Turning of the Centuries in Chicago

Two large black-and-white photos hang in my dining room where I spend much of my time these days on all things genealogy—writing blog posts and magazine articles, completing assignments for my Pro Gen class, and conducting my own family research.

I found them in a resale shop a few years back when I was killing time between appointments in another neighborhood. One is titled “South Water Street, Chicago, 1902” and the other is titled “Dearborn Street, Chicago, 1909.”

The 1909 photo is the one that caught my eye because that was the very year my father was born, right here in Chicago, where this classic photo was taken. Just glancing at it—which I seem to do multiple times a day—offers a glimpse into what life must have been like in this bustling metropolis for the Desmond family at the turn of the last century.

At first glance, these photos from an earlier era taken just seven  years apart, almost seem identical,  but a closer look reveals just how distinctly different they are.

South Water Street Chicago 1902

South Water Street

The 1902 image shows a Chicago street market where tarp covered, horse-drawn wagons are backed up to store fronts as merchants load and unload their goods. Crates, barrels and boxes litter the sidewalks. Blurred images of apron clad merchants—intent on business—wait on customers or rush past each other as they head toward the next task at hand.

Dearborn Street Chicago 1909

Dearborn Street

The 1909 image, taken just seven years later, is also a Chicago street scene, but one that presents a totally different intersection of both place and time. Close examination reveals far more than just a busy intersection in another turn-of-the-century business district. Its the modes of transportation displayed in this visual, that provide telling testimony to the changes that have taken place.

There in the midst of that 1909 Chicago intersection—with no street signs, or traffic signals to guide them—are horses, carriages, trolleys, automobiles, and wagons of every kind, laden with ice, lumber and barrels of goods, all making their ways to their next deliveries. Hundreds of people on foot and on horseback, surround and intermingle with this variety of vehicles that transport people from one place to another.  It’s a view of congestion and unbridled chaos, where people, animals and an array of vehicles—rush toward, around, and into each other as they attempt to reach their personal destinations. The gray, hazy scene suggests heat, soot and distasteful odors permeating the air that the viewer can almost feel and smell.

That was Chicago in 1909, the year my father was born–on  the cusp of  a whole new era in the history of transportation. Who knew, in 1902, just  how much things would change in seven short years? One can only imagine what the people in these photographs would think of those same Chicago intersections today.

…Street corners where “backpacked” pedestrians in “running shoes” are attached by wires to “iPods” using “cell phones” to “text” others in far off places…

…where pre-occupied workers, much like in their own day, dart carelessly in front of vehicles known as “buses” and “cabs” as they hustle off to an “el” or “subway” for a  meeting on the other side of the “Loop”…

…right there–in  the same places they once stood–on  the now, neon lit, streets of Chicago more than a century later.

It begs the question:  Who and what will be on those busy Chicago street corners a century from now?  People from a continent away stepping out of flying cars, for a quick business lunch with a client?

Only time will tell…

Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Chicago History, Photo Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Turning of the Centuries in Chicago

  1. Barb says:

    Great photos, even though they leave me speechless. Although none of my ancestors lived in Chicago, quite a few of them worked there, including my great-grandfather, who had a law firm at 140 Dearborn until his death in 1914, and a great-great-grandfather who was head librarian at the Chicago Public Library and the Newberry Library between 1874-94. Now you can see why I liked your photos, but I wouldn’t have wanted to live or work there then.

  2. I enjoyed your post. My family was living in Chicago during this time also. It gives me a view into what life was like for them at that time. Thanks for sharing.

  3. You are right. In the 1902 photo, it is still possible to move around. In the 1909 photo, it’s truly a logjam with no way to get from A to B. What we call “gridlock” today has nothing on 1909 Chicago! And the next step was . . . we all figured out how to manage intersections! No wonder you like to keep looking at these photos — they are a glimpse of how fast the world can change, even in a few years. I would have never imagined today’s technologically rich world at the turn of the millennium. The past is prelude!

    • Mariann ~ Love to enlarge detailed photos onscreen–especially vintage family photos–you can see so much more than appears at first glance! As always, Mariann, thanks for your comments and stopping by GeneaJourneys.


  4. rgarrett99 says:

    In the 1909 photo, people seem to be waiting at the corners to cross the streets, as if there were traffic lights and Walk signals or at least some sense of order and control. I wonder if there’s some kind of traffic cop in the middle of all that to control the flow. Well, this was my grandparents’ time, living in Evanston and working in Chicago. I’ve long thought they saw more change than generations since — advent of electric lights, phones, radio, cars, tall buildings. I was just recalling how awful the air was in Chicago prior to the 60’s. I recall soot everywhere, and it was a real problem (as it was in all large cities).

    • Thanks for your comments on these iconic photos. Who knows anymore if there were any traffic cops on that street corner–seems pretty chaotic to me! You’re right about all the changes in American society in and after that time. I actually did a book review a couple of years ago here on GeneaJourneys, of a fabulous book that covered that topic in-depth. The name of the book is “Daily Life in the United States 1920s-1940s: How Americans lived through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression” by David Kyvig. You can read my review entitled “The 1920s & 1930s: An American Era Like No Other” by clicking on this short link: http://wp.me/p14Zgt-Ov.

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