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Pabst Over Chicago: 1943

May 1, 1943. "South Water Street freight depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago." 4x5 Kodachrome transparency by Jack Delano. View full size.

May 1, 1943. "South Water Street freight depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago." 4x5 Kodachrome transparency by Jack Delano. View full size.


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Phantom Memory of a huge Chicago Phillips 66 Sign?

For decades I’ve had a childhood memory of seeing a huge Phillips 66 sign atop the Chicago skyline, while driving with my family in the “wayback” of the family station wagon on the way to visit our grandparents in Iowa. We were coming from Michigan, and driving on Chicago streets because the still-under-construction Interstate Highway System still had gaps. (We were probably driving on/towards westbound US-30.) I remember being in awe of a big neon Phillips 66 sign receding in the distance as my dad drove west. It was a wide straight street, very busy. The sign had lots of neon motion, even in the daylight. This memory (if real), would have been somewhere between about 1963 - 1968. But am I mistaken? Did the Phillips 66 sign never exist, and could this Papst sign be the one I saw?

Warehouse full of books

I believe the red brick warehouse-like building on the right (east) of the photo survived into at least the 1980s, serving as the temporary home of the Chicago Public Library's main branch after it moved from what is now the Cultural Center (location of many shots in DePalma's "The Untouchables" and just out of camera range to the left) and before the opening of the Harold Washington Library Center. I used their manual typewriters and xerox machines to peck out and photocopy my resume.

Why Boxcars are blue-flagged

These boxcars are blue-flagged because they have both their doors open and gangplanks spanning the openings between cars on adjacent tracks. This is also why they are all 40-foot cars and are all lined up with each other.

Less-than-Carload (LCL) freight is being handled here! This something that US railroads have discontinued; for decades, they haven't accepted any shipment less than one car load. As effective highway trucks were developed, they took this trade away from the RR's for obvious reasons.

But, back in the 1940's, RR's would handle a single crate! This required sorting en route, which is what is being done here. There's a large shift of workers shuffling LCL from one car to another by way of the side platforms and the above-mentioned gangplanks.

The LCL required local freight crews to handle this stuff into and out of the freight stations, and required station agents to get the cargo to and from customers, collect charges, etc. Very labor-intensive, yet somehow the trucking companies do it at a profit.

The early brakeman's plight

JKoehler, I read somewhere that a conductor remarked about brakemen in the days when cars used link-and-pin couplers, "If they still have their thumbs after three months, they must be really lazy!"


Any rolling stock or engine that is "blue-flagged" cannot be moved unless the person who placed the flag removes it. It's a safety rule, and for the protection of the workers, many of whom are between or under the cars.

The iconic "Santa Fe" sign referred to in earlier posts is now on display at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL - not too far from Chicago and well worth the trip!

Blue Flags?

Mr. Leaman pointed out the blue flags were being displayed incorrectly by todays rules. But not being a train enthusiast, what did they indicate in the first place?

Those catwalks

The "down-the-throat" shot of those catwalks atop of the freight cars gives the viewer a good idea of what the brakeman had to deal with while setting the brakes. The uneveness of those platforms, even at a standstill, is enough to make the average person think twice about climbing up and traversing these planks. Before airbrakes became the norm, this had to be one of the most harrowing jobs a railroad worker had to face. And this would be on a nice calm day. With rain, wind or snow, even the most seasoned brakeman must've had second thoughts.

Sign Background

If you look closely at the superstructure of the sign you can see the slogan "Blended 33 to 1" in the framework, which is seen far better in the nighttime shot Dave linked to. As to whether this would be considered animation I don't know, but a typical setup would be to light the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, then switch to the "Blended" slogan, then light both. Don't know if that was done here.

Makes you feel like a hero

Even now, when I get a color transparency (2 1/4x2 1/4 or 4x5) and look at if for the first time, it is stunning. I can't imagine what it must have looked like to someone seeing it color for the first time ever!

From Pabst To Rolling Rock Beer "33"

This photograph has also added another “answer” to the question: “What does the “33” on the label of a bottle of Rolling Rock Beer mean?”

One person seeing this photograph concluded on a Rolling Rock Beer forum that the Rolling Rock "33" may have referenced the smoothness of blending “33 to 1.”

Pabst sign

The Pabst sign was next to Randolph Street Bridge; refer to the 1922 Zoning map that is available at the University of Chicago library site - the Illinois Central may very well have called the yard the 'Water Street Yard,' but Water Street moved to the South Side when Wacker Drive was created after 1924; the Pabst sign was located nearest the Randolph Street bridge and is the current location of the Prudential Building, not the Pritzker Pavillion.

Going to Chicago

It's interesting to think that Muddy Waters would have just arrived in Chicago when this photo was taken.

Driving and Drinking

This was indeed the Chevy sign. Pabst took it over. You can still make out the Chevy logo in the superstructure of the sign. The lower left hand corner of the "B" in Blue and the upper right hand corner of the N in "Ribbon" served as the edges of the classic Chevy "bowtie" logo.

