The City That Rides
Chicago’s railed past
See Illinois (unpublished)
Railroads made Chicago into an industrial giant. The city sat at or at least near the spot where westbound railroad tracks and highways were obliged to detour around Lake Michigan. Transporting goods and people by rail is as central to the history of Chicago and environs as politics is to Springfield’s. Meat packing, steelmaking, oil refining, mail-order retailing, food processing, industries of a hundred kinds set up shop in and around Chicago because of the ease with which raw materials could be moved in and finished goods shipped out. Railroading also was a sizable industry itself, and a not insignificant source of city lore. Some of Chicago’s biggest fortunes and baddest reputations were made in the game.
“Rail” is a term of expansive meaning. Many kinds of vehicles running on tracks have served, and still, serve Chicagoland. The locomotives that haul freight or passengers cars from town to town are not the only form of the technology, although their essential technology did animate a menagerie of vehicles that eventually were harnessed to virtually every transportation need facing the city—the streetcar, drawn by horses at first, later by central steam engines through the mechanism of a constantly moving cable—the cable car—and lastly by electric motors fed by overhead wires—the trolley. The elevated railroads or “rapid transit” lines at first were mini-railroads that later morphed into high-speed trolleys; commuter railroads are proper railroads, albeit with a specialized cargo. Interurban trains were glorified trolleys meant for intercity travel a technology that in its more advanced versions survives today as “light rail.”
This sketch recounts the development of private railroads that moved passengers and freight from city to city within and without Chicagoland. (I deal with rail-based public transit in Chicago here, Chicago aviation here, and Chicago highways and expressways and tollways here.) It is taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
“Like a plant on water, Chicago fed on the very cinders of locomotives.” If water bore Chicago to cityhood, it was the steel rail on which the city rode to greatness. That the railroads turned Chicago into a trading and later a manufacturing giant of its day need not be belabored. When railroad company bigwigs decided in 1883 to convert the more than 100 local time zones then in use in the continental U.S. to the four still is use today, it was natural that they met to do it in Chicago, at the Grand Pacific Hotel at LaSalle and Jackson.
That the railroads made Chicago great, and some of its people rich, is plain enough. It also made the city ever-more unpleasant to live in. The trains brought wealth and people to the city but trailed in their wake noise, stink, and coal fumes from a thousand smokestacks. So bathed in smoke and ash and dust from more than 300 trains a day was the land east of the Illinois Central’s tracks in Hyde Park that its growth was stunted; when the IC electrified its commuter service in 1926 (having been ordered to largely to reduce pollution) the area, newly visible and thus viable, took off commercially.
The trains also left a lot of blood on the tracks. For decades trains killed and maimed hundreds of pedestrians at crossings each year in Chicago. “Everywhere trains come into Chicago,” wrote Waldo Frank in 1919. “In the moneyed precincts by the Lake, in the endless wooden miles of the poor West Side, in the industrial hells to the South. A vast flat city, cut to bits by tracks of steel. A lacerated city. A city destroyed by the iron flails that beat it into being.” To stop the carnage, the city eventually set about removing most rail traffic from street level, raising tracks above the streets or burying them in trenches, a project nearly as costly and not nearly as celebrated as its lifting itself out of the mud in the 1850s.
Among other travails, the rail traffic sometimes caused massive traffic jams. “The railroad tracks are the cords that hold the Chicago Gulliver supine,” wrote A. J. Liebling in 1952. “They crisscross the town in a kind of ticktacktoe game in which the apparent object of each line is to stop its competitors from getting out of town.” The traffic jams on the streets were nothing compared to the traffic jams on the tracks. Sorting out freight cars from one train and connecting it a new one became so daunting that in the winter of 1909-10 the entire system came to a standstill.
Together the trains transformed the region, and still are essential to its prosperity. It has been a long time since the railroads enjoyed a near monopoly on intercity freight- and people-hauling. But Chicago is still a big railroading town, as railroading towns go thee days. Amtrak, whose Union Station remains a major hub in that shriveled system, handles 40 trains arriving or departing from Union Station each day. And Cook County to this day is North America's largest rail hub. In 2003, 1,100 trains hauled some 2.5 million tons of freight aboard 37,500 railcars every day. Understanding the railroads is useful if one wants to understand the Chicago of 1854 or 2004.
