Interstate Identities: The Ike

February 16, 2012 10:14:49 AM PST
The first right of way for this expressway was purchased nearly 20 years before it opened.

It's sometimes referred to as the grandaddy of expressways because a similar route and design was part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. When this expressway first opened, it was called the Congress; you know it as the Ike.

The Congress Expressway, or West Side Superhighway, was renamed the Eisenhower in honor of the late president who signed the bill that authorized the interstate highway system. Plans for the Ike were already under way when the old Chicago main post office was expanded in the early 1930s. As a compromise, the post office was built, leaving a hole for the future expressway.

Building the Eisenhower was quite an undertaking. Earlier expressways were built outside the city. This one went right through it, with extensive utility work, issues with right of way and lots of compromise. It opened in sections, built by the county, the state and the city.

"The first section was Mannheim to 1st and that opened in 1954. It was built by the Cook County Highway Department," said Andrew Plummer.

Over the next six years, seven more sections opened. The final stretch, from First Avenue to Laramie opened in 1960.

When the west end of the Ike was being built, planners did something back then they would probably have had a more difficult time doing today. Ever wonder why there are cemeteries on both sides of the expressway?

"They had to move 4,000 graves at three cemeteries in Forest Park in order to build the expressway," said Plummer. "My wife went to [Oak Park-River Forest] High School, and she talks about some of the older kids from school, their summer jobs were to dig graves because it took them three years to do it."

At one point, planners had proposed to make part of the Ike a bridge over the cemeteries and the EJ&E Railroad; obviously, that didn't happen.

Another thing that didn't happen during construction -- keeping all the exit and entrance ramps on the right. There has been, and still is, a lot of discussion about the Austin and Harlem ramps on the left in Oak Park. When they were originally designed, the thought process was having inside ramps would be less intrusive to the local neighborhood.

The other ongoing Eisenhower debate is why didn't they build four lanes in each direction throughout the entire length, not just to Austin? That design is still a hot button today.

"That's been a problem for a long time. I've lived in the western suburbs all my life, and you can see where it does narrow down. That's where the traffic congestion tends to build up," said Ike motorist Jeffrey Gibbs.

Transportation planners say at the time there wasn't enough traffic that far west to justify the cost of the extra lane, with very limited additional right of-way to build it. But in 2003, the Hillside interchange at Mannheim was rebuilt to ease congestion where the Ike, Tri-State, I-88 and Roosevelt Road all merge. Currently, there are studies under way between the state and local municipalities on how to further reduce congestion on the Ike.

Those studies include suggestions from additional transit to additional lanes. Moving things out of the way to build expressways is not real popular today, although that's exactly what happened in the early '60s when the last of Chicago's expressways was built.