Interstate Identities: Dan Ryan, Kennedy

February 17, 2012 4:16:44 AM PST
Our first expressways opened in the early '50s, and were built by the county, because the Cook County Highway Department had the money.

Things changed in 1956 with the new Interstate Highway Act, now there were federal dollars to get roads built, and Chicago took full advantage.

The Dan Ryan Expressway was originally called the South Route as it was being built in the late 1950s because that's where it went. There is a logical reason for its current name.

Dan Ryan became president of the Cook County Board in the mid '50s.

"His big push was to get a bond issue passed that the county could use to build the expressway system," said transportation historian Andrew Plummer.

At the same time, the National Interstate Highway Act was passed, creating 40,000 miles of interstates, with the federal government footing 90 percent of the bill! Now there's federal money and county money, and urban expressways were being built at a rapid-fire pace. The Dan Ryan opened in 1962 from the Circle Interchange to 130th, connecting to the Calumet Expressway.

"It was called the Dan Ryan before it opened // because he died before it opened, so they passed a resolution in city council naming it after him when it was to be opened," said Plummer.

If we continue north on I-94, the expressway is now called the Kennedy, same interstate, different name.

The presidents are a little easier. The Kennedy Expressway, originally called the Northwest Expressway, opened in late 1960, two years after the city built the section from Lake Street to the Circle Interchange.

The original plan for the Kennedy Expressway was to follow alongside the Chicago & Northwest railroad, but that would have taken it right through the rectory of St. Stanislov's Church. They wanted to tear it down. But they came up with a creative solution.

"They went to the state legislature and got a law passed that provided the state with the ability to buy additional right of way east of the existing rail yard and rail lines, give that to the railroad, pay the railroad to move the tracks east, and then slip the expressway between the new rail and the rectory," said Plummer.

The west end of the Kennedy has another story behind it.

"That was supposed to be a tollway. There was supposed to be a toll booth at Cicero Avenue and Mannheim," Plummer said. "Mayor [Richard J.] Daley becomes mayor and wants no part of a tollway within the city, so by 1958, the county was able to buy the right of way back from the tollway and finish the Kennedy from the junction to Mannheim."

The name was officially changed from the Northwest to the Kennedy Expressway after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 as the former president had come up and down that expressway numerous times when he visited the city.

You may notice many of our expressways are built very close to rail lines, the theory being there were less streets to displace and few homes to raze, making it easier to build.