Interstate Identities: LSD and I-55

February 17, 2012 4:16:07 AM PST
The last of the Chicago expressways to be built was completed in record time.

Much of it is a bridge, following the path of the I&M Canal on one side, and part of the Des Plaines River on the other side. It was originally called the Canal Expressway, then the Southwest, but we know this stretch of I-55 by another name.

If you're from Illinois, and of a certain age, you may know who the Stevenson Expressway was named for.

The Southwest Expressway opened in the fall of 1964. It was renamed the Stevenson, after former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson died in 1965. Plans for the last of Chicago's major expressways were finalized in late 1962, but certain officials wanted this expressway to open in time for the 1964 presidential elections.

"And they only had a year to do it, and they did it. They built bridges that were supposed to be built in two years in nine months," said Andrew Plummer, transportation historian.

Another amazing feat came while building the complex interchange at 1st Avenue and Archer.

"They had to move, not a lot, but they had to move the Des Plaines River to have room to build that interchange at Rt. 171," Plummer said. "They built the thing up on a hill and basically took the old river bed and moved it up to the north so they would have the room to do that."

In more recent history, the Stevenson was completely rebuilt from the Dan Ryan to the Tri-State, reopening in 2000. Let's see if it lasts another 34 years.

Although Lake Shore Drive isn't technically an expressway, it gets honorable mention because people use it like one and because of its colorful history. Lake Shore Drive began to take shape in the 1880s, courtesy of Potter Palmer, who pushed for a plan to create a scenic drive from Lincoln Park, past his mansion, south to Oak Street. In 1893, the World Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park shows potential for development along the south shore. The 1920s saw the development of Grant Park, Soldier Field and Northerly Island. In 1933, the Century of Progress Fair led the way for the southern extension of Lake Shore Drive, while the north end extends from Belmont to Foster. In 1955, the final north extension was built from Foster to Hollywood.

If you were around in the 1980s, you may remember the original "S" curve on Lake Shore Drive around the Chicago River, and the horrible traffic delays it created. This was the result of having north and south Lake Shore Drive built by two separate park districts at that time.

"In 1938, if I recall, they decided that the two should meet, but because they were built by two different park districts, they didn't line up very well at all. And when they went to connect them across the Chicago River, they had to have them meet somehow. And it was cheaper to build it out, than in," Plummer said.

It took nearly 50 years, but in the mid-80s the infamous "S" curve was softened. There were other changes to Lake Shore Drive along the years. Remember how it looked before the Museum Campus? It split at the Field Museum and reconnected near McCormick Place. In 1996, a major reconfiguration put all lanes west of the museums. Fast forward to the blizzard of 2011. That forced more changes on the iconic roadway, with crews installing two moveable barriers in the center median, giving drivers an escape route in extreme weather.

Like many of Chicago's expressways, Lake Shore Drive was also built in segments. When it was expanded north from Foster to Hollywood in the 1950s, the landfill included rubble and debris from the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway.

More info:

"Chicago's Lake Shore Drive" by Neal Samors and Bernard Judge.

Andrew Plummer's website: