By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
In 1910 Mrs. Homer Hibbard looked back at the early days of our community, her thoughts captured in a book prepared for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church. “Fifty years ago Hyde Park was a cluster of scattered houses, less than a score, dropped down among the oak trees. There was no store, no post office, no market, and a single passenger car on the Illinois Central, three times a day, was the only connection with the city except Purcell’s ox-cart, which served as an express to bring from the city barrels of flour and groceries.”
Understanding that travel by ox-cart would not be the key to the success of his fledgling development, Paul Cornell negotiated a strategic alliance with the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1851 the railroad was chartered to build a line beginning in southern Illinois with a branch to Chicago. Initially, the route was planned to pass west of Hyde Park along Halsted Street and near the Chicago River. However, the Chicago City Council insisted the right of way be near the lakefront and that the railway build a breakwater from 51st Street north in order to protect the shoreline from erosion.
The railway surveyors planned the tracks to pass through virgin prairie and woodlands northward toward the site of Nathan and Electa Watson’s tavern at 53rd Street, then continuing along the lakefront to the city. In 1853 Nathan Watson’s widow sold the tavern and the adjacent acreage to Hyde Park’s founding father, Paul Cornell. The Illinois Central needed to make a deal with Cornell, and he was no doubt elated at the prospect—the railroad would greatly increase the value of his land. In return for his deeding sixty acres to the railroad, the Illinois Central agreed to open a station at 53rd Street and run daily passenger trains between the city and his holdings.
The inaugural train ran on June 1, 1856, reportedly without a single paying passenger. “The Hyde Park train made its first trip today,” telegraphed railroad agent John B. Calhoun; “nary a passenger up or down.” According to a paper read to the Chicago Historical Society on February 20, 1883, the President of the Illinois Central William K. Ackerman recalled several nonrevenue riders on the initial trip. Aboard were dignitaries including H. L. Robinson, the conductor and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, Mayor Thomas Dyer, probate judge Hon. William T. Barron, (who will return to our story in a most sobering way), Charles Cleaver, the founder of Cleaverville, attorneys Perkins Bass and Junius Mulvey, and of course Paul Cornell.
Regular service on the new suburban service began on July 21, 1856, with four trains running as far south as 56th Street daily (except Sunday), at a fare of seven and a half cents. Ridership was good during the summer months, however by September traffic was low on the “Hyde Park Special,” and the trains leaving Central Station at 6:00 a.m. and returning from Hyde Park at 6:30 a.m. were discontinued.
Although Kenwood was developing with estates of 8 to 10 acres about this very time, Cornell vigorously objected to any establishment of stations between the city and his Hyde Park. Kenwood’s most prominent settler, Dr. Jonathan Kennicott, had a house and magnificent gardens on a high ridge at what is now Dorchester and 48th Street. Kennicott had made no secret of his displeasure at having to walk the several blocks to the Hyde Park train station, especially in inclement weather, to get to his downtown office. Yet Cornell’s wishes held firm.
That all changed when the vice-president of the railroad, General George B. McClellan, paid a visit to the Kennicott home in the summer of 1859. There was a downpour that day, and the roads were mud-filled. There were of course no sidewalks at the time, so McClellan ordered the train to stop opposite Dr. Kennicott’s property, instead of continuing to the Hyde Park station. The following day McClellan issued an order establishing a station at Mason Street (47th Street), calling it Kenwood Station.
Although Cornell’s enclave began to grow after he opened a first class hotel, his development did not proceed without problems. Initial ridership was so low on the Illinois Central that the railroad threatened to discontinue the local service altogether. During the winter of 1861 Cornell wrote a confidential, impassioned plea to William H. Osborn, then president of the Illinois Central, giving reasons why the railroad was “duty bound” to keep running the trains. Cornell wrote that at the time he “exhibited the plans of the Hyde Park House” he would not “build it unless you would agree that the train should be permanent + should afford all the accommodations that it then did + at the same rate of fair.. . . . You said you had no doubt the train would be permanent and that you would agree if the House was built as per plans, the Hyde Park train should run full as often as it then did + probably oftener.” Cornell proved persuasive and succeeded in saving this vital link from his development to the city center.
Kenwood and Hyde Park continued their slow growth, and many who chose to settle here did so because of the easy commute to their downtown offices. The professional men of the neighborhood would congregate at small clapboard stations to catch an early morning train to the city. However, travel on the rails was not without incident. On a cold, snow-covered Thursday morning in January 1862, a group waited at the Kenwood Station to board the 7:50 while three cars of wood were attached to the passenger and baggage cars.
Their train was then about 18 minutes late when, as passengers began to settle aboard, a tragic accident took place. Just as the Illinois Central train was about to depart, a Cincinnati Express train rounded a slight bend in the tracks at a high speed. Although the engineer saw the unexpected danger, reversed the engine and blew the alarm, there was just not enough time before he slammed into the departing train.
According to a New York Times article, the passenger coach was torn into splinters by the force of the collision, resulting in the instant death of one of the passengers and severe injuries to several others. While some escaped without a single scratch by jumping from the train at the moment of the first alarm, the most seriously wounded were a who’s who of Hyde Park. The names, with the extent for their injuries were listed in the paper:
JAMES P. ROOT, attorney-at-law, of this city, injured about the breast, externally and internally; not dangerously.
SAMUEL C.P. BOGUE, clerk in the Merchants’ Dispatch Agency of this city, leg broken and severe cuts. He was the most seriously wounded of those who were hurt, but the physicians think he will recover.