Just as the trains had come to Chicago because the boats were here, the trucks came to Chicago because the trains were here, which is why Cook County is the world's leading intermodal port for the transfer of containers between trucks and trains, handling more cargo containers than anywhere but Hong Kong and Singapore. The Chicago metropolitan region handles more than 41,700 outbound truckloads a day, half of all U.S. container traffic flows through the area, and one-third of the nation’s rail and truck cargo in all forms moves to, from or through the Chicago region.
Where All Railroads Met: Intercity Rail in Chicagoland
One can no more talk about Chicago without talking about railroads than one can talk about New York City without talking about Wall Street. Tales of the railroads’ construction—and the much more entertaining sagas of their financing and regulation—make up a good part of the city’s 19th century history, indeed that of the nation.
We will here merely remind readers of the fact that a city that in 1850 was served by but one railroad was by 1856 the point at which ten trunk lines linked to half the continent converged. Those tracks brought 58 passenger trains and 38 freight trains into the city each day, making it the world’s busiest rail center. And after the Civil War, railroading really took off. Bby 1880 the city was served by nearly 20 main line roads and terminal and switching companies, the latter kept busy digging out from under the avalanche of freight cars that rumbled into the city every day. By 1950, Chicago was linked to the world by more than three dozen main line roads.
Such was the concentration of rail lines in the region that the railroads were themselves a major industry. Aurora, home of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy shops, was only one of the hinterland cities whose biggest employer was a railroad. The industry’s need for rails created a demand for steel that had a lot to do with stimulating that industry; the first steel rail made in America was produced in Chicago, at the North Chicago Rolling Mill Company on the North Branch of the Chicago River, in 1865.
One of the vagaries of the rail system that evolved in the city was that no trains went through Chicago; they all went to it, and travelers who wished to continue in any direction had to change trains, and often, wait for one. As a result, even people who didn’t wish to stay in Chicago were obliged to do so. To accommodate people during these delays, hoteling grew from a business into an industry.
And while it was hard to get out of Chicago, it was easy to get to it, so its future as a convention center was secured. (Chicago had hosted its first national convention in 1847, and its first national political convention in 1860, when the new Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.) The traffic in travelers is why Chicago was for a time home to the world’s largest hotel—the Conrad Hilton and Towers on South Michigan. It still is home to the nation’s largest convention center—McCormick Place, with more than 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space. McCormick Place’s worth to the local economy is measured in billions. It is the scene of some of the more astonishing sights in modern Chicago; few other places can one see thousands of radiologists and plumbing contactors gathered in one spot. It is the descendant of the Resting Place of All Concrete, as local wags remember the first of its now three buildings.
The shaping power of the steel roads was no less irresistible in the suburbs. Railroads carried Commerce, and where commerce went development of all kinds followed. Freight depots attracted shippers, repair and fabrication shops attracted workers. Farmers with access to new markets had money to spend; railway men with good jobs needed houses to live in. New towns sprouted along the rights of way like weeds along the tracks to tend to these needs.
A fairly typical example is that of West Chicago likes to call itself “the first Illinois community created by railroads.” The town was platted, if not incorporated, in 1849 as the town of "Junction" by the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, the town being at the intersection of that line and the then-St. Charles Branch Railroad and the Aurora Branch Railroad; the 1900 census indicated that 40 percent of the town’s nonfarm workers worked for the C&NW, the corporate successor to the St. Charles.
Railroads were the agent of dispersal more than a half-century before the advent of the automobile and truck, which are usually cast as villain in contemporary melodramas about sprawl. Freight lines such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) offered free land along their routes for factory sites—a boon to both city and companies at first, as the city then had more factories than it had room. Harvey was laid out where the Grand Trunk and Illinois Central railroads crossed at about 155th Street, thus offering superb rail access to the rest of the nation. Harvey himself built a railroad car factory in the new town, and offered free land and cash incentives to others. In a little less than two years, the city had ten manufacturing plants; by 1911 its manufacturers were cranking out everything from mining and ditching machinery to stoves.
