The Birth of The 606: A Look at the Historic Transformation of Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail

The Headlight Harbor Project was born out of my own curiosity to learn more about the often untold stories around us.  For my inaugural piece, I didn't have to look much further than my own neighborhood. Over the last several decades, The Bloomingdale Trail has become the source of many special memories for generations of Chicagoans. Now as local residents watch construction crews transform the path, I thought now was as important a time as ever to bring the sights, sounds and stories of the path to new life.

Once a vital transportation medium for manufacturers and businesses on Chicago’s Northwest Side, the Bloomingdale Rail Line was abandoned by 2001 and over the years has become a beloved haven for many residents who live nearby. 

Now, thanks to an unprecedented collaborative effort between the City of Chicago, The Chicago Park District, The Trust for Public Land, and many others, the Bloomingdale Trail is being transformed into what will soon be celebrated as one of Chicago’s most cutting-edge public spaces: The 606.

The Birth of the Bloomingdale Line

Map of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company from 1893. Courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection via ForgottenChicago.com

When the Bloomingdale Line was first built in 1871, its urban environment looked very different than it does today. Chicago’s Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Bucktown, and Wicker Park neighborhoods, now home to hundreds of residences, restaurants, and storefronts, was largely an industrial hub lined with factories and manufacturing plants.   

When the track finally opened in 1874, Chicago business owners and entrepreneurs flocked to the area for its convenient proximity to the rail, which provided quick and economical routes of transportation for both inbound raw materials and outbound finished product.

Businesses even built their own connection platforms and side switches to allow for direct access to the track via loading docks.

But even though business owners celebrated the Bloomingdale Line for its value as a transportation asset, opposition to the track grew fierce among some in the community, largely due to significant concerns for children and pedestrians crossing the tracks. After several fatal accidents on the ground, city officials ordered that the track be elevated in 1910.

  Construction crews work to elevate the Bloomingdale Line in 1914. Universal Bulletin, No. 123, Aug. 1914, pg. 144 - courtesy of ForgottenChicago.com

Construction crews work to elevate the Bloomingdale Line in 1914. Universal Bulletin, No. 123, Aug. 1914, pg. 144 - courtesy of ForgottenChicago.com

Over the next five years, construction crews successfully elevated 2.7 miles of the Bloomingdale Line, much to the delight of both local business owners as well as concerned community members. Due to construction crews’ efficient use of bulk cement and state-of-the-art crane elevators, the project garnered substantial attention from engineering and construction publications around the country.

By 1915, with the track taken to new heights, it was again up and ready for business.

Booming Business

As most of the businesses that once flourished along the Bloomingdale Line have since been demolished, relocated, or converted into residential buildings, the track’s rich history is often lost and forgotten, shrouded by years of urban progress.

“The stories of the Bloomingdale Line are well hidden in history,” says Chicago historian Jim Peters, who was brought to document the history of the line by The Trust for Public Land, one of the leading organizations behind The 606 renovation project.

Some of Chicago’s most innovative and successful companies depended on the Bloomingdale Line. And, as Peters adds, “These were big name businesses, not just steel mills.”

The Felt & Tarrant Manufacturing Company, once located in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, was one of the country’s first-ever calculator manufacturers. Having once housed the groundbreaking company for decades, the building has since been converted into an apartment complex, still overlooking the abandoned rail tracks.

The stories of the Bloomingdale Line are well hidden in history,
— Jim Peters
 The former Stenson Brewing Company building located directly adjacent to the trail. 

The former Stenson Brewing Company building located directly adjacent to the trail. 

Current residents of nearby 1750 N. Wolcott in Bucktown (pictured right) can also lay claim to the fact that their building once housed Stenson Brewing Company, a prohibition-era brewing operation with close ties to Chicago’s notorious Al Capone.

Other still-thriving businesses like Hammond Organs and Ludwig Drums made their famed musical instruments for years along the Bloomingdale Line utilizing converted facilities on St. Paul and Damen Avenues as their primary manufacturing plants in the Midwest.

Thanks to the careful records and research of historians like Jim Peters, we can still identify precisely where these businesses stood, allowing Chicagoans to celebrate and connect with their city’s past.

“You can walk down the street and look around you, it’s all right here,” says Peters.

A Shift in Transportation

During the industrial boom of the early twentieth century, flourishing businesses meant more jobs in factories and offices, which brought flocks of families looking to settle into nearby homes within walking distance. But as both these businesses and residential populations grew, many of the aforementioned companies were forced to relocate their manufacturing facilities to suburban locations, where space was abundant and property was cheaper.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the trucking industry began to emerge as the quickest method of transporting goods nationwide. Businesses were then forced to shift a significant portion of their shipping strategies from the rail to the road. The once coveted locations adjacent to the Bloomingdale Line soon proved not as fruitful as they once were.

Scarce rail travel continued on the Bloomingdale Line for the next several decades until the track was fully decommissioned in 2001. Business and property owners had no choice but to adapt to the times and gut these once flourishing factories in favor of new residential and commercial buildings.

A Beloved Haven

As rail traffic slowed to a final halt, The Bloomingdale Trail became a place that residents of Chicago's Northwest neighborhoods looked to as an immediately accessible yet remote getaway. 

Once abandoned by the rail companies, it didn't take long for nature to step back in along the Bloomingdale Line. New vegetation developed and despite no official renovations or amendments made by the city, the Bloomingdale Trail naturally evolved into a place of recreation and exploration. 

