South Side Neighborhoods Tour Questions Answered

One of my favorite of our private tours is the Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity South Side Tour, because I get to take people to explore some of the South Side neighborhoods where I have lived, worked and studied. Even being a history enthusiast and a Chicago native, I still need to research a question from my tour guests now and then. That, of course, means I found all sorts of fun history!

Are all vertical-lift bridges for train traffic?

Canal Street vertical lift bridge south side tour
The Canal Street Bridge is Chicago’s only vertical lift span and, yep, it’s only for trains. Photo via Wikimedia.

We get some excellent views of the movable bridges over the Chicago River as we cross it on our South Side Tour. My favorite is the vertical-lift bridge just south of 18th St., originally called the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge. I point it out as the bus goes by and our student group tours especially seem to enjoy the marvel of it. I’ve always wanted to live in that little bridge tender’s house and used to live just a few blocks away in Pilsen. I also explain on the tour how unlike the other bridges we’re driving over, the vertical-lift bridge is only for railroad traffic.  

Now I don’t know about all vertical-lift bridges, but I have done some research on those in Chicago, of which there are few. The Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge is the only one that spans the Chicago River. The other handful are over the Calumet River. And, yes, they are all for railroads only. That means no cars, no trucks, no pedestrian traffic. Vertical-lift bridges distribute their weight in a way that can sustain the heavier weight of freight traffic.  

What exactly is Chicago Pile-1?

Chicago pile 1 University of Chicago Manhattan Project Enrico Fermi Stagg Field
The dawn of the atomic age was a pile of graphite and uranium underneath the old UChicago football stadium. Image from the US Department of Energy.

At the University of Chicago we see the site of the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Ok, let me be honest that whenever we come to this part of the tour, I have to make sure I say the right words. I really don’t know what a nuclear chain reaction is or what makes it self-sustaining. I just know that it happened here for the first time. So when a guest on the tour asked me to explain the science behind it, I had to do some research.  

The first nuclear reactor was called Chicago Pile-1, because it was a literal pile of graphite and uranium. The not-so-simple part is that the pile was layered in a precise geometrical arrangement, which enabled the reaction to continue to create itself–thus it was self-sustaining. That pile used over 800,000 pounds of materials costing approximately $1 million–that’s more than $16 million today! 

southsidetour chicago pile team
In the Chicago Pile Team, there was only one woman: Leona Marshall Libby. Photo via Los Alamos National Laboratory

The science is cool, but at Chicago Detours we are more interested in the stories and people behind the famous places. Once it became self-sustaining, the main physicist Enrico Fermi, opened a bottle of chianti to celebrate. Those who were present signed the straw around the bottle. Only one of those witnesses was a woman: Leona Marshall Libby.  She was definitely a badass chicago woman, who hid her pregnancy so long while she continued to work that Fermi feared he might have to deliver her baby atop Pile-2!

What’s so special about Ricobene’s?

I don’t remember the first time I went to Ricobene’s on 26th St., because I was a kid. Like many locals, I took one of my favorite places for granted and never thought about its significance. A couple of weeks ago though, I had the honor of taking my first private tour group there for lunch. So I did a little research to uncover the history behind the place.

Not only does Ricobene’s serve what has been called the best sandwich in the world, but it has been a South Side staple for almost 75 years! The original Mr. Ricobene is the grandfather of the current owner. Rosario Ricobene was an Italian immigrant to Chicago, just like my grandfather! He sold fruits and vegetables out of a truck on the South Side.  He started running a food stand in Bridgeport in 1946. When his sons took over in the 1970s, they introduced the breaded steak sandwich that is so celebrated today. On our South Side tour, guests can choose between it or a classic Chicago-style hot dog for a true taste of Chicago.

Join us for a South Side Tour!

Researching these questions is always rewarding, especially for private group tours like this one. It lets us guides delve deeper into these neighborhoods and cultural traditions in our stories. The South Side Neighborhoods Tour itself is consistently popular for student field trips and visiting convention groups. We’ve also done the tour with just a small family looking to reconnect with their South Side heritage. You can call us at 312-350-1131 or send an email to if you’d like to book a South Side Neighborhoods Tour for yourself.

– Elizabeth Tieri, Lead Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

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