The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Santa Fe Railyard, Chinatown Square & Ping Tom Memorial Park

The landscape of Chicago, while in a continuous state of change, has been perhaps most strikingly changed in the area east of the Chicago River.

Looking from Ping Tom Memorial Park towards Downtown Chicago with the St. Charles Air Line Bridge in the foreground.

As late as the 1970's, the east side of the Chicago River was almost nothing but various railyards and railroad property, easily identifiable in topo maps from the region.

Englewood 1972 USGS Topo Map

It's quite easy to see just from satellite imagery just how the area has changed, as areas where the rails were once king have given way to new parks, shopping centers, movie theaters and residential buildings. 

East of the river, large scale redevelopment and environmental cleanup has taken place, and continues to do so. Source: Google Maps
This isn't just unique to Chicago, as Pittsburgh is another example of ongoing redevelopment along it's Allegheny River Waterfront. 

Top: Google Maps Satellite Imagery; Bottom: Pittsburgh East 1951 and Pittsburgh West 1956 USGS Topo Map
A casino, PNC Park, Heinz Stadium, and the Andy Warhol Museum all occupy what was once railyards at the south end of Pittsburgh. While it might be tempting to think of these abandonments of railroad property as an example of the rail industry's decline, it should be noted that today, railroads ship more tonnage than they ever have, and being able to shed large properties in major cities has provided them numerous economic benefits as well as property tax savings.

Today's blog focuses primarily on two places that didn't exist until the late 1980's and early 90's, after the Santa Fe Railroad sold off land to develop Ping Tom Memorial Park and Chinatown Square.
18th St Railyard, east of the Chicago River. Image: Andreas Feininger
Much has been written regarding the transition (trainsition?) from rail yard to urban destination. And indeed, the change has been quite striking. 

Construction of Chinatown Square: In 1984, civic leaders in the Chinatown neighborhood of Chicago, part of the Armour Square Community Area, planned to purchase a 32 acre site from the Santa Fe Railway to build a property which would act as a community gathering place, and include retail and restaurant developments, as well as housing.

The idea faced many hurdles, including exactly who was going to clean up environmental contamination from the rail yard, as well as competition from others, including the USPS, vying for the property.

Eventually, financing was secured, grants were given by the State of Illinois, and the project was completed in 1993.

I've been visiting the area since I was a kid, and I was shocked to learn that it was once a railyard, as you'd be hard pressed to find any kind of clue of the ground's railroad history.

Looking south at the square, which opens up to Archer Ave, while shops and businesses are north. 
One of two pagodas which lead to the second floor.

 Today, Chinatown Square is a two-story development bustling with restaurants and stores, although there are a few vacancies on the second floor. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and exciting place to visit and eat at the restaurants in the area.

Joy Yee Noodle, known for their awesome smoothies, has a location here, near UIC on Halsted, as well as a few in the suburbs.

Built west of Chinatown Square was a Walgreens, which was once home to the Santa Fe Grape Yard, known as such because it was an area where once could purchase fruits directly from the railroad.

Looking west from Chinatown Square

Image: Robert Daly 

The same development group which purchased and created Chinatown Square was also partially responsible for the area immediately north of here, Ping Tom Memorial Park.

Ping Tom Memorial Park: 

Ping Tom was the founder of the development group which created Chinatown Square, and would also be instrumental in creating more open space in the Chinatown area. In conjunction with the Chicago Park District, the area north of Chinatown Square and residential areas would become a park. 

Tom would die in 1995 before this plan could fully come to fruition, and as such, the park was named in his memory. Located on the riverfront, it is much easier to tell that this area was once home to railroad development, as an active BNSF line runs through the park, one that is crossed at-grade to enter the park.

Looking west entering the park. More activity can be seen west of the Chicago River, including Amtrak trains into Union Station.
The park's boundaries are the Chicago River, the Canal St Railroad Bridge, Chinatown, Wentworth Ave, and the St. Charles Air Line Bride to the north, all of which can be seen very well from the park.

Top & Bottom Images taken by Mark Llanuza, first in 1982 and then in 2013 of the area.
I would think that Tom would have been pleased with the outcome of the park, as compared with the bustling Chinatown Square, it is tranquil and scenic. It's also a Water Taxi stop, so you're able to take a ride on the Chicago River to Downtown for a relatively low price. 

A pagoda shaped pavilion is the first thing park goers see after crossing the railroad tracks.
Looking south along the river, you can easily see the very active Canal St Railroad Bridge from the park.

One interesting thing about the park was that there was someone playing a flute like instrument near the 18th St bridge, adding to the calm atmosphere in the otherwise busy area immediately south and west of here.
Memorial to Ping Tom, documenting his contribution to the creation of the park.

Of course, we couldn't leave without taking pictures of ourselves!

Thanks as always for reading, and as always, let us know what you thought, and if you have anything to add about Chinatown Square and Ping Tom Memorial Park!


  1. This is a nice summary of the transformation of this area. Since it is within walking distance of 18th Street over Amtrak and the 16th Street Tower, it is one of my favorite rail fanning places. One issue I spotted is that the active railroad is Canadian National, not BNSF. It seems I can't include a photo in a comment, so this link should take you to some photos of a CN train coming through the park:

    1. Dennis, thanks for the comment and kind words about the blog as well as the note that it is the CN, not BN, mainline. Your blog was also very informative in finding some photos and history of the area as well, so thank you for your work!

  2. Hello, thank you for the interesting blog post. I am an architecture student working on my master's thesis, focusing on reusing the closed Union Pacific container yard in Chinatown between W 23rd St and essentially the Dan Ryan. I was wondering if you had any resources about that history, construction, etc. Fascinating blog! Thanks, Juanita

    1. Hello and thanks for the comment. I do not, but I would check with the Santa Fe Historical Society, they would almost certainly have some items that would help you.

      Best of luck on your masters!

    2. Thanks so much for your quick reply! I will connect with the Santa Fe Historical Society per your suggestion. Thanks again for the interesting posts!


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