Ask Chicagoist: What's With the Highway Names?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Feb 20, 2007 3:30PM

Dear Chicagoist,

I know I'd probably know the answer to this if I grew up in Illinois and had to sit through some local history course in grade school, but I can't help that I'm a transplant. My question is, what's up with the alternate names for the highways here? Who is Dan Ryan and Stevenson and those other guys? And why can't I ever remember which is which when I'm listening to the traffic reports?

Disoriented

2007_02_askhighways.gifGreetings, Disoriented!

Don't feel bad; we didn't grow up here either, and we've never thought to figure out who's who. After a while the monikers of the not-so-aptly-named expressways seem to become less actual names and more just nouns to describe where we're going to get stuck in traffic while deluding ourselves into thinking we can actually make it out of the city in less than an hour to start our vacation.

We think that Chicagoans like to refer to the names rather than the numbers as much as possible, especially during traffic reports, in order to completely confuse unwitting cross-country travelers as they squint at their maps (which of course don't define what the Dan Ryan is), wondering why exactly they thought going through Chicago was the best way to get to Aunt Gertrude's in Kansas.

Either way, the names have stuck, and we all use them once we've decoded them. But our commentary aside, you wrote because you want to know who these people are who warrant Abby Ryan talking about them at breakfast every day.

The Dan Ryan "runs from the Circle Interchange with I-290 near downtown Chicago, Illinois through the south side of the city. It is signposted as both Interstate 90 and Interstate 94 north of 66th Street and only Interstate 94 from 66th Street to 99th Street." It opened in 1962 and was named after Cook County Board President Dan Ryan Jr., who had died the previous year. During the initial construction of the highway, it was generally conceded that the location was chosen in order to "reinforce Chicago's racial boundaries ... [forming] a more effective barrier between the largely black South Side ghetto and the largely white working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport to the west."

The Stevenson, I-55, refers to former one-term Illinois governor (he was elected in 1948) Adlai E. Stevenson II. The highway opened in 1964, Stevenson died in 1965, and the highway was named after him right after that. Stevenson also ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower two times (and obviously lost), and, more successfully, was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1961 until he died.

Speaking of Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Expressway, or I-290, was, of course, named after former president Dwight Eisenhower. As a result, we tend to shorten the name of the expressway to the Ike. You might also hear it called the Congress Expressway, after the street downtown that the highway turns into. The expressway first opened in 1955.

The Edens Expressway is I-94 running north from the city, and opened in 1951, making it the very first expressway in Chicago. We'll let you decide if that's a blessing or a curse. The road was named after William Edens, a Chicago banker who was in charge of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, advocated paved roads, but apparently never actually drove a car.

In 1996, the Bishop Ford Freeway was named after Chicago religious activist and apostle of the National Church of God in Christ, Bishop Louis Henry Ford. The freeway itself is a portion of I-94 which "runs from Interstate 57 south to the intersection with Interstate 80, Interstate 294 (Tri-State Tollway) and Illinois Route 394."

We're only going to mention the Kennedy Expressway to tell you that it's I-90, and opened in 1960. We think you can figure out for yourself who it's named after. It used to be called (and again, you might still hear this from time to time) the Northwest Expressway, but was dedicated to JFK in 1963 following his assassination.

As for why you can't keep all of these names straight, we can only insist that with practice and hours spent dealing with construction delays, you too will soon know the difference between a Bishop Ford and a Stevenson. Trust us.

Chicago Interstates Map via Marvin01.

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