The need to reroute freight trains around the crowded city center was plain as early as the 1870s. Local entrepreneurs in 1882 chartered a new “terminal railroad“ that linked every major railroad in the city via a new Belt Railway that circumvented downtown in an arc from Lake Calumet past the Clearing Industrial District and the Hawthorne Works in Cicero to the industrial West Side. Later belt lines were laid, in ever-wider arcs as the city grew outward—the Indiana Harbor Belt Railway which connected the near west suburbs to the South Side industrial district, and the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad, which ran from the mills and refineries of northwest Indiana west then north and east to North Chicago. As historian Robert Bruegmann has noted, these belt railways anticipated by a half-century today’s system of expressway and tollway bypasses that sought, rather less successfully, to do for motor vehicle traffic what the belt railways did for trains.
Keeping the freight—and thus Chicago’s economy—moving also meant abandoning old city-center yards in favor of modern new facilities in the suburbs. There, a jumble of freight cars could be sorted out for assignment as through trains were broken up and reassembled for the next phase of their trips across the country. The task demanded, and got, the kind of technical and organizational ingenuity that had allowed the Union Stockyards to do essentially the same operations on hogs and cattle. One plan called for a massive circular track (circumference one mile); proposed in 1889 by A. B. Stickney of the Chicago Union Transfer near the town that bears his name, Stickney’s circular “clearing yard” was never built but same job was done by a more conventional sorting yard that opened in nascent form in 1902. Markham Yards, fully three miles long, were built by the Illinois Central south of Harvey in the south suburbs in the 1920s. The Chicago & Northwestern’s Proviso Yards in Melrose Park, sometimes called “Hump” because of the incline controlling switching operations, is one of the largest railroad yards in the world. There, freight cars are distributed onto one of 59 tracks as new trains are assembled.
One of the main cargoes that railroads hauled in and out of Chicago for decades was people. Downtown Chicago was the place that, it seemed, half the people in the country heading from one corner of the country to some other corner passed through. Chicago was prime spot for celebrity-spotters, as it is today for bird watchers; just as the city sits on the flyway that connects the winter feeding grounds to summer breeding grounds, so Chicago sat on the “rollway” between New York and Los Angeles where movie stars and politicians and musicians nested between migrations.
Some of the most famous passenger trains in America ran in and out of Chicago—the Santa Fe’s Super Chief out of Los Angeles, a favorite of the movie stars; the New York Central's 20th Century Limited that ran between New York and Chicago by way of the Hudson River; the Pennsylvania's Broadway Limited, which provided overnight service direct to Pennsylvania Station in New York City.
Perhaps most famed was the Burlington, Chicago and Quincy's Zephyr which debuted at the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago in 1934. The, diesel-powered Zephyr was a jet liner of a train—streamlined stainless steel body that moved through air some 33% more efficiently than did the clunky steam engines of the time, air-conditioned cars with recessed fluorescent lighting, and diesel engines that enabled it to cut time on some routes almost in half. The Zephyr and kindred trains made train travel exciting again, and helped reverse, for a time, the drop in ridership that attended the first few years of the Depression.
Industry on Wheels
The intercity railroads were for decades the colossuses of American enterprise, and Chicago was home to some of the biggest. Simply building and maintaining the system sustained a massive manufacturing enterprise. Rails, brake parts, switches, lights, wheels, and engines of all kinds made in Chicago. The railroads were the first big customer for the city’s fledgling steel industry; by the 1880s, Chicago-area steel mills were rolling nearly a third of all the rails made in the U.S.
The big railroad companies all had repair and fabrications shops that were major factories themselves. The Aurora shops of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy was typical; they worked from 1856 to 1974, and at their busiest around 1910 employed 2,400 men.
Rail cars were a local specialty. Pullman Palace Car Company was the largest as well as the most famous of these manufacturers, and, as the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company, remained so for decades. The Pullman plant at peak production employed 12,000; the strike of Pullman workers in summer of 1894 was able to paralyze the nation’s rail system because sympathizing workers across the country refused to handle trains pulling Pullman cars—and that meant most of them.