HASSAN A. HOPKINS, trustee of Hyde Park, injured about the head, and badly bruised about the body and leg.
JOHN REMMER, clerk in the Superintendent’s office of the Illinois Central Railroad, slightly bruised.
JAMES BROWN, engineer of the Cincinnati express train, two ribs broken.
MALCOLM PACKARD, bruised in the face, and left leg cut.
CHARLES HITCHCOCK, attorney at law, slightly bruised.
Others were scratched or slightly bruised, but it is believed that the above list comprises all that were seriously injured. Although some of the wounded are hurt to a considerable extent, all will recover from their injuries.
Judge William T. Barron, a rider aboard the inaugural Hyde Park Special, was not so lucky. The judge was inside the northbound commuter train conversing with another gentleman, when they heard the whistle of the oncoming locomotive. Both rushed to the rear door, in hopes of reaching the platform before the trains met. Barron’s attempt was in vain; the moment he attempted to exit the engine struck.
His body was carried with the crashing woodwork, but according to the Chicago Tribune it was the sight of Barron’s head “hurled through the air . . . still quivering in some of its lineaments” that provided the greatest shock to all. The head was entirely severed from the body, and thrown into the new-fallen snow at the feet of his colleague, while his “terribly mangled” body was carried along with the portions of the car.
It was written that Barron was comparatively a young man, between thirty and forty years of age, and universally esteemed by all who had dealings with him. He left no family to mourn his loss.
In the ensuing decades Hyde Park and Kenwood continued their growth, but it was not until 1892 that major changes came to the Illinois Central, as a result of the selection of Chicago as the site for the Columbian Exposition. For the fair the railroad purchased forty-one new locomotives, raised the grade level of the railroad bed to provide cross streets with a clear flow of traffic, and erected new station facilities. These significant improvements to the rail service had a tremendous physical impact on the community. In particular, the raised grade level divided the community, and over time the section adjacent to the lake would become known as East Hyde Park. In all, the railroad company made substantial improvements that enabled it to transport an estimated four million passengers to and from the world’s fair.
On May 1, 1893, the opening day of the exposition, the Illinois Central put its world’s fair cars into use for the first time. The seats each held five people and were arranged crosswise within the car, while canvas curtains covered the openings for protection against the rain. The exits were at either end of the car, enabling travelers to step off quickly when the train came to a stop. Judge Barron would no doubt have appreciated this improvement.
Time passed and the Hyde Park community continued to thrive; its population grew as the national economy prospered. After the First World War ended improvement of Chicago’s infrastructure witnessed the construction of airports, bridges, and roads. For Hyde Park the improvements included a vast project on the lakefront – the extension of the parks planned by Daniel Burnham in 1909. Yet the project was held up by numerous lawsuits brought by the Illinois Central. You may recall the City Council insisted the railroad build along the lakefront, thereby giving the company riparian rights for the land from 12th Street south to East 50th Street. After a series of lengthy lawsuits was settled, the Illinois Central agreed to give up its rights to the lakefront in exchange for a terminal at 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road).
With these matters mostly settled, in 1912 the South Park Board began condemnation proceedings against all other lakefront property owners to compel them to release their riparian rights. In Hyde Park these included a fisherman’s shack at the foot of East 50th that the Illinois Central took over after the owner’s death. The stretch from 51st to 53rd had been given to the city by Paul Cornell to be used in perpetuity for a public park; 53rd Street to 54th Street was owned by Harry W. Sisson & Associates and was occupied by the apartment hotel of the same name. T. A. Collins owned 600? south of 54th, and Fanny Bregh [sic] owned the remaining footage. H. R. Shedd owned from 55th to 56th. All released their rights to the lakefront.
By 1924 construction began on the northern end, but the southern lakefront was to put it mildly, unsightly for years to come. The area was used as a dumping ground for all matters of refuse: “Ashes, tin cans, broken brick, and plaster from demolished buildings” were strewn along the shore. In spite of the less than attractive lakefront, the Chicago Beach Hotel was for years an elegant get-away with a private complete with a private pier, bathing beach, tennis courts and gardens. According to an April 23, 1926 Hyde Park Herald article, their property between 50th and 51st Streets was in litigation to protect those beach rights, and a solution for that stretch of land was not reached until 1926. The southern extension of Burnham’s plan for the lakeshore, which began with the installation of a breakwater and subsequent landfill, finally culminated in 1938 with the landscaping of the new lakefront park.
Substantial changes were made to the busy Illinois Central commuter train line during this time, when in 1926 the Chicago City Council passed a smoke abatement ordinance that forced the Illinois Central to replace the old coal-burning teakettle type of steam engine with a cleaner, electric-powered car. The improvement helped to decrease the smoke nuisance of the nearly 400 locomotives that passed through Hyde Park daily. And the electrification improved travel times. As the Tribune pointed out, “Although about five miles from downtown, the new Illinois Central electric trains whisk one from Hyde Park Boulevard to Van Buren quicker than one ordinarily can get from the original Streeterville to the Loop.”
Over the years the Illinois Central offered transportation to Hyde Parkers that grew astonishingly – from those 4 initial trains to a high of 542 daily in 1929. And it was convenient. When a second railroad accident occurred fifty years after Judge Barron’s demise, the papers did not mourn the death, but rather remarked commuter trains were back on schedule within a mere half hour.