The Congress Parkway bridge over the river finally re-opened a few weeks ago. If you’re like most of the thousands who drive it every day, you probably don’t realize the bridge is officially named for Clarence Wagner.
When the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway was being built in 1953, Clarence Wagner was one of Chicago’s most powerful politicians—perhaps the most powerful. He was 14th Ward alderman, chairman of the council's Finance Committee and his ward's Democratic committeeman. Mayor Martin Kennelly was well-meaning but weak, so Wagner practically ran the city.
Chicago-born to a German father and an Irish mother in 1904, young Clarence Wagner had caught the eye of his local ward boss and moved up steadily in the organization. He was elected alderman in 1942, and—more importantly—became ward committeeman in 1947. “He was a bright and audacious lawyer with a sardonic sense of humor,” one reporter remembered. Because of his distinctive voice, friends called him “Gravels.”
In July of 1953 Cook County Democratic committeemen held a meeting to choose a new chairman.