8.6 CONSTRUCTING THE IC BREAKWATER AND TRESTLE

The Illinois Central Complex, looking southwest from the station. Note the construction of the breakwater: a timber crib filled with large stones. (Jevni & Almini, Chicago Illustrated)
The Illinois Central’s Trestle in Lake Michigan. This is the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Springfield parked on the IC trestle during the memorial service at City Hall on May 2, 1865. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

On May 21, 1852, the MC’s route was completed to the city limits and the first MC construction train pulled into a temporary depot on the lakeshore, south of 22th Street.  For this to have occurred, the IC would have obviously had to purchase the 200’ wide right-of-way along the lakefront from 35th to 22nd from Douglas that it did for the handsome sum of $21,310.  However, construction had halted here because the city still had not yet approved the railroad’s conditions in its petition for permission to build tracks within the city limits.  Eventually enough council votes were procured so that a veto-proof majority approved the IC proposal on June 14, 1852, giving the IC the right-of-way to place its tracks in Lake Michigan.  

In September 1852, construction commenced at 12th Street, where a temporary depot had been constructed in the meanwhile on the southeast corner of Michigan and 13th, of the IC’s breakwater that consisted of a twelve-foot-wide timber crib, made with 12x12s laid horizontally upon one another, that was filled with stone and kept in place with timber piles driven into the lakebed at ten-foot intervals.   This preceded the erection of the timber trestle in the lake, upon which the tracks would take the trains to their final destination at the mouth of the river.  Therefore, while the city got the breakwater that would slow down the erosion of the lakefront along Michigan Avenue and also created a lagoon that at times provided quite pleasant recreation, and at other times, was the repository for the rotting carcasses of dead animals, the railroad for its initial expenses of the breakwater and trestle got the free and unencumbered use of the lakefront that it needed to bring its trains to the mouth of the river, next to the site of old Fort Dearborn.  

The Fort Dearborn Reservation and the IC Railroad Station. (Above) Before construction of the station: landfill almost completed with a temporary station at the foot of S. Water St. (Below) After the construction of the station. (Chicago Historical Society)

In the meantime, the IC had also finally managed to acquire the fort’s reservation from the Federal government on October 14, 1852, for the relatively inconsequential sum of $45,000.  (Thus began the long-standing litigation between the IC and the city over this land.  The IC argued that the fort’s reservation was to be included in the original Federal landgrant bill.  As the Fort Dearborn land was under the jurisdiction of the General Land Office, Chicago lawyer Justin Butterfield, who had been appointed by Whig Pres. Taylor as its Commissioner, somewhat surprisingly rejected this interpretation of Democrat Douglas’ IC landgrant bill.  However, Butterfield suffered a stroke and was replaced in Sept. 1852 with a more “sympathetic” individual who approved the sale of reservation to the IC for the “compromise sum.”  Douglas and Wentworth had smoothed the route of the IC once again.  Nonetheless, the IC would continue to litigate the issue during the foreseeable future.) The purchase agreement also allowed the company to extend its breakwater north of Randolph another 775′ farther east into Lake Michigan, that when backfilled, gave the railroad a very large tract of land upon which to build.  The IC Station to be built here was planned to be not only one of the nation’s largest, dwarfing that of the MS’s, but also, at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars, one of its most expensive stations. 

The Illinois Central Complex, 1858. Looking northeast from Michigan Avenue. (Jevni & Almini, Chicago Illustrated)
Otto Matz, the Illinois Central Station, S. Water Street Elevation, 1855. (Jevni & Almini, Chicago Illustrated)

FURTHER READING:

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.

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch,    1942.

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

Lewis, Lloyd and Henry Justin Smith. Chicago: The History of its Reputation.  New York: Blue Ribbon, 1929.

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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