The Bloomingdale Trail as it stood in June of 2013. Photo courtesy of Chad Schurecht. 

“These paths weren’t designed on purpose but rather created by thousands and thousands of footsteps”, says Ben Helphand. Helphand is the Executive Director of Neighborspace, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping sustain Chicago's public parks and gardens, and was also one of the 6 co-founders responsible for forming The Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a community organization founded in 2002. 

Helphand recalls first going up on the Bloomingdale Trail back in 2001 just after it had officially been decommissioned.

The trail in 2012 under The CTA Blue Line overpass near Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Avenue in Bucktown. Photo Courtesy of Chad Schurecht.

"For many people it was a place to get away," says Helphand. As the secret of The Bloomingdale Trail continued to spread, it became an increasingly popular destination for walkers, joggers and anyone looking for a different view of their neighborhood. 

Even prior to official renovations being underway, the Bloomingdale Trail has become a cherished place, and one that is unique to the neighborhoods it encompasses. As Helphand describes it, "the trail is truly an experience that you don’t get that often in an urban environment”.

For long time Chicago residents like Helphand and Peters, the new plans for The 606 provide the perfect opportunity to look back on all the rich history The Bloomingdale Trail has to offer.

“The 606 will be a great way to bring these stories back to life,” says Peters.

A New Chapter in Chicago Parks

The road on which this project has traveled to reach its current state today hasn’t been a simple or easy one.

Discussions of converting the baron Bloomingdale Line into a new park first emerged in 2003 in Chicago’s Logan Square Open Space Plan, which was initially developed to provide the neighborhood with the 99 acres of green space it needed to fulfill the city’s minimum standard. With preliminary renovation plans in place, the City of Chicago soon thereafter applied for and secured federal transportation funding for the project.

Soon community leaders, including Helphand, formed an organization called Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail to stimulate buzz and support for the project. With word that plans were being developed to renovate the path, enthusiasm within the community spread like wildfire.

You need to have people who can collaborate, and that’s what we found.
— Beth White

Nationally renowned for its outstanding track record of bringing beautiful public parks to communities across the U.S., The Trust for Public Land came onboard and assembled a team of civil engineers, architects, artists, and many more. The vision for The 606 was an ambitious one, and The Trust for Public Land Chicago Regional Director Beth White knew they had their work cut out for them.   

“It’s not that easy,” says White. “You need to have people who can collaborate, and that’s what we found.”

The sense of teamwork and cooperation quickly spilled into the community. Numerous public forums, including a three-day design summit in 2011, were held to allow community members to voice their concerns and put their own stamp on the project. With approval from Mayor Emanuel’s office and the community in tow, development plans were fully greenlighted and underway.

The Future of The 606

Artist rendering of the 2.7 mile Bloomingdale Trail. Photo courtesy of The606.org

In June of 2013, final design plans for The 606 were unveiled to the public. As the name indicates, the overarching goal of the project is to galvanize the path’s surrounding neighborhoods (and zip codes) like never before.

The full design framework of The 606 boasts a 2.7-mile running and biking path, a mounded observatory at Ridgeway Avenue, a new park at Milwaukee and Leavitt, as well as exciting renovations to Julia de Burgos, Churchill, and Walsh Parks. Remaining true to its reputation and track record, The Trust for Public Land has pioneered the ultimate collaboration of practicality and aesthetic.

“The 606 will not only be sustainable but also a real work of art,” says White. Several artists have been commissioned by the city to help mold the landscape that Chicagoans will enjoy while exploring The 606. 

At the core of what people have loved about the Bloomingdale Trail for so many years is its sense of discovery and exploration. Helphand remembers exploring the trail early on and taking special pleasure in unearthing new clues about the trail's history;  an old railroad spike or abandoned old signage from businesses that used to call the area home. 

"That sense of discovery has been woven into the design of The 606," says Helphand, who also sung the praises of The 606 design team, crediting everyone involved with finally bringing to life the visions that The Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail have had for years.

"The design team is brilliant," Helphand says. 

Construction crews at work in March in Humboldt Park. 

In addition to encouraging foot travel, the path will also connect nine bus lines, two Blue Line stations, and one Metra train station. The city has also begun working with teachers and education specialists to develop curricula that will be implemented in many of the 22 elementary schools within a 10-minute walk of the trail.

Just as it did a century ago upon it's initial elevation, construction along Bloomingdale Avenue is turning heads. 

“The parallel is really striking,” says White.

Much like the celebrated history of the path, construction crews have even been able to rely on the physical foundation of the elevated path, with only two of seven bridges slated for reconstruction.

The design team is brilliant.
— Ben Helphand

With the first phases of The 606 slated for opening by the Fall of 2014, The 606’s elevated nature will make it one of America’s most unique city parks. Until then, Chicagoans will continue to wait with feverish anticipation as they watch crews transform this distinctive piece of Chicago’s storied past into a new symbol of Chicago’s promising future.

For more info including full design plans and artist renderings, visit The 606.org:

 

Below is a song I recorded inspired by the history of the Bloomingdale Trail called "Outbound". The song features first the raw unedited sounds of a passing freight train, much like you may have heard decades ago along The Bloomingdale Line. I then built the rest of the song around a transformed samples of that same freight train, symbolizing the transformation of the abandoned Bloomingdale Rail Line into the revamped Bloomingdale Trail & 606 park system. Thanks for listening and I hope you enjoy!