In a cruel twist of fate, the diagonal roads that were the lifeblood of Gladstone Park and the northwest farmlands in the mid-1800s were free game once they exited the Chicago City limits. Like in frontier times, there were no laws regulating them. Anyone could buy them and treat them and the people who wanted to use them with impunity.
When local farmer-turned-businessman Amos J. Snell discovered the old Indian trails that merchants were traveling on were up for grabs, he bought N. Northwest Highway from the county in 1870, ripping out old planks and installing an even better roadbed of gravel. Then he charged tolls to pay for the improvements, according to Illinois Courts.gov. Somewhere along the way Snell also got ahold of the sometimes impassable byway we know now as N. Elston. Laying wood boards crosswise atop a log foundation spanning the mud pathway, he improved it to a plank road and also charged tolls. N. Milwaukee also came under his ownership and people began referring to it as the “Snell Toll Road,” according to Lee Diamond who gives bike tours of the area through ChicagoVelo.
Because Snell had a monopoly on all the major roads that led from the Gateway of Chicago into the city center, he gave northwestern farmers and merchants no choice but to pay whatever he wanted if they wanted to market their goods.
That much is known. What came next was murkier, especially since few well-regarded history sites weigh in on the matter.
Don Hayner and Tom McNamee of Streetwise Chicago place Snell back in the 1840s when he’d supposedly been charging the outrageous fee of 2-1/2 cents per mile to travel from the center of the city along the 10 or so miles to the northwest. By then his tolls provided him with nearly $800 a day with fees collected at three locations on N. Elston alone: its southern entry point at W. Division Street (near Goose Island), at W. Lawrence, and at the northern end where it merged with N. Milwaukee in Gladstone Park, they said.
Making it sound like a Laurel and Hardy slapstick routine, Hayner and McNamee described rankled local farmers taking matters into their own hands by dressing up as Native Americans and staging their own “tea party.” Just like the Sons of Liberty had done nearly 70 years earlier when they’d thrown tea into Boston Harbor to protest British taxes, the malcontents supposedly chopped down and burned the tollbooths, setting things straight. This story was repeated in comical terms over the Internet.
But it seems the real tale may be darker and from a different decade altogether. We catch up to Snell in 1888, by then a multimillionaire, when he was shot to death in his West Side home February 8 of that year as reported in the next day’s Chicago Tribune and reprinted on chicagology. Calling the murder of the largest individual owner of real estate in the city the “most sensational ever committed in Chicago,” the Tribune documented it in excruciating detail.
Presumably the case was closed after the police arrested suspected killer and family black sheep William B. Tascott on his deathbed at the Cape Nome Gold Diggings in Alaska in 1889. But in an unexpected twist 21 years later, James Gillan, labeled a “professional crook” by the December 4, 1910 The Inter Ocean Magazine, confessed on his deathbed that he, not Tascott, had killed Snell while burglarizing his home. But, reflecting on how many enemies the murdered man had made — and the fact that Gillan had an accomplice he would not identify — some authorities still consider the case unsolved.
So, what has this got to do with tolls? Well, slightly more than two years after the millionaire was killed, those who had had to pay to travel on the only major routes that existed from the center city to the northwest where Gladstone Park lay revolted. Instead of it being a lark like the earlier version of the story, they reportedly killed the toll collector in the process of burning down his gate and toll booth, ChicagoVelo’s Diamond maintained.
The infamous Amos Snell, Chicago toll-collecting tycoon and millionaire real estate owner of over 350 buildings who was murdered in his own home in a case that many do not consider solved. Did it have anything to do with the road rebellion incident two years later where merchants, resentful of paying to travel the miles of roads he owned from the center city out to the Northwest area of the city, killed the toll collector and burned down his gate and booth? Drawing from chicagology.
This version of the story gains more credence if we read accounts from the Illinois Courts. For not more than a month later, Snell’s family tried to take over the toll roads the patriarch had owned and the Illinois Supreme ruled they had no authority. The reason: Snell could not legally pass the right to collect tolls to his heirs. The family appealed, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in 1894, upheld the state’s decision.
