December 15, 1955
The Congress Expressway opens
A new highway makes it easier to enter the city. It also makes it easier to leave.
The Congress Street Expressway under construction in 1953. The view is looking west from the main post office. The highway made it easier to enter and exit the city. (Tribune photo by George Quinn)
With that, a ceremonial ribbon was scissored and a 4 1/2-mile stretch of what was christened the Congress Street Expressway was opened to traffic. Ryan's name later would be given to another Chicago "superhighway" that would run south from downtown. In the coming years, a network of expressways and tollways would radiate out from the central city and stretch across far-flung suburban regions that were little more than cropland.Although other parts of the new, divided-lane highway system were already open in outlying areas, this newest segment was the first portion close to downtown, and it was the first significant step toward the realization of Daniel Burnham's proposal for a major thoroughfare along the path of Congress Street, which had been part of his 1909 plan for Chicago. To build the $183 million expressway, hundreds of buildings had to be razed, 3,000 graves in two cemeteries had to be relocated, and a tunnel had to be knocked through the base of the main post office near Canal Street. Fortunately, the massive building had been designed to accommodate the right of way.
The expressway system relieved congestion, at least temporarily, on neighboring streets, and it greatly shortened travel times for cross-city trips. But it also opened vast tracts of outlying farmland to commercial and residential development. Established city neighborhoods fractured as former city residents filled up the suburban developments that sprawled across the landscape. Some critics have maintained that the expressway system also divided the city in places by separating black and white neighborhoods.
In 1955, such concerns lay in the future. Chief Michael Ahern of the Chicago police's traffic division had more immediate problems in mind. "It's an expressway, but not a speedway," he declared. A 45 m.p.h. speed limit would be "strictly enforced." Within a few weeks, a 17-year-old motorist was pinched for doing 90 m.p.h.
The final segment of the expressway opened in late 1960. Chicago being a political town, many of the area's expressways are named for local or national politicians: Ryan, President John F. Kennedy, Illinois Gov. and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. In January 1964, the Congress was renamed for the president who had created the interstate highway system of which it was a part-- Dwight D. Eisenhower.