called "Six Points).

Just to the Northwest of Six Points, Higgin's Road (now Higgins Road) and "Rand Road" (now called the Northwest Highway inside the Chicago city limits and Rand Road outside the city) branch off in what is now the neighborhood of Jefferson Park. Jefferson Park was originally its own town, until it joined Chicago in 1889. Interestingly, the primary reason that a town formed there was because a family had a farm along Milwaukee Avenue that had a reliable well, so people settled near the well. (For more about the history of Jefferson Park, click here.)

In 1854 [source], the so-called "Northwest Railway" was built along the Chicago River, running between he two diagonal streets, Milwaukee Ave. and Elston Ave, resulting in a population boom in Jefferson Park. The Northwest Railway (officially the "Chicago and St. Paul Rail Road") paralleled Avondale Avenue, another diagonal street. This rail line eventually became part of the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad, which was later part of the Galena and Chicago Union Railway and today is part of Chicago and North Western Railway. You can see this railroad as the diagonal line going from Chicago up and to the left in this detail from an 1855 map from American Memory. (The more vertical line is the Chicago and Milwaukee Rail Road, which eventually became another branch of the Chicago and Northwestern):

Later (1873), the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad was built, also leaving from the west side of the river downtown, at first in a more westerly direction, then turning north, intersecting with the Northwestern Line in Jefferson Park. This detail map is from the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

Notice that this map labels the area near the railroad intersection as "Mayfair." Mayfair was originally the village of Montrose, and was part of Jefferson Park when it was annexed by Chicago. This detail from an interactive map at shows the relationship among these various neighborhoods:

It helps to recognize that the southern border of Mayfair on this map is Irving Park Avenue and the western boarder at first follows the tracks of the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific and then follows Cicero Avenue. The prominent diagonal white line is the Northwest Expressway (now the Kennedy Expressway). (Remember the Kennedy Expressway? That's what this post is about!).

In 1927, the Chicago Plan Commission laid out a series of limited-access highways that included the current route of the Kennedy Expressway, but the bond issue for the plan was defeated in 1928 [source The expressway was finally built in the 1950s, opening on November 5, 1960, following the tracks of the Northwest Railway and Avondale Avenue (now only existing for short segments along the expressway). It was renamed the Kennedy Expressway on November 29, 1963 in honor of the slain president. For much of its length, the Blue Line of the Chicago Transit Authority, built in 1984, runs along its median. The Northwest Railway runs on the east side ofthe expressway until just below Addison Street, when it crosses over via a massive bridge to the west side, where it continues until both the Kennedy Expressway and the railway cross Milwaukee Avenue just west of Long Ave.

(Actually, it's really the other way around. The railroad track is quite straight. It's the Kennedy that crosses from one side of the tracks to the other, doing a little jog to the left before it cuts right, as you can see in this image from Google Earth:)

So, back to the ascent on the Kennedy. As the road passes through downtown, it runs under all of the streets, going through an area between Lake Street and Ohio streets known as Hubbard's Cave:

You can see Hubbard's cave from above in this image from Google Earth:

Fulton Street crosses east-west near the bottom of this image, and Hubbard Street crosses it near the top. (Notice also, if you look carefully, that there is a railroad track running right next to Hubbard Street. That's the original route of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad, built in 1872-73, mentioned above. In the upper right of the image, you can also see another track that curves up toward the north. That's the Northwest Railway built in 1854.)

One would expect that the elevation of the Kennedy at this point (since it's under all the streets) would be lower than the elevation of downtown Chicago. So, not surprisingly, when the Kennedy emerges from Hubbard's Cave, there is a slight upgrade, which you can sort of see in this photo from my camera phone. (Most of the following photos were taken while driving north on the Kennedy's reversible express lanes.)

If you look at the Google Earth image of this section, you can see that the Kennedy indeed rises from going BELOW Chicago Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue (the diagonal street here), to going OVER Division Street.

This rise can thus be explained solely on the basis of the logistics of the road. Indeed, for the next few miles, until the road crosses Addison Street, it rises and falls to go over each major street, but more or less stays level. At the jog (described above), the Blue Line emerges from its underground tunnel and enters the Kennedy's median.

That is, it stays level until after Addison Street. In the photo above, you can see that the road begins to rise more consistently than it had before.

