These demands by the movers and shakers who lived in the South, however, fell on deaf ears across the river in the city’s North and West Divisions, whose residents had no stomach for paying the higher taxes needed to protect what they saw as the private investments of whom they already considered to be some of Chicago’s richest families.  This sectional jealousy played right into the hands of the IC that was looking for a way to politically circumvent the covenant protecting the lakeshore.  While the covenant strictly declared that no building or obstruction could be built on the ground along the lakefront, no one in 1836 had conceived that there would ever be any need for anyone to propose to build anything in the lake, away from the lakefront.  Although such an idea ran counter to the spirit of the covenant, there seemed to be no legal prohibition of construction in the lake.  Therefore, on October 16, 1851, the IC eventually proposed to council to do just that: to build a trestle in the lake to carry their tracks from 12th Street to the Fort Dearborn reservation: the “lakefront” would not be built upon, thereby respecting the letter of the covenant.  The proposal would have the added advantage for the IC of not requiring any private land to be purchased within the city limits at inflated values, although this savings would be somewhat offset by the cost of constructing the trestle (which needed to be built anyway because the land was so marshy due to its proximity to the lake).  To sweeten the pot for Common Council, the IC volunteered to build the breakwater needed to stop the erosion along Michigan Avenue (that would be needed anyway for the construction of the trestle).  All that the railroad asked for in return was to be able to place its trestle and puffing locomotives in the lake, directly in front of the majestic, unbroken view of Lake Michigan that the Michigan Avenue residents had understood was to remain forever unobstructed when they had originally purchased their property.  But this restriction of no buildings along the lakefront pertained only as far south as 12th Street; the trains still had to be able to make their way on land up to this point, and here is where Stephen Douglas’ real estate foresight and political clout became manifest.

Councilmen from the North and West Divisions were obviously inclined to vote in favor of the proposal, taking the bait of the solution offered to the erosion problem without the need of raising and expending any public funds.  This solution would also have the added benefit of causing no interruption whatsoever to the business district’s street traffic (the argument that Council had used to defend its decision to keep the MS’s terminal farther to the south at Van Buren).  The city’s elite who resided along S. Michigan Avenue, including Norman Judd, the attorney for the Michigan Southern, however, were incredulous that anyone could even consider the idea that the “city’s” view of the lake could be so irreparably disfigured by the interests of a private company.  The IC, however, had its own powerful and influential friends that came to the support of the proposal.  Rep. Wentworth, who was also the publisher of the Daily Democrat,owned a fortieth of the IC’s stock, but the one who obviously stood to cash in big time if the IC’s proposal was approved was Douglas.  Therefore, two of Chicago’s most powerful political celebrities had very significant personal financial stakes in the IC’s lakefront proposal.  Douglas did all he could to help the cause and Wentworth printed daily editorials supporting the issue, quoting the same arguments he had used so successfully in Washington a year earlier: the railroad would bring fresher produce, more jobs, and economic growth.  In addition, the proposed lakefront entry would solve the lakefront erosion problem at no cost to the taxpayers. 

To generate enthusiasm and muster support, the IC held simultaneous groundbreaking ceremonies in Chicago and Cairo on December 23, 1851.  This action also complied with the letter of its charter requiring construction to begin by January 1, 1852, even though it had no practical value, for Roswell Mason had yet to complete his estimate in order to invite bids by contractors.  The staged construction ceremonies were simply a symbolic public relations event, meant to sway the minds of Chicago’s citizens and their reluctant council representatives.  The interests of the North and West (and those of Douglas and Wentworth) prevailed and on December 29, 1851, Council approved with a vote of 10-6, an ordinance that gave the IC a tract of land in the lake defined as a 300′ width that ran from Randolph to 22nd Street.  In order to avoid any conflict with the lakefront covenant, the closest edge of the IC property was located 400′ east of the west side of Michigan Avenue.  The battle then grew more intense as Mayor Gurnee vetoed the ordinance two days later, offering the specious defense that he was trying to prevent the two lines from forging a bypass of Chicago altogether.  In reality, politics in Chicago are seldom this straightforward, and indeed, this proved to be the case with the IC tracks.  Mayor Gurnee happened to be one of the city’s powerbrokers who resided on S. Michigan Avenue, on the southwest corner of Michigan and Monroe, and his neighbors were those who had bought their lots because of the guaranteed unobstructed view of Lake Michigan.  His action might not have been appreciated across the river, but City Hall was in the South Division, and at least when he walked home along Michigan Avenue, his neighbors would still talk to him.  However, cries of sell-out to the rich rose from those across the river, while those with financial ties to the IC and MC, including Douglas and Wentworth, accused Gurnee of being in league with his neighbor, Judd’s MS.  Whether or not he was financially involved in the decision, it must be admitted that his veto threw another roadblock into the path of the MC, giving the MS more time to complete its tracks into the city.

