Ask Geoffrey: What's the History of Asylum Place?

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Geoffrey Baer investigates the history of Asylum Place, the explosive story behind a 1930s death caused by a manhole cover and what happened to magical Chicago restaurant chain.

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I came across a bizarre story in a 1937 Chicago Tribune about a manhole cover blowing up out of the street, smashing through an elevator shaft in a nearby building and killing a man in the elevator. Why would such a thing happen? Was it widespread in Chicago at that time?

–Patrick Dunne, Portage Park

This story really puts the freak in freak accident. An underground explosion blew a 150-pound manhole cover five stories into the air. It came crashing through a skylight and plummeted down an elevator shaft in the adjacent Hollander Storage Warehouse just north of Fullerton on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square.

The elevator was on the first floor when the manhole cover crashed through it, killing the operator, A.C. Day. Two others in the elevator escaped unharmed. The explosion was so big it blew off 17 manhole covers along Milwaukee Avenue between Kedzie and Western. Debris from the blasts also injured two women in their apartments and narrowly missed a streetcar.

Here’s the illustration that accompanied the Chicago Tribune story our viewer is talking about. Here’s the illustration that accompanied the Chicago Tribune story our viewer is talking about.

According to the article, witnesses said that the area had smelled like gasoline for days. Just before the explosions, the ground rumbled, then white vapor shot from the sewers propelling the manhole covers into the air. Investigators speculated that the culprit was gas from cleaning solutions illegally dumped into the sewers by nearby businesses that somehow ignited.

While we found a few reports of similar events over the years in other neighborhoods, it’s probably not fair to call it common. In 1920, a “pillar of fire” burst from a manhole in Bronzeville fed by gas from a leaking main. In 1939 in the Austin neighborhood, sewers there exploded in flame, severely burning one woman when the catch basin caught fire and shot a sheet of flame through her home, breaking all the windows. And in 1955, a manhole cover in the Irving Park neighborhood blew off of a ComEd manhole due to a short circuit in the electrical cables underneath it. Today, most manhole covers have holes in them that let gas and air escape, preventing potentially explosive gas buildup.

It does still happen occasionally. There are videos all over YouTube of exploding manhole covers, particularly in New York, where there were 32 reported “manhole events” in 2014.

As for Chicago, the most recent manhole event was in 2012, when an explosion in a ComEd vault blew off a manhole cover near Grand and Armitage. Luckily, no one was injured in that event.

As a child I remember eating at a Peter Pan restaurant here in the city. What was the history of the chain? What was their menu and when did they close?

–Patricia O’Connor, Lincoln Park

Peter Pan Snack Shops was an early hamburger chain in Chicago, with eight locations across the city. The first location was opened in 1945 in the Edgewater neighborhood by Chris Carson, who also owned other Chicago restaurants over the years. We spoke to his son, Dean Carson, for the story.

Based on Dean’s description it seems like Peter Pan was on a mission to restore the reputation of hamburgers in an era when ground beef was considered kind of low class or even suspect. Peter Pan burgers were served open-faced to showcase their high-quality beef, and the menu included innovative burger toppings like olives and banana peppers. According to Dean, Peter Pan also invented the local favorite known as the Francheezie – a hot dog split down the middle, stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon. The Francheezie still turns up on Chicago diner menus today. (We hear the famous Manny’s Deli has a fine version.)

Peter Pan doubled down on championing ground beef in 1952, when reports surfaced of meat suppliers adulterating their ground beef with horsemeat, scaring off customers. The shops proudly proclaimed their meat was 100 percent pure beef in an ad campaign and gave away 50,000 free burgers to their customers – bold moves that garnered the Peter Pan chain national publicity, according to Dean.

Not long after that, Chris Carson decided to cash out. He was newly married with a baby on the way, so he sold the growing business to someone who wanted to take the snack shops nationwide. A few Peter Pan Snack Shops did open outside of Chicago, including one in Boston, but when the new owner died in the early ‘60s, the business fizzled.

That wasn’t the end of the Carson family’s name in the Chicago restaurant scene, though. Dean Carson and his three siblings went on to open Carson’s The Place for Ribs, which has three locations in and around Chicago.

An 1863 plat of Cemetery Park (now Lincoln Park) shows a street named "Asylum Place" located at what is now Webster Avenue. What is the history of that street name?

–Dave Gudewicz, Third Lake

Our viewer is right, Webster Avenue at 2200 north used to be called Asylum Place. It’s pretty easy to understand why homeowners in that area might have been interested in changing the name. Asylum Place was renamed Webster between 1887 and 1897 to honor the statesman Daniel Webster.

We thought we found the origin of the street name in Alfred Andreas’ History of Chicago from 1884, which asserts Asylum Place is “so called because of the Orphan Asylum there.” The Beulah Home & Maternity Hospital was on North Clark Street and Asylum Place, just a couple of doors away from the garage where the St. Valentine’s Day massacre took place in 1929. Unmarried expectant mothers sought refuge and prenatal care at the home, which was founded in the early 1880s. The mothers would give birth and turn over their infants to the home for adoption.

In the 1920s and ‘30s the home was run by the Rev. Edward L. Brooks. In 1935, he was accused of providing inadequate medical care to the mothers and, at a separate facility in Michigan, even murdering their babies and pocketing the cash the mothers paid for their children’s care. Brooks was cleared of the charges, but he closed the home anyway the same year.

But there’s a fly in the ointment: The map our viewer mentions is from 1863, more than a decade before the orphan asylum was founded. So we went back to the drawing board, and our intern dug up an 1849 map that gives us a better theory.

The map shows what was then called an insane asylum, The Chicago Retreat for the Insane at Southport and Asylum Place. Dr. Edward Mead opened the asylum in 1847. Just a few years later a patient set it on fire and it burned to the ground. It was long gone by the time Andreas was writing his history, but the orphan asylum was most likely there. So it’s still just a theory – but we think it’s a pretty good one.

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