Other major firms included the Eagle Works, the American Car Company, and the Union Car Works, many of which specialized, as Pullman did, in specialty cars, in these cases refrigerator cars, hoppers, or tankers. The GM Electric-Motor Division had giant plant in McCook that for a time employed 11,000 making locomotives, but the (temporary) decline in railroading and international competition meant that production of the big machines was halted in Chicagoland in the 1990s. Chicago remains a center of railroad supply, but local firms serve a vastly smaller industry.
By the 1970s, Chicago’s intercity rail firms were, like the city’s steel mills and packing plants, mere shadows of their former robust selves. The railroads were hampered by regulated rates, featherbedding by unions—finally outlawed in the 1970s—worn-out or neglected facilities, competition from trucking, and indifferent management. Much freight business was lost to trucks, and cross-country passenger travel virtually disappeared. The industry responded with consolidations by the score. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, one of the region’s great lines, underwent a typical metamorphosis; it became the Burlington Northern, which became the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Most of the companies whose names so many schoolboys knew by heart are long gone from the Loop, having merged or moved; the Railway Exchange Building at Jackson and Michigan, now known as the Santa Fe Center, remains one of the classic Loop offices buildings—but in a symbolic move the Santa Fe moved its corporate offices to Schaumburg—a quintessential automobile city—in the 1990s.
In a sense, Chicago’s best rail museum is the city itself. Move through the city and one sees remnants of the railroad era everywhere—and not only in the obvious artifacts such as bridges and switching yards. The main-line railroads shaped mid-to-latter 19th Chicago the way that the automobile shaped, say, Schaumburg in the mid-to-latter 20th, giving the city a physical form particular to the era. The massive infrastructure of rails and yards and bridges were, in important ways, Chicago‘s landscape. Historian Carl Condit: “In no city of the world has the railroad played a more pervasive role, extended its sheer physical presence to a greater magnitude, offered more possibilities for economic growth, or created more serious and refractory problems than in Chicago.”
The railroads’ presence downtown gave the city the shape familiar today. Tracks appropriated vast swaths of the most useful real estate in the city; one of the reasons businesses are concentrated in the Loop was that expansion to the south was blocked by a maze of tracks and—an even more daunting a barrier—a maze of deeds and leases. The result was to make land scarce and thus dear, which had multiple consequences in turn. Land costs accelerated the pressure to build up rather than out, a pressure measurable in the ever-growing height of early Chicago skyscrapers. Since firms that could not expand upwards could no longer build downtown, businesses as early as the 1850s began heading to the city’s periphery—thus did the railroads abet both extreme centralization and dispersal.
Access to the river harbor that was the prize at the end of the line was essentially unrestricted by the city authorities. Tracks ran along the west bank of the South Branch and the north side of the main stem. The Illinois Central dominated the downtown lakefront with its stations and yards beginning in 1852, leading one student of city planning to write, “Of all the elements that shaped Chicago’s downtown lakefront, only Lake Michigan was more constant than the Illinois Central.” Grant Park became a park because the lakefront at that spot was an easily fillable slack water lagoon, which was because the Illinois Central had built an offshore trestle across a lake embayment that acted as a breakwater. Transforming a muddy backwater into a great commercial city is impressive, but the railroads could even turn water into dry land.
Accommodating the Suburbs: Commuter Rail in Chicagoland
The glamour trains running between U.S. big cities may be gone, but the more mundane business of moving people between Chicago and its suburbs, and from suburb to suburb within Chicagoland, keeps hundreds of trains a day running. And because the City of Chicago had banned railroads from what became the Loop, passenger rail stations thus had to be built on edges of downtown, which created the need for public carriers to ferry passengers to and from Loop hotels or other stations. Young says that transferring intercity riders was the market that spurred development of mass transit.
