Local author Patrick T. Reardon is an expert on many aspects of Chicago history. As an investigative reporter, feature writer, columnist, and editor with the Chicago Tribune for 32 years, he found his writing about the city took him to almost every neighborhood and suburb in Chicagoland. It was while researching one of those stories that he was asked by an editor when “the Loop” started being used to describe the downtown area. Finding the answer to that question became the subject of his most recently published book, “The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago.”
On May 4, Mr. Reardon shared his knowledge about the significance of the downtown Loop area with the Levy Lecture crowd. He said he believes that the elevated Loop is “the single most important structure in the history of Chicago.”
The Loop overwhelms one’s senses: visual shadows created by steel girders, cacophonous sounds coming from “four hundred thousand pounds of moving steel above our heads,” and physical strength represented by countless steel plates and rivets. The Loop is not an elegant structure the way the Brooklyn Bridge is a graceful link between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but it is quintessentially representative of Chicago.
The elevated train system helped to unite the city of Chicago in several ways. It provided easy and fast access from North Side, South Side, and West Side neighborhoods to a centrally located section. The elevated Loop created a boundary of sorts for the 39 square blocks within it, an area that became concentrated with wealth and commerce.
Workers flooded high rise office buildings and City Hall during the weekdays; theaters, department stores, restaurants, and hotels filled the sidewalks with people looking to be entertained at night and on the weekends.
The center of the city, the intersection of State and Madison Streets, is within the Loop and helped to define a uniform house numbering system for the city in the earliest years of the 20th century. Previously North, South, and West side neighborhoods each had their own house numbering system.
The elevated train system was the third or fourth iteration of public transportation within Chicago. The first was literally based on horse power: in 1859, the Illinois legislature had incorporated three companies to implement a system of horse-drawn carriages in the North, South, and Western neighborhoods.
The horse-drawn carriages were effective, but the hundreds of horses need to pull the carriages created thousands of pounds of manure and gallons of horse urine every day, which drastically increased the public’s exposure to air pollution, filth, disease, and odors. Horse carriages were replaced by cable cars and trolley cars, and as the 19th century drew to a close, by elevated trains.
Two people more than any other should be remembered for their role in envisioning and building the structure that is the Loop: Charles Tyson Yerkes, a visionary urban planner and creatively corrupt financier who revolutionized the public transportation systems of Chicago and London; and John Alexander Low Waddell, the “engineering genius and international bridge builder” who designed Chicago’s elevated train system.
Both men were extraordinarily successful in their chosen professions, yet neither are widely known by the public for what they accomplished that was truly wonderful in Chicago.
Charles Yerkes was well known, but only pejoratively. He has a deservedly notorious reputation among Chicago historians. He was corrupt, litigious, and unscrupulous. He bribed others liberally and frequently, and generally played the game of dirty politics better than those with whom he was forced to negotiate.
Mr. Reardon describes several of Mr. Yerkes’ power plays quite vividly, but what stands out are two game changing decisions, without which the history and development of Chicago would have been very different from what we know today.
The first momentous decision was that Mr. Yerkes hired Mr. Waddell as the engineer to design and build what would become Chicago’s new elevated train system. The second momentous decision was he insisted that steel and other materials be purchased for the elevated train system must adhere to the engineering quality standards mandated by Mr. Waddell.
Mr. Yerkes may have been despicable in any number of ways, but what is indisputable is the brilliant leadership he brought to urban planning and public transportation in Chicago. He envisioned a plan and found a way to make it happen.
Key to making his vision happen was hiring the person, Mr. Waddell, who understood the technical requirements of the job. John Waddell made his name as a young, brilliant, innovative bridge builder. He built bridges all over the United States and in many foreign countries, and was decorated with medals by the governments of Japan, Russia, Italy, and China as a way to honor him and acknowledge his skill. He wrote two textbooks on bridge building, and the first one, “The Design of Ordinary Iron Highway Bridges,” was used as a textbook all over the world.
At some point, Mr. Yerkes and Wadell recognized that the elevated train system Chicago needed was nothing more than a series of connected bridges.
In preparation for working on Chicago’s elevated train system, Mr. Waddell visited Boston and New York to study the elevated trains in both cities. He wrote a lengthy report and listed in great detail the mistakes, or what he called “grave errors,” of design and construction he had observed.
His design of the Chicago system, inaugurated in 1897, made certain to omit those flaws. He insisted on specific requirements for the quality of the steel, the number of rivets used, and the position of lateral bracing. This attention to detail paid off, because in 2021, nearly 125 years later, approximately 75% of the original structures remain today, says James Harper, the current chief engineer of the Chicago Transit Authority.
Mr. Waddell’s designs for the construction and maintenance of the Loop are so precise that they are still referenced daily by CTA engineers.
“The Loop” is filled with fascinating stories and personalities, brought vividly to life by Mr. Reardon. Ninety minutes with the Levy Lecture audience was not nearly long enough to touch on all of them, but it was enough to whet appetites and spur book purchases. Interested readers may watch the lecture on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.