View an image of the Burnham Plan looking north on the south branch of the Chicago River, showing the suggested arrangement of streets and ways for teaming and reception of freight by boat at different levels.
Along the south side of the Chicago River’s Main Branch, buildings once backed right up to the edge of the water where Wacker Drive now runs.
Those buildings sat on South Water Street, which hosted a bustling wholesale produce market. The buildings – many of them grocery distribution warehouses – took in freight from riverboats on one side; on the other, a colorful and crowded scene of horses and wagons, barrels and carts (and later, trucks) picked up loads of fruits and vegetables.
As the Loop began to modernize, city planners prioritized removal of the market to a less central area – someplace where the odors of horses and rotting produce mingled with the noise and congestion of a busy produce market, wouldn’t conflict with the more “civilized” activities of the financial and retail districts just steps away.
As part of his Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham designed an ambitious, multi-level roadway and freight management system that would relieve congestion on the riverfront by dividing traffic and functions into different levels: commercial traffic below, passengers above. His design was inspired by similar infrastructure in Paris.
To realize Burnham’s design, the city’s first Plan Commission, led by Charles H. Wacker, set about clearing all of the buildings from the area and drastically reshaping the landscape.
It was a multi-year effort, but construction was fully underway by 1925. When it was complete, the grand, new waterfront boulevard was named for Wacker.