The rail connection between city and hinterland was first made by main-line passenger railroads that made scheduled stops on their ways into and out of the city. Such stops were infrequent, and tickets anything but cheap, but enough riders hopped aboard for the local legs of these intercity trains to suggest that a substantial potential market for such travel existed.
The first commuter railroad service as such began in either 1855, when the Chicago & Milwaukee began service to Waukegan via “accommodation” trains that offered passenger service to an from local stops on their tracks within the Chicagoland area on what were essentially freight-hauling main lines. In 1856, the Illinois Central began running its own accommodation trains on four daily round trips over the seven miles between 53rd Street in Hyde Park and its terminal at Lake Street.
Credit is usually given to the IC as the first true commuter railroad in Chicago, indeed in the then-West. The service was encouraged, indeed had been engineered by Hyde Park’s farsighted developer Paul Cornell. Convenient access to the city was the pixie dust that would transform his village from a summer resort to year-round suburb. To get it, Cornell gave the IC a corridor through his land on which it could build new tracks; more persuasively, he agreed to subsidize any deficits the company might incur.
Those debut trains ran empty—not, as it happened, a trustworthy portent of the future of either Hyde Park or of commuter railroading. The IC offered discounted, or commuted, fares for regular riders that matched the low fare charged by Chicago’s slower omnibuses for the same trip, and ridership boomed. As the commuter rail helped the suburb grow, so the suburb helped the commuter line grow. Within two years the IC began adding new stops, at Woodlawn and Kenwood, and by 1893 the line’s regular suburban service was ferrying more than 11 million riders a year to and from the city. At its peak in 1929, IC commuter service carried 35 million riders. Until the early 1960s, when white flight began to vitiate the area, the IC ran trains to Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago every ten minutes, all day, Monday through Saturday.
The IC was the local pioneer, but soon, railroads such as the Rock Island, Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Wabash all committed to ferrying Chicagoland’s commuters. By 1903, Chicagoland’s commuter railroads were carrying almost 34 million passengers a year.
As happened in Hyde Park, the railroad companies profited from, and to a considerable extent created suburbanization as a mass phenomenon. Speedy travel to what had been the region’s far horizons opened vast tracts of land previously inaccessible to development. These “railroad suburbs” attracted mainly well-to-do homebuyers who could afford the daily fares and who were eager to escape the city every day, which many had heretofore done only on a seasonal basis.
Typical of the effects that commuter rail services had on dozing country towns was what happened to La Grange. Farmers in western Cook County petitioned the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad to extend an existing line to their settlement in the 1860s; the first commuters in and out of La Grange were milk cans. The trains gave La Grange farmers access to city markets, but they also gave home-buyers access to La Grange. Demand quickly justified commuter-only runs; the Burlington began a regular commuter service to LaGrange in the 1870s, and by 1876 ten trains were running daily between Chicago and Aurora.
There are many railroad suburbs in Chicagoland, although many have been absorbed into the growing city, and their origins as once-distant suburbs are not always obvious. One such was Edgebrook, Bounded by Central and Devon avenues, the Chicago River, and the Edgebrook Golf Course on what is today Chicago’s far North Side. It was laid out in 1894 on land near the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, and was a railroad suburb in a very literal ay—many company officials were among its founding residents.
So many new suburban retreats popped up along the Chicago and Northwestern tracks leading north and northwest out of Chicago that David Buisseret, author of the Historic Illinois From the Air, “One could almost say that, as the Illinois Central colonized the middle of the state, so the Chicago and Northwestern colonized northern Cook County.” Most lines had that effect on the countryside they rolled through. Between 1860 and 1900 the numbers of railroad suburbs jumped from 9 to 56, and by 1930 to 87.
Because they were interstate operations commuter rail companies were regulated by federal agencies and thus regulated than the various transit companies that served the intracity rider. The lines also were better managed and better financed, thanks to the fact that they were owned and run by big rail companies. The Illinois Central was typical of the best. The suburban middle class demanded speed, convenience, and comfort, and the IC profitably gave them all three. The company early on invested in separate ROWs from its own freight and intercity passenger trains.