Following the New Year’s holiday, Common Council overrode the veto on January 2, 1852, and the resolution was sent to the IC management in New York for its final approval.  Schuyler accepted the offer and sent word to Mason to commence work on the line into Chicago from Lake Calumet to where the MC had illegally built (at its own cost), as soon as the weather would permit.  During the time it took the resolution to get to New York, however, Chicago’s leaders had undergone a change in heart and three days later, on January 5, had voted a compromise proposal that was not as favorable to the IC, but satisfied the concerns of the south side and the mayor.  When word of the change reached New York, the IC management simply chose to ignore it, assuming that its own supporters would eventually succeed in getting what the company wanted but told Mason to stand down in the meanwhile.  Forbes was so frustrated by the IC’s inaction that he was forced to capitulate and sign a second, albeit secret agreement with the IC on February 7, 1852, in which the IC agreed to complete the Chicago branch, connecting with the track that Forbes had illegally built in Illinois toward Joliet, while Forbes grudgingly agreed to quietly buy $2,000,000 more of IC bonds to help finance the construction of the IC line south of Chicago to Centralia.

The Routes into Chicago of the Michigan Southern, the Michigan Central, the Rock Island, and the Illinois Central: 1851-56. You can follow the tracks of the MS as they hug the lakefront until they hit the Illinois border. At this point Farnam kept going straight, veering away from the lakefront until at Englewood, he was directly in line with La Salle Street. He then laid tracks north to the south side of Jackson Street. He had built a defensive ring around the downtown, hoping to force the MC/IC to enter downtown on the western side of the south branch. The IC had other plans, however, that forced the railroad to breech the MS tracks somewhere in order to reach the lakefront. This intersection quickly became known as Grand Crossing, site of a number of accidents.

While all this bickering was taking place, Farnam had continued laying track towards Chicago, with the first MS train arriving at the city limits on February 20, 1852.  Eleven days later, on March 2, (the MC was forced to wait another agonizing two months) the municipal election became a plebiscite on the IC lakefront proposal.  Although Mayor Gurnee was re-elected, the council elected was more favorable to letting the railroad pay for the breakwater.  Thus, the IC felt comfortable that it could finally start construction without worrying that Common Council would throw another wrench into its plans and on March 15, Mason wasted no time in telling his Chicago superintendent to immediately advertise for construction bids on the portion of the track that started at Kensington where the MC tracks had stopped in Illinois.  Meanwhile, the MC finally began construction of its track from Kensington towards Chicago’s southern border. The MS attempted to further stall its completion, however, by denying a request by the MC to construct a crossing through the defensive perimeter of the MS’s tracks around the Loop, requiring instead the construction of an expensive and time-consuming overpass. To enforce its intention, the MS posted guards along its track in the suspected area of intersection.  This maneuver proved to be inconsequential, for one night an MC crew overpowered an MS guard and by morning a new crossing had breached the MS’s tracks at 76th and Woodlawn. This location would become known as Grand Crossing, scene of many close encounters between locomotives of the rival companies.  

Grand Crossing, 76th and Woodlawn, Chicago. (Chicagology)


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Brownson, Howard Gray. History of the Illinois Central Railroad to 1870. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1915.

Gilbert, Paul T., and Charles L. Bryson. Chicago and Its Makers. Chicago: F. Mendelsohn, 1929.

Harlow, Alvin F. The Road of the Century. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.

Johnson, Arthur and Barry E. Supple. Boston Capitalists and the Western Railroads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Mack, Edwin F. Old Monroe Street: Notes on the Monroe Street of Early Chicago Days. Chicago: Central Trust Company, 1914.

McLellan, David and Bill Warrick. The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway. Polo:Transportation Trails, 1989.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– 2. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

Young, David M. The Iron Horse and the Windy City. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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