Archer Avenue - History and Legends

Archer Ave is a diagonal road running between State Street in Chicago and US Highway 6 in Joliet, IL. The road dates back to the creation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which it parallels, and the engineer of that project was its namesake, William Beatty Archer.

Before asphalt and modern road technology, the road was home to a wooden bridge over the South Fork of the Chicago River, also known as Bubbly Creek. This bridge was used in the days of horse-drawn carriages and streetcars, before closing in the early years of the 20th century.

Archer Avenue Swing Bridge #1, 1902. DN-0000188, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum. Via BridgeHunter.

In 1906, this bridge was replaced with a Through Truss Bridge. This bridge too has been demolished,  and has been replaced twice over since - as recently as 2005

Photo: Chicago Department of Public Works Annual Report, 1906

In 1924, the road became part of Illinois' new highway system, becoming part of IL-4, which at that time connected Chicago with St. Louis. This did not last very long, however, as IL-4 was realigned onto the road that would eventually become US Highway 66 north of the Des Plaines River. Archer then became IL-4A.

In 1967, this route was removed when Illinois stopped using suffixed highways, and was replaced by IL-171 between Joliet and Summit, with the road east from Summit becoming one of the many unmarked state highways.

The road has many fascinating and historic sights associated with ghost stories, including the Old Joliet Prison, St. James of the Cal Sag Church (the oldest operating church in northeast Illinois), and a buried nuclear reactor from the Manhattan Project located in adjacent woods, to name a few.

As we've already talked about the Old Joliet Prison (linked above), today's blog will skip that and focus on the road's alignment changes, and some historical events and local legends that pertain to this road.

The area around present day IL-83 where the Cal-Sag Channel meets the Sanitary and Ship Canal was in earlier times known as Sag Bridge, and had been a strategically important area hundreds of years before Archer's creation. 

Daniel Burnham map of Lake Chicago in the Glenwood Stage. Mount Forest Island is now the Sag Bridge area.

In prehistoric times, it was an island which is now known as "Mount Forest Island" when Lake Chicago still existed. According to the St. James at Sag Bridge web site, "in 1673 Father Jacques Marquette along with Louis Joliet explored and traveled along the Des Plaines River passing the site of St. James on three different occasions. It is believed that Fr. Marquette came to the Sag and said Mass at the French fort located here."

1928 USGS Sag Bridge Topo Map.

The church was formed in 1833, when a growing population and workers from the I&M Canal project created the demand for a place of worship. Originally a log cabin, it used the nearby limestone in the creation of its new building in 1853.

Image: St. James at Sag Bridge via Enjoy Illinois.

This building was damaged in a 1991 tornado, but rebuilt into the building it is today. 

St. James is the oldest continuously operating church in the Chicago area. As such, it has predated both the automobile and railroad industry in Illinois. One of the odd things about this church is that has an extremely long parking lot, relative to its size. Why is that?

1950's-era USGS topo map, showing both IL-83 and IL-4A having separate bridges over the Cal-Sag Channel.

The answer is that its parking lot used to be Archer Ave (the former IL-4A). Before the current IL-83/IL-171 bridge was built, drivers would have to use the decommissioned bridge along IL-4A, which later became IL-171 in this area. 

1938 Aerial Image of the old bridge (right) and the present day bridge (left). Sadly, I can't seem to find a photo of the first bridge up close.

This bridge was demolished some time between 1952-1961, and thus ran in tandem for a couple decades with the current bridge. Take a look at some of the other examples of suburban scarchitecture here!

Additionally, the area south of where the original bridge was located had quarrying on either side of the road. That is now the Saq Quarries Forest Preserve, and it too has a long, straight parking lot and approach, as it was once Archer Av itself.

Looking south at the parking lot. In the distance, you can see where the current Archer Av diverges from this original alignment. This was one of the first photos I took with my then-new Nikon camera, which show that I was still learning good photography. (November, 2018)

Looking north. This path leads to the Cal-Sag Channel. Sadly, no bridge footers or approaches could be seen. There's very little evidence of the bridge here.

Today, the 4 lane bridge that exists today carries both IL-171 and IL-83, and has been in use since 1934, leaving St. James as the only point on the former route. The bridges were only necessary because of the construction of the Cal-Sag (short for Calumet-Saganashkee Channel).

Image: MWRD Historical Photo of the Day: Excavation for the Cal-Sag Channel on January 3, 1914. The Sanitary District of Chicago, now MWRD, built the 16-mile long channel from 1911 until 1922. Side note: I wish every government agency was as committed to preserving and sharing their history as the MWRD is. Great work!

You can clearly see steam power being used in this construction, meaning it's likely that the entire Channel is an abandoned railroad. As it was only used in construction, and most likely wasn't associated with a company outside of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago, I'm not going to add it to the map, unless someone sends me very detailed maps of its operation.

That said, this isn't the only abandoned railroad associated with Archer Ave, as the Chicago & Joliet Electric Railway offered interurban service paralleling the Chicago & Alton Railroad - now Metra's Heritage Corridor. One interesting tidbit of this line relating is that both the Lemont and Lockport Stations are the oldest depots in the Metra system, and were there when President Lincoln’s funeral train passed through.


One of the most famous ghost stories in the Chicago area involves the ghost of a young woman who has been known to hang out at nightclubs along Archer Ave, most notably the now-defunct Willowbrook Ballroom, which was destroyed by a fire in 2016.

Willowbrook sign long before the ballroom was closed due to a fire.

Her name is Resurrection Mary. The story goes that in the early 1930’s, Mary and a boyfriend got into a fight at the Willowbrook Ballroom, and Mary chose to walk home. This particular stretch of Archer Ave between Sag Bridge and Willowbrook is a very dark, wooded, two lane road, and numerous crosses sadly dot the side of the road as reminders of how dangerous driving is.

According to legend, Mary was one of these victims, as she hit by a pickup truck who fled the scene. Her grief stricken parents were forced to bury her at the nearby Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, IL, also along Archer.

Beginning in 1939, men would report seeing a young woman dressed in white hitchhiking on the side of the road, or drinking in bars, and ask for a ride home, only to have her disappear during the ride.

In perhaps the creepiest story, a man picked a woman named up and drove her to Resurrection Cemetery at her request, only to have her walk right though the locked gates and disappear. The gates were burned where her hand touched them. The cemetery maintains that they were damaged when a truck struck them in an accident.

Image of Resurrection Cemetery's gates that are "burned" from Mary. Photo by the Midnight Society.

There have been over three dozen reports of her sighting, and two possibilities as to who she may have been. Mary Bregovy, who is buried at Resurrection, was killed in an auto accident in downtown Chicago in 1934, and Anna Norkus, killed in a crash on her way home from the Willowbrook Ballroom in 1927.

Thank you as always for reading!


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