Back in the day, State Street and Madison Street marked “the world’s busiest corner,” with nearly 70,000 people passing through the lively intersection every day. Many of these were travelers, coming to or passing through Chicago via planes, trains, or automobiles, making their way through the various terminuses that dotted the city.
Joseph Schwieterman, professor at the School of Public Service and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, examines the many terminuses that have marked Chicago in Terminal Town, an illustrated history of nearly fifty train stations, bus depots, steamship landings, and airports. The guide looks at the city’s constantly changing web of passenger transportation over the past seven decades.
Terminal Town takes the reader on a well-researched journey through Chicago’s iconic and little-remembered transportation hubs, from Union Station and O’Hare Airport to Grand Central Station, which stood at 201 W. Harrison Street and ceased operations in 1969, and Chicagoland Airport in Lincolnshire, which closed in 1978. Schwieterman looks at the “Big Six” train stations that handled passengers for more than forty years, the evolution of a half dozen bus terminals, a couple steamship landings, and more than a dozen airports and air-taxi terminuses, as well as electric interurban railway systems (e.g., Randolph Street Station). More than two hundred photographs and two dozen maps illustrate the guide. (Sadly, the book’s design is marred by the microscopic type in which the captions have been set.)
In these pages, readers will find a unique take on Chicago’s history. Looking at the ebb and flow of transportation during the past seven decades provides an unusual lens through which to examine a city. Terminuses are erected, moved, closed, abandoned, and torn down as population centers shift and change and as modes of transportation fall in and out of favor. Transportation companies battle for superiority among their customers over the competition, only to capitulate to changing tastes and disappear. City engineers draw up plans for intermodal hubs, schemes that go nowhere and hubs that eventually serve no one. It’s a fascinating look at Chicago and how it has changed over the years.
Transportation buffs, particularly railfans, will find the book of most interest, tracing as it does the ebb and flow of various train stations, bus stops, airports, and so on. Architecture enthusiasts also will find Terminal Town of interest, as Schwieterman chronicles the comings and goings of various structures that housed terminuses of all kinds. Many of the buildings were either torn down or abandoned, taking with them pieces of Chicago’s history. Among those lost are Central Station, which stood at Michigan Avenue and 11th Place; Grand Central, noted above; the National Trailways bus station, which stood at 20 E. Randolph Street; the Wells Street Terminal at 314 S. Wells Street; and the 63rd Street–Woodlawn Station, which until the 1950s was situated in what was a bustling transportation hub. Schwieterman explains that preservationists have lost many a hard-fought battle to save some of these buildings, but he also notes that the notion of historic preservation was too late in coming to save many of them.
Terminal Town is packed with details, and it is clear that Schwieterman has done his research. Not only will readers learn about terminuses they likely have never even heard of, but in perusing these pages, they also will find strange and interesting facts that pique interest, such as, for example, that Chicago Rockford International Airport was originally created to “support a U.S. Cavalry detachment in 1917.” The book is full of such details. Unfortunately, however, at times it seems potentially interesting information has been left out, such as when the author writes that “visitors can still find evidence of [the] profound physical presence” of Central and Grand Central stations but doesn’t note exactly where in the city that evidence can be found or what that evidence consists of.
Too, some of the information seems a little “inside baseball,” as it were, geared specifically for those transportation enthusiasts who clearly will make up the bulk of the book’s audience. Readers who are new to the subject likely will not look at Terminal Town as a primer on the subject of metropolitan development and transportation—but that doesn’t mean it won’t be of interest to them. There’s plenty here for Chicagophiles, history buffs, and architecture enthusiasts to take a trip through these pages.
September 2014, Lake Forest College Press
$27.95, paperback, 296 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen