Chicago Studies, a program of the undergraduate College at the University of Chicago, offers curricular and co-curricular opportunities to discover, study, and engage with the diverse communities of our world-class city.
Welcome to 57th and Lake Park. Here we see Hyde Park’s historical reason for being, the Illinois Central Railroad. A group of investors incorporated it in 1836. Its true creator, however, was US Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who in 1850 spearheaded the passage of legislation providing a federal land grant to fund its construction. The railroad’s route was a Y-shape with a short base. Its southern terminus was Cairo, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at the southern tip of Illinois. One branch connected to Galena in the northwest corner of the state and the other connected to Chicago in the northeast corner. They met in Centralia, about 100 miles south of Springfield and 60 miles east of St. Louis. The town of Centralia took its name from the Illinois Central Railroad.
Paul Cornell’s family had its origins in western New York. Ezra Cornell, the namesake of Cornell University, was a cousin. The Cornell family moved to West Central Illinois when Paul was a boy. He read for the law and moved to Chicago in 1847, the same year he passed the state bar exam. Cornell knew Senator Douglas, about nine years his senior, through his legal practice, and sought his advice. Douglas was a real estate investor who owned property all over the area, including an estate in the area now called Douglas, which he named Oakenwald. He recommended that Cornell invest every penny he could muster in land between the Chicago River and the Calumet. In 1853, Cornell made his first land purchase, a parcel at today’s 53rd and Lake Park. (The route of the Illinois Central was already platted; Douglas sold a right of way through his property in 1852.) In 1856, Cornell transferred a portion of his holdings to the Illinois Central in exchange for daily train service to and from Chicago. The first station was at 53rd St.
The original Illinois Central line was a single track, and so that required a place to turn the train around. The railroaders called that place a “wye” for the perfectly good reason that it was a three point turnout shaped like the letter "Y." The train switched onto a turnout at 57th St and then backed on to the main track for the trip back to Chicago. There was also a fuel depot at 57th St. The original steam boilers on the locomotives were fired by wood, hence the original name for this area, “Woodpile.” There was also a little log cabin station. The train stop soon attracted residents, many of them well to do, and they convinced the railroad to upgrade the name to Woodville. Finally, in 1869, the Illinois General Assembly created the South Park system. The parts that became Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance were immediately south of the area and hence the neighborhood became known as South Park. In 1880, the Illinois Central built a handsome Gothic station on the west side of tracks on Lake Park (then called Hyde Park), just north of 57th St (then called Willow). In 1887, when the Chicago City Railway extended its cable car service from 55th and Cottage Grove to Lake Park, it built a turnaround down Harper and through a narrow alley called Cable Court to Lake Park. Cable Court was directly opposite the South Park Station. The City Railway had a waiting room for passengers there. A block north, it built a small waiting room for the cable car crews. That building is now the Hyde Park Historical Society. You should now begin walking to 57 & Stony Island. As you do, I invite you to continue to listen to the commentary.
The Illinois Central tracks were originally at grade. In 1892, however, the city required the elevation of the tracks south of 47th St for efficiency and for the safety of the visitors to the World’s Fair. The city extended the requirement to other parts of the city over a period of about 20 years. The result is that in a city with hundreds of railroad crossings, very few of them are grade crossings, with their signals, gates, and crossbucks, especially in the city’s central area. The first of Hyde Park’s famous underpass murals was commissioned in 1971 by the 53rd St Merchants Association. At 57th St, Astrid Fuller and a team of 20 schoolchildren created the “Spirit of Hyde Park,” in 1973. Fuller had been one of 44 volunteers who helped Carol Yasko paint “Under City Stone” on the north wall of 55th St. The mural underwent a “restoration and reinterpretation” by Bernard Williams in the 2000s. Williams touched up the deteriorated paint and added the bold elements you see on it today. On the opposite, north side wall is Fuller’s “Pioneer Social Work” from 1976, in tribute to Jane Addams. The panels recall aspects of Addams’s career as a pacifist, social reformer, and pioneer social worker.