The IC also used specialized cars. (Those on the IC were famous; its dark green cars with rattan seats that ran until the mid-1960s, when charm no longer compensated for the lack of air-conditioning and other amenities that a new generation of commuters had come to demand.) The double-decker passengers cars—known to the fastidious rail aficionado as Bilevel gallery coaches—are today the signature equipment on most Chicagoland commuter routes; in one form or another they have been used since their introduction by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1950.
The steam trains run by commuter lines offered hugely faster service than could trolleys or streetcars, but the technology was found wanting in other ways. Steam trains were noisy and dirty for one thing. Riverside was the first stop on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, but the town’s planner, Frederick Law Olmsted, dismissed the railroad as an “unsatisfactory” way for Riversidians to commute, and laid plans for a paved carriage road that would offer a way to make the trip without the stink and rattle of the train. Cleaner-burning diesel locomotives or (in the case of the IC, electrification) eliminated pollution as a nuisance, at least to riders.
Main-line suburban “steam” railroads—so-called to distinguish them from the cable cars and electric trolleys that served the intracity rider or the electric interurbans that competed with them for the commuter trade—could afford to carry commuters only because their profits from freight on same lines subsidized the service. The end to that subsidy derailed commuter service financially just as maintenance and labor costs and competition from the automobile rose. (Tellingly, ridership peaked in the pre-Depression years, when people had money and no cars, and during World War II, when people had cars but no gas.)
Commuter rail remained an essential public service—nearly 300,000 commuters ride the rails each workday in recent years—even after it became a private money-loser. The solution was a half-hearted socialism. As recently as 1972, nine separate private railroads provided commuter rail service in the Chicago area. All eventually became parts of Metra, the agency set up to run commuter tail in 1984 for the new Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). The Metra commuter rail system is the jewel of the Chicagoland’s public transit system, being reliable and affordable and safe and—miracle—solvent. The 495-mile Metra system serves 230 stations in the counties of Cook, Du Page, Lake, Will, McHenry and Kane.
In-between Trains: The Interurban Era
“Interurban” trains were an in-between technology—for the most part they used heavier and faster cars than streetcars, but in most cases were operated as trolleys that ran from town to town rather than block to block. They served an in-between market in the form of burgeoning suburban areas that no longer rural but were not yet quite cities. From the 1890s until the 1940s, interurban trains linked Chicago to Joliet, Plainfield, Aurora, Elgin, Lockport, Waukegan, Chicago Heights and Frankfort and kindred places across Chicagoland. At one point the region’s interurban system boasted nine lines running on more than 460 miles of track.
Interurban trains, in general, were not rail transportation’s noblest creatures. Compared to the commuter railroads, which offered faster travel (if fewer stops), the interurbans were pokey. The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin, which ran from Chicago west through Villa Park to Wheaton (where it forked into branches linking it to its namesake cities) was sarcastically referred to as the "Roaring Elgin." (The CA&E’s financial performance wasn’t much flashier; in its later, financially strapped years it was commonly known or "Insull's Folly," after the financier who owned it. The Palatine, Lake Zurich and Wauconda railroad came to be known as the Palatine, Lake Zurich and Walk railroad, because its engines had trouble pulling the load up steeply graded stretches of track if there were too many passengers aboard. (The trestle in Lake Zurich built to cross the EJ&E tracks was one such spot.) Riders were then forced to exit the train, walk across the trestle and then meet the train on the other side.
Many interurban riders came to regard such faults as loveable quirks, judging from the affection with which the trains are remembered (although it should be noted that the most effusive praise for the old lines come from people who rode them as children, and who recall them more as amusement park rides than transportation.)
Not all the region’s interurbans were Toonerville Trolleys. The Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad is missed even today in that part of Chicagoland not for its foibles but its quality, and no wonder. Any train that connected the thirsty sailors and soldiers of Great Lakes to the first "wet" stop south of Ft. Sheridan (at Howard Street in Chicago) was bound to attract passengers. Its tracks also touched on popular resort spots such as Illinois Beach, sites of religious pilgrimage (including a stop at Wrigley Field), and festival grounds such as Ravinia.
The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad was the pride of Samuel Insull, England’s gift