This detail of the above photo shows this rise more clearly. A retaining wall (outlined in red) shows how the expressway is now rising to meet the level of the ground. Behind the retaining wall is a billboard that is at the Corner of Irving Park and Pulaski. You can also see a Blue Line train coming down the hill:

In this photo, taken immediately after the one above, you can see the ground to the left (covered in snow), above the level of the road:
This Google Earth image is taken from almost the exact same point, at Waveland and North Ridgeway:

(UPDATE 2-6-09: I looked at this section again today when I was driving to and from Skokie. I've changed my mind about the rise that you can see in the photographs above. The Kennedy has to go DOWN in order to go UNDER the Northwest Railway just south of Addison, at this trestle:

It can actually be seen to be going down in the jog before it goes under the railroad. So the rise we see afterwards in the retaining wall is--in part--a recovery to above street level from that descent.)

The only indication on the Google Earth views that there is a rise in the land here is that the diagonal street just to the east of the expressway between Addison and Irving Park is called "N. Parkview Terrace." One finds no mention of a hill, or rise in the land, in any of the Wikipedia articles about the Irving Park neighborhood or its subdivisions. However, one article does say that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was watched from several of the cupolas on area homes, vaguely indicating that there might be a particularly good view from the area.

The top of the rise on the Kennedy is just before the end of the express lanes, about a quarter-mile south of the junction with the Edens, at about Berteau Avenue, as you can see here. Part of this last little bit of rise is because the ramp from the express lanes to the northbound (officially, we've been traveling "west" on I-90) passes over the Blue Line:

After leaving the express lanes, the expressway definitely has a downward trend, as it goes under Montrose Avenue, as you can see in this photo:

Then, the expressway enters a very complex area where it merges with the Edens and crosses under the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Rail Road. (You can see the junction with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad just to the west of the junction of the Kennedy and Edens expressways.)

Once the Kennedy emerges from the junction, it trends upward again as it approaches Lawrence Avenue:

So, you might be asking yourself, why didn't I simply get a topological map to see whether the upward trend of the road is actually the result of a rise in elevation? Well, I did. However, it wasn't as easy as I imagined it would be. Most maps of Chicago have no indication of topography. And those that do are incredibly hard to decipher because of all the other stuff on the map.

I found this 1901 map with topographical lines on the historical maps site of the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can plainly see the topographical lines in the upper part of the map where the Chicago River veers westward. (The map indicates "Mayfair" just above the intersection of the railroads.) However, the lines are very hard to see in those areas of the map where there are a lot of streets.

The UIC web site offers a MrSID zooming function that lets you get very close in to see the details of their maps.

But it's still very hard to see the contour lines. So I used Photoshop to zoom in even closer on this map, and traced the contour lines that I could see with the brush tool:

According to the information given about the map, the contour lines are every five feet. So remembering that the Kennedy parallels the Chicago and North Western Railroad, starting at the lower right and moving to the upper left, four lines are crossed, meaning that the ground level rises at least 20 feet on this map (which roughly covers Diversey to Montrose.

I was able to find a more contemporary map at (for members only...I signed up for a free a trial subscription for a few minutes), but since the topological features of the land shouldn't really change much over the years, and in fact the contour lines were even harder to see, this wasn't a whole lot of help.

However, do have an interactive map feature that lets you point to a spot on the map and get the elevation (above sea level) for that spot. Here's what I found:
  • The elevation of Chicago at the lakefront is 591 feet above sea level.
  • The elevation at Belmont and the Kennedy is also 591. So there is no appreciable rise between downtown and Belmont, as I had suspected.
  • The elevation at Irving Park and the Kennedy is 604.
  • The elevation at the junction of the Kennedy with the Edens, it is 614.
This confirms what I found with the contour lines. The difference in elevation between Belmont (591) and the junction (614) is 23 feet.

Interestingly, as one goes further west, one finds even more elevation increases. The elevation at the Kennedy and Austin is 623 feet, and at Harlem, near an area called Harwood Heights, it's 656 feet.

So Chicago ain't flat, people, despite what it may seem. And in those minor rises in the land, barely perceptible to those who travel around the city on a daily basis but discernible with the help of technology, one can see the outlines of geologic history.
  • For more about Chicago-area topography, click here.
  • Lots of maps of early Chicago exist and can be found on the web. A good list is at Some of the best, which are zoomable, can be found here.

1 comment:

The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

Thanks, Craig, for the review. It reminds me of many trips from Normal into the Chicago area to supervise student teachers and meet with doc students. Enjoy your travels!