mid-19th century mineral water bottles unearthed from site where grand central station once stood


a number of mid-19th century bottles were recently unearthed deep below the site of chicago’s former grand central station, with the four richly colored iron and smooth base soda bottles serving as the inspiration to further investigate the slew of structures that were built above ground dating back to the age of the bottles (1855-1859). the plot of land has been empty since the station's demolition in 1971, but glassware and other detritus unearthed predates even this most interesting occupant.


as an 1886 map illustrates, the area between harrison and polk just east of the river and west of wells (formerly fifth street) is largely industrial, occupied by scattered buildings. the land is labeled for the chicago dry dock company, the tait & ralston stone yard, and the excelsior carriage and wagon works farther south on fifth. toward polk, the land was occupied by addison ballard and p.g. doge & co. lumber yards. being adjacent to the river and to downtown, the lots seem to have been poised topographically for movement of people and goods, taking advantage of the access to passenger and freight markets on lake michigan. records confirm that the railroad company had a keen sense of the land's value, and sought to purchase it from the chicago dry dock company in the late 1880's.

in city directories from the mid-1850's until at least the mid-1870's, the site seems to be occupied by at least one stoneyard or stone cutting company operated by w.c. deakman, a contractor and dealer in lake superior brownstone. in 1859, louis boldenwick, william deakman, j.g. gindele were all principle stone contractors in the vicinity.

the corner of harrison and wells may now be conspicuously empty, but it is far from devoid of history. four mid-20th century bottles attest to the longevity of the area's use, with finds including two iron pontiled and two smooth base soda bottles in a range of brilliantly irridized cobalt blue glass, manufactured for chicago bottlers william henry hutchinson and george lomax. their proximity to the water suggests that the bottles may have been pitched from a passing schooner, though they easily could have been tossed by a worker hailing from one of the nearby businesses outlined on the 1886 map.

as for the site's later occupant, grand central station operated from 1890-1969, on a block bounded by harrison, wells, and polk streets along the chicago river. it was designed by solon spencer berman (architect of the pullman community and factory complex) for the Wisconsin central railroad, and was completed by the chicago and northern pacific railroad company. the baltimore and ohio railroad purchased the station in 1910 and used it as a terminal for rail service to washington (d.c.). solon constructed the train station from brick, brownstone and granite, creating a romanesque revival building with impressive arches and a tower at the corner of the northeast corner of the structure.

the interior of the station was lavish, with marble columns, stained glass and many amenities (including a 100-room hotel). the train shed in particular was considered an architectural gem, and much of the building was structurally innovative.

a small collection of bottles may not be a peak find, but these diminutive remnants help to generate clues or even spark interest in an earlier era, at a site whose industrial history and contributions to city growth are sadly overlooked time and again.

1908 view from tower