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Early Chicago Streetlife: Congestion Everywhere

Horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars and people clash at a busy intersection at Dearborn and Randolph Streets. Several readers pointed out that this image is actually from a 1911/1912 Chicago street study where police halted directing traffic for 15 minutes. Postcard published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. of Chicago.

At the turn of the twentieth century, mayhem defined downtown Chicago’s streets, as horse-drawn vehicles clogged up roads and pedestrians jammed together on sidewalks. Scores of people were hurt and killed each day from simply trying to cross the street, which required most people to dart out into traffic before dodging horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars.

Street life had actually improved a bit by this point in history. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the lack of effective paving and sidewalks around 1850 made it difficult to use the streets for any purposes. People tolerated the mud and dust. Dead horses and other animals on the streets made conditions even worse. 

Men at the time petitioned the city for better streets and sidewalks, citing that spring rains forced their wives to “traipse through a thick coating of spring mud to get to church or to the shop.” The city soon began constructing streets and sidewalks, but congestion in the downtown area just became more dangerous. 

Congestion on State Street, with pedestrians walking in the middle of the street. Postcard mailed from Chicago to Ohio on August 5, 1910. Postcard published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. of Chicago.

Around the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, deaths on the streets from accidents happened often, including about an average of two deaths per day at the city’s railroad crossings, according to the book The Devil in the White City. Other hazards included streetcars falling from drawbridges and horses that bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. About a dozen Chicagoans died each day due to fires alone.

Once motorized vehicles were introduced into society, they just added to the congestion, but many felt they would eventually improve conditions by providing an alternative to smelly horses that leave manure on the street. Little did they know that large amounts of emissions from cars would choke their breathing in the downtown area. 

The first postcard shown here, “A Busy Day on Dearborn and Randolph Streets Chicago,” shows traffic on the street and sidewalk around the turn of the twentieth century. A cart carrying logs, horse-drawn vehicles carrying barrels, and streetcars blocking the middle of the road makes it nearly impossible for pedestrians to cross the street.  Several readers, however, pointed out that this image is actually from a 1911/1912 Chicago street study where police halted directing traffic for 15 minutes.

The next postcard shows people walking in front of carriages and streetcars. The postcard following that is similar, but in this one people are dodging motorized vehicles, much like they do today. 

People crossing the street just north of Jackson Boulevard. Postcard published by Gerson Bros. of Chicago.

"State Street., the great retail thoroughfare, Chicago," this postcard reads. Postcard printed in Germany and published by Kresge & Wilson of Detroit, Michigan.

People walking on the sidewalk during the noon hour on State Street. Postcard published by The Acmegraph Co.of Chicago.

Pedestrians on the sidewalk on Wabash Avenue. Postcard published by Detroit Publishing Co.

Horses pull buggies down State Street just north of Van Buren Street. Postcard published by E.C. Kropp Publishing of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


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