Finally the roads Gladstonians know as N. Northwest Highway, N. Milwaukee, and N. Elston were free!
It was the new 17.8 mile superhighway Chicago proposed building through the city’s neighborhoods in the desire for a new southeast-northwest artery in the 1950s that that sparked the community’s second incident of road rebellion. They’d already been beaten back by the 1949-1961 construction of the Eisenhower Expressway (Rt. 290), which had displaced some 13,000 people and 400 businesses as it ran straight west out of the Loop into the suburbs, according to WBEZ 91.5 Chicago.
While many residents conceded the traffic-choked city needed more roadways to handle increasing numbers of cars, those who lived in areas of the city where the superhighway was to be constructed were not happy. Sure, it would be handy to have a new road (later named the John F. Kennedy Expressway or Rt. 90) linking the Loop to O’Hare Airport. But Polish Downtown was to be cut in half like a knife, throwing residents out of their homes and disrupting their network of churches, businesses, and neighborhood groups. And the road was to continue cutting through the southern part of Jefferson Park to where it would veer west near W. Foster. While the planned route would spare Gladstone Park directly, its impact would not be benign. For it would isolate the small northern neighborhood from the Jefferson Park commercial hub centered on W. Lawrence to its south.
Further resentment arose when Illinois proposed making the Kennedy into a toll road, evoking history from nearly 100 years earlier. The situation was that, since the project had been on the drawing board for so long, the superhighway had run short on money when the time came to build it. That’s when some genius thought the only solution was to transfer the road to the Illinois Toll Highway Commission to allow it to collect tolls to pay for the expressway’s construction, according to sutori, a teaching source on the issue. As Yogi Berra used to say, it was deja vu all over again.
Map showing Kennedy Expressway traveling northwest through the middle of the Jefferson Park neighborhood, which is approximately square. The Gladstone Park community in the upper northwest quadrant would remain intact with the Kennedy veering just to its south and west, but much of it would be cut off from the greater Jefferson Park commercial hub centered around W. Lawrence to its south. Map from Google.
Residents, including Gladstonians, objected strenuously to paying for the privilege of driving on a road that 1) was ripping through part of their community and 2) they weren’t sure they even wanted. The protest that followed might have been more peaceful than that made against Amos Snell’s toll roads, but it was no less impactful. Joining other Chicago neighborhoods, the people pressured the state into passing the 1956 Interstate Highway Act that declared the Kennedy a free road, according to the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Another travesty averted!
It is unclear when Chicago city urban planners actively began promoting the “Complete Streets” program that required roadways to be designed and operated (or, in the case of existing streets, retrofitted) to be safer for all users and not just vehicular traffic. Theoretically, improvements would enhance the streets for everyone of all ages and abilities whether they were drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists or riders of public transportation.
The U.S. Congress had tried to mandate “Complete Streets” back in 2008 and 2009, but had failed to make the program law. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation endorsed the program in 2010 with a policy statement supporting streets that were convenient and comfortable for everyone to use.
Perhaps the city had only been responding to Gladstonians’ perennial complaints that drivers on the four-lane N. Milwaukee routinely sped through their community going 40 per hour or faster in a 30-mile zone, endangering residents. But when Chicago transportation engineers tried to solve the problem in 2014 by imposing its version of “Complete Streets” on N. Milwaukee–the main artery through Jefferson Park into Gladstone Park–the neighborhoods squawked.
Most of the objections were against the city’s proposal to reduce the size of the roadway for traveling purposes. The idea was that if two of N. Milwaukee’s four lanes were eliminated by expanding and relocating bike lanes, adding median strips and relocating street parking, drivers channeled into only one lane of traffic on each side of the road would slow down. Residents didn’t buy it.
Around 600 people showed up at the cavernous Copernicus Center January 21, 2015 to protest the plan with another 4000 signing a petition against it, Brian Nadig of the local Nadig Newspapers reported. The so-called “road diet” just would not do.