South Water Street Today

This photo is facing North on South Water Street and intersecting roughly what is now Columbus Drive. The ground level of this photograph is now covered by an elevated roadway in this area. If you went to this spot today, the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park designed by Frank Gehry would be just behind you.

The Playboy Building is visible in the background, now once again called the Palmolive Building and converted to condominiums. It sits between the Drake Hotel and John Hancock Tower at the end of the Magnificent Mile. The Drake is not tall enough to be in view here.

The Allerton Hotel and Northwest University Law School in Streeterville are also visible here, which they wouldn't be today from the site, although they are still standing.

Several of the mid-rise buildings in this photograph are no longer standing, in particular the large red-brick warehouse at the center mid-ground, to the right of the Playboy/Palmolive. This is where the NBC Tower now stands, just north of the river.

Chevrolet Sign

After viewing this clip of the Chevy sign, I'm fairly convinced that it and the 'Pabst' sign are one and the same. Shown in the clip of the Chevy sign is the same tall building that is located to the left of the Pabst sign in the photo. There are other similarities as well, like the circular design of the sign, the clock at the lower right, etc. It's my guess that Pabst took over the sign after Chevy and made the slight changes to suit their logo.

Chevrolet Sign

This is a film clip of another Chicago sign. It shows how animated signs were operated. I can't find any date, but the technology looks like 1940 or so.


I see the tallest building to the far left when I'm going to and from school. It's surrounded by a bunch of other buildings now.


Thanks Dave, do you know if the sign was animated in any way?

[The hands on the clock moved! If you mean did various parts of the sign blink on and off, I don't know. - Dave]

Pabst Sign

Can anybody tell me if this sign was was animated and are there any night time shots of it?

[The nighttime shot of this neon sign is here. - Dave]

Water Street Depot

It appears we are looking north from either Monroe or Randolph. I want to say we're looking from Monroe and that bridge spanning the width of the pic under the sign is Randolph. The row of low-rise buildings on the left side of the pic that are ~6 stories tall and have the water towers on top of them would then be on the east side of Michigan Ave and sitting directly on the north side of Randolph. I believe these trains are in the area east of Michigan Ave and north of Monroe, but south of Randolph as it used to be a railyard (now Millennium Park, north of the Art Institute).

Furthermore there were never any buildings previously on this spot, as it would have either been a rail yard or part of Grant Park (where no buildings were allowed to be built, except for the Art Institute). This leads me to believe that we are looking north from Monroe towards Randolph and beyond. The vast empty space behind the Pabst sign spanning the whole width of the image would now be occupied by Illinois Center, the Prudential Building and of course the tall white AON Building (3rd largest in Chciago at the moment), or whatever they call it these days.

Bootcamp Beer

I went to Navy bootcamp in Great Lakes Il. in 1983 and after spending 10 wks. without beer our first chance to have a brew came. Unfortunatly for me the ONLY beer avaliable to us at the time was Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now, not being a Pabst fan I was very unhappy about that but after 10 tough weeks I said "what the heck" and ordered a couple of beers. I'll tell you what, that was the best beer I've ever had. I got so drunk the rest of the day was blur. I'd like to say "Thanks you Pabst" for the best beer ever and day I don't remember.

Good Railroad Shot

The blue flags placed on the cars would be a violation of federal regulations today as they now have to be located at the switch providing access to the track. Also, note that several of the cars are on "yard air" in order to test the brakes on each car prior to movement. Finally you can see that this photo provides good images of several different types of car ends all together in one place.

As I am from Milwaukee, I have no clue as to which buildings are which! I do know that the photo is definitely facing north as I now work for the South Shore commuter railroad and am familiar with the lakefront. I also know that the original Santa Fe railroad corporate headquarters was almost directly to the west of this photo and is still there today with the Santa Fe sign on top. It is now an historic landmark.


There is no question about it, this photo is facing north.

33 to 1

Here's a 1940 Pabst ad that explains it.

33 to 1?

Blended 33 to 1? That sounds like a strange formula to me...but of course I'm not informed on the whole beer and beer history thing.

Fellow (ex-)Chicagoan

Definitely facing North, definitely the Carbon & Carbide building - my dad used to have an office there. Not sure about the Playboy Towers.... might that be the Drake Hotel?


I believe this photo is facing north. Quite a few of the skyscrapers are still there. All the way to the left, the black & gold building is the Carbide & Carbon (or is it Carbon & Carbide?) building on Michigan Ave. I seem to remember something about it being the "first" skyscraper. Just to the right, with the little cupola on top, is the original Stone Container Building at Wacker & Michigan Avenues. Off in the furthest distance in the center of the photo you can see what was originally called the Pamolive building (it became Playboy Towers, and is now a condo building). I think the building behind the Pabst sign at the right edge of the sign is the Chicago Tribune building, and across from it (underneath the main part of the sign) you can see the white building that is the Wrigley building. They flank Michigan Ave. just north of the Chicago river.

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