Essay: Chicago’s deadly streets in the late 19th and early 20th century

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Essay: Chicago’s deadly streets in the late 19th and early 20th century

On the evening of March 9, 1903, Maria Stanton wanted to cross Clark Street at Goethe Street, on the edge of Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the enclave of many of the city’s richest families.

A household servant in her early thirties, she was plainly dressed in a heavy brown blouse and skirt of rough material and a dark blue jacket. Her only jewelry were a pair of plain gold crescent earrings. In her pocketbook, she carried $1.50, the equivalent of about $25 today.

Stepping off the western curb, she started across the pavement, only to look up and see a crowded cable train bearing down on her.  The Chicago Tribune reported:

Bystanders said the victim started to cross Clark street toward the east, immediately behind a south bound train. As she stepped on the other tracks she found herself a few feet from a north bound Lincoln avenue train. She paused, looked back, and saw another car approaching from the north, shutting off retreat.

The gripman rang the gongs and the passengers shouted, but the dazed woman still stood motionless on the tracks while the north bound Lincoln avenue train struck her and knocked her down. She fell forward and the fender passed over her body.

The Tribune noted that “many people were drawn to the corner by the cries of the woman.”

 

A dicey venture

At the turn of the 19th century, Chicago’s streets were often a dicey venture. Cutting and weaving across a street amid all the animals, vehicles and humans, without getting hit by a cable train was a risky business, and riding on one could be hazardous as well.

Chicago cable car expert Greg Borzo writes that cable train accidents were far from commonplace and rarely fatal. Still, the sorts of safety protections that present-day Americans take for granted weren’t in place in this era.

In 1888, the Hyde Park Herald provided a terse report about what Borzo describes as a typical accident: “Mrs. Thos. Otis was thrown from the cable car last Saturday by the sudden starting of the car and very severely bruised. She will be confined to the house for several weeks.”

The Chicago Tribune gave big play to major service disruptions on the cable lines, such as an 1888 article headlined: “Thousands Have to Walk — The North Side Loop Cable Breaks at the Worst Time.” The page-one story explained that 25,000 commuters were stranded when a North Chicago City Railway train “slipped a cog, or a pawl, or an eccentric or something or other and the cable broke.”

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The front-page headlines were even more sensational when cable problems resulted in collisions and accidents:

  • “Thrown from a Cable Train — Four Men Injured in Accident on a Down-Town Loop” (1893).
  • “Cable Wreck Hurts Nine — Misplaced Switch Causes Collision in State Street” (1900).
  • “Car Crash Hurts Women — Four Injured When Crowded Trains Collide Down-Town” (1901).

Each cable car was a ton of metal and wood rumbling down the tracks, and most Chicagoans grew adept at getting onto and off the cars, moving from one car to another and, as pedestrians, maneuvering around moving cable trains. Still, everyone knew that one slip or a moment of inattention could be deadly.

For instance, in June, 1888, William Burtrass, a South Side machinist, attempted to step from one car of a Chicago City Railway to another. He stumbled, fell under the wheels and was fatally injured.

 

The threat of sudden death

This was an period In Chicago and in the United States when the threat of sudden violent accidental death in factories, on construction sites, in tunnels, amid giant machines and on city streets was a routine, albeit regrettable, part of daily existence. Laws and government agencies aimed at protecting workers and others were, for the most part, many decades in the future.

Yet, even when laws were enacted, they weren’t always followed. One egregious example were the railroads which rumbled through every neighborhood of the city at grade level. Since there were few gates or signalmen to block cross traffic, an unwary pedestrian or wagon driver courted injury or death.

If the stranger’s first impression of Chicago is that of the barbarous gridironed streets, his second is that of the multitude of mutilated people whom he meets on crutches….The railroads which cross the city at the level in every direction, although limited by statute and ordinance as to speed, constantly mow down unoffending citizens at the crossings, and those legless, armless men and women whom you meet on the streets are merely the mangled remnant of the massacre that is constantly going on year in and year out.

Thus thundered William T. Stead, a pioneering English investigative journalist, in his 1894 book If Christ Came to Chicago, an expose of the city’s political corruption and black market.

(If Christ Came to Chicago is one of the best books ever written about the city, depicting with verve and immediacy the lives of Chicagoans overlooked by other writers of the time, including the lower classes, ward politicians, prostitutes and saloon keepers. In contrast to 21st century investigative reporters, Stead, like many others in his time, was motivated by his religious beliefs. The second half of the book is an extended sermon, but the first half is as good as or better than How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Stead died in 1912 in the sinking of the Titanic.)

 

The difference was speed

Madame Leon Grandin, a Parisian woman who lived in Chicago for a year in the early 1890s, wrote of arriving in the city by train:

Every now and then, the train cut through a street filled with carriages and pedestrians. With no barriers to protect them, they all simply moved back as the train approached; the railroad tracks are as unprotected as those of the streetcars and the locomotive’s bell is the only warning that alerts people to get out of the way.

The difference, though, was speed. The fastest a cable car could go was 14 miles an hour (and half that in the central business district). By ordinance, the railroad trains were supposed to observe a ten-mile-an-hour speed limit. But, to stay on time, some trains had to travel more than triple that rate,

“Railroad companies not only disregarded this speed limit, they announced their guilt ahead of time by publishing schedules requiring faster speeds,” writes historian Arnold Lewis. An 1887 investigation found that most trains had to travel at least 20 miles an hour — and, on at least one regular run, 35 miles an hour — between stops to stay on schedule.

According to Stead, there were an annual average of 340 people — nearly one a day — killed by trains on Chicago streets during a five-year period:

  • 1889 — 257 killed
  • 1890 — 294 killed
  • 1891 — 323 killed
  • 1892 — 394 killed
  • 1893 — 431 killed

The railroads were able to get away with such carnage, in part, because they were so important to Chicago’s economy.

 

“The intricate cogs of the city”

In addition, these deaths occurred in the context of a city and an American urban culture that was riding the crest of a wave of constant radical change. The attitude of the era, as summed up by Lewis, was: “The intricate cogs of the city must turn; let the user beware.”

Upton Sinclair’s 1909 novel The Jungle is perhaps the most vivid description from that age of the way machines, profit and processes ground up, sometimes literally, individual human beings. One of the most striking and disgusting scenes in the book comes at the end of Chapter 9:

Worst of any, however, were the fertilizer men, and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor,—for the odor of a fertilizer man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards, and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!

Lewis notes:

Regardless of how we identify the causes — progress, economic expansion, or the “go-ahead” mentality — they speeded up Chicago’s daily life, which, in turn, increased the likelihood of accidents and deaths on the job and in the streets. In this respect Chicago was again the Western world’s most dramatic clarifier of unintended consequences of progress.

Patrick T. Reardon

10.21.16

 

NOTE:  This essay is an excerpt from a book on the untold story of the impact of the elevated Loop upon the stability and development of Chicago that I am in the process of writing.

 

 

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