Illinois Central Station, 135 E. 11th Place (1893-1974)
In anticipation of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Illinois Central Railroad built a grand depot where the railroad’s lakeshore tracks began to parallel Michigan Avenue, just north of the intersection with 12th Street (Roosevelt Road).
Designed by New York architect Bradford Gilbert, the nine-story office building with a 13-story, 225-foot clock tower and 600-foot train shed was a marvel for its day and one of Chicago’s most impressive buildings of the era. A three-story marble waiting room overlooked Lake Michigan in the days before landfill built Grant Park, when the Illinois Central railroad tracks hugged the shoreline on wood pilings. Commuter lines and freight yards extended north of the depot to the south bank of the Chicago River.
Late in the heyday of railroad passenger travel, 19 Illinois Central long distance passenger trains left Central Station each day in 1952. Even with the decline in railroad passenger service and the rise of airline travel, there were still 11 daily departures from Central Station in 1962. The last Illinois Central train departing Central Station was on April 30, 1971, when the Panama Limited departed for New Orleans. The following day, American passenger trains began to run under Amtrak.
Arlo Guthrie’s 1972 hit song “City of New Orleans,” written by Chicagoan Steve Goodman, was a daytime route through the length of Illinois, and Mississipi en route to New Orleans. Because the daytime departing train was all coach seating and did not directly connect with other trains, it was less expensive than the overnight all-Pullman sleeper The Panama Limited. The City of New Orleans was a significant lifeline for African-Americans moving to Chicago and visiting their families during The Great Migration of African-Americans to the north. Amtrak consolidated the daytime and nighttime routes and renamed The Panama Limited to capitalize on the romance inspired by the famous song.
On March 6, 1972, Amtrak moved all its remaining trains at Central Station-- The City of New Orleans, James Whitcomb Riley, Shawnee, Illini and Campus-- to Union Station. The last passenger train departing from Central Station was the Campus, which left at 6:30 p.m. on March 5, 1972. The corporate offices of the Illinois Central’s freight operations remained at Central Station until 1973, when operations were moved to new facilities at Two Illinois Center.
As Grant Park grew around it, as the fashion in architecture favored modern steel-and-glass boxes, and as park advocates rallied around the concept of an uncluttered vista of the lake, the station became viewed as an eyesore in its later days. In 1974, the empty Victorian-era station was demolished and left as an unimproved gravel parking lot for more than a decade.
Sources: Illinois Central Railroad, Library of Congress, Emporis, Wikipedia
Photos Courtesy Illinois Central Railroad, Library of Congress, Bob Coolidge
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