Ultimately, the outcry led to the city settling for the least stringent of its three proposals, removing few parking spaces and leaving the bike lanes as is. Vehicular traffic would be able to use continuous left-turn lanes (technically a fifth lane) down N. Milwaukee’s center and travel more freely with improved coordination of traffic lights. Bus stops would be improved to make public transit easier. The major change would be beefing up and adding to a series of highly-visible widely-striped crosswalks across the neighborhood’s main business corridor, concentrating on intersections without traffic lights. This would be done by installing bumpout planting beds set off from the sidewalks to reduce the total distance pedestrians had to walk to get across the road. Walkers would be further aided by barrier-free pedestrian refuge islands in bricked medians (many with trees), giving them the opportunity to walk across two lanes of the busy road and stop safely in the middle before resuming their trips across to the other side. Aware that once N. Milwaukee emerges out of the commercial hub of Jefferson Park to its south, it expands to a full 78 feet wide with four through lanes, Gladstonians begrudgingly accepted the plan to provide more safety for pedestrians who needed help crossing the busy street.
Gladstonians had saved their streets once again. Or at least they thought they did.
Curbed and bricked pedestrian refuge island in a treed median providing a safe place for people to stop in the middle of the road when using the new crosswalks. This refuge island, with steel bumped plates to make wheelchair users and those with low vision aware of their location, is opposite AutoZone Auto Parts, 5374 N. Milwaukee. Photo by Mina.
Unfortunately, grumbling about the eight N. Milwaukee crosswalks at major nontraffic-signaled locations has not abated since their construction five years ago. After incidents of cars having crashing into the treed medians, running up into unmarked “bumpouts,” or having their visibility of oncoming traffic reduced by too-tall plantings, drivers have objected to the new hazards created by the plan. And even while pedestrians praised the new medians for giving them a place to take safe haven after crossing two lanes of traffic across the neighborhood’s main business thoroughfare before having the traverse the other two, they continually griped about the appearance of the bumpouts. With a design plan that attracts litter and weeds instead of enhancing the business district, store owners also object.
What it all boils down to is design. Instead of choosing the more standard nationwide city plan that calls for extending the pavement of the sidewalks into curb extensions called bulbouts, perhaps with a nice tree or an inviting bench, the City of Chicago went with another plan in Gladstone Park. Maybe they thought the less densely-developed neighborhood would prefer planting beds to pavement, an admittedly more environmentally-sound approach for stormwater management. Or perhaps they just thought they’d be more attractive. In any case, they installed 14 six-foot by 10- to 12-foot beds containing soil on either side of N. Milwaukee where the eight crosswalks are. Nine of the beds are contiguously curbed and physically separated from the sidewalks by about a foot to form a channel for runoff…when it isn’t clogged with debris. Five others have open ends with the drainage channels running through them. While both types were initially planted with hardy ornamental grasses and tough flowers geared to survive harsh roadside conditions, the soil-over-gravel medium in the beds, combined with the lack of any practical way to water them, made vegetation survival difficult. In any case, there was no plan by the CDOT to maintain them.
Additionally complicating the situation was the fact that the top layer of soil from the curbed beds is continually blowing off due to wind from traveling cars. More soil washes out from the drains of the open beds. When more tender plants died, dandelions are other noxious weeds took over, serving only to trap the endemic trash that blows down the highway. More garbage and dirt builds up in places around the bumpouts that street cleaners cannot reach. Without regular upkeep–something the city has not supplied–the bumpouts are viewed by most as unattractive and detrimental to the overall appearance of business corridor.
Gladstonians are still trying to grapple with all the road changes. In fact, the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association initially formed after the “Complete Streets” fallout, according to President Joe DiCiaula, realizing there had to be a more formal voice for the community’s residents. The group is still hoping there is some way to improve the problematic curbside bumpout beds so they do not remain as littered, weedy, dangerous eyesores. Is it possible the neighborhood isn’t done with its road rebellion quite yet?
Bumpout planting bed geared to increase the safety of pedestrians crossing the four-lane N. Milwaukee by shortening the distance across the road. Gladstonians are working on plans to keep these filled with attractive plants in order to prevent them from being receptacles for litter, no small task. This bed is on the east side of N. Milwaukee at N. Marmora, one of many intersections where there is no traffic light.