Hegewisch, past and present

April 5, 2012

This is the most remote corner of Chicago. You’re 22 miles from State and Madison, you can drop a coin and have it roll into Indiana– yet you’re still within the city’s corporate limits. You must be in Hegewisch.

The people here call their neighborhood HEG-wish. That’s not the way the founder, Adolph Hegewisch, pronounced his name. But then, how do you say “Des Plaines?”

Most of the land is marshy. In the 1850s railroad builders from the east began to push through the area on their way to Chicago. Mr. H came on the scene in 1883.

Hegewisch was president of the United States Rolling Stock Company, a builder of railroad cars. He wanted to establish his own “ideal workingman’s community,” like George Pullman was doing on the other side of Lake Calumet. And like George Pullman, Hegewisch named the new town after himself.

He bought 100 acres of land near the rail yards, at what is now Brandon and 135th, and opened his factory. Investors purchased an additional 1,500 acres to the north. Streets were laid out, houses were built. Mr. H predicted his settlement would attract 10,000 people.

Adolph Hegewisch’s dream never became a reality. Other entrepreneurs followed with other grand plans. They didn’t work out, either. Chicago annexed the community in 1889.

The population of Hegewisch hit 7,000 during the 1920s and remained stuck there for decades. Most of the people were white ethnics, mainly Poles. Many of them worked in the steel mills, or at the nearby Ford assembly plant, or in the rail yards off Brainard Avenue.

The rest of Chicago seemed light years away. Few people had cars. The South Shore railroad was fast, but also expensive. If you wanted to get to the Loop, there was a single-track streetcar line that crossed the swamp to the north. With a few transfers, you’d make it to State and Madison in an hour-and-a-half.

Hegewisch boomed in the years after World War II. New houses were springing up, and Adolph Hegewisch’s 10,000-population benchmark was finally passed in the 1960s. Now the area was drawing police, firemen, and municipal workers who had to live in the city.

Outsiders became more aware of Hegewisch after Ed Vrdolyak was elected 10th Ward alderman in 1971. Fast Eddie actually lived in the East Side neighborhood, but his district took in all of Hegewisch. For the next two decades he was a major player in city politics.

On the morning of December 20, 1976, Mayor Richard J. Daley helped Vrdolyak dedicate the new field house at Mann Park. It was the mayor’s last public appearance. That afternoon he died of a heart attack.

Nobody blamed Hegewisch for Daley Senior’s death. But little more than ten years later, his son tried to kill Hegewisch.

By 1990 the community was hard hit by the decline of the steel industry. Meanwhile, newly-elected Mayor Richard M. Daley decided that Chicago needed a third airport. What could be a better site than Hegewisch?

The area was depressed. It didn’t matter that 10,000 people would lose their homes. The new airport would be inside the city limits, and that meant the revenue didn’t have to be shared with some greedy suburb. In the end, federal officials vetoed the plan. Hegewisch survived.

Drive through Hegewisch today. The homes are neat and tidy, and the old business strips along Brandon and Baltimore avenues have been spruced up. Wolf Lake continues to draw recreational traffic. Community landmarks include Chicago’s only trailer park, and its last remaining saw mill.

One thing you won’t find in Hegewisch is a gas station. With Indiana just a short drive away down 134th Street, most locals fill up over the border and save some cash. In times like these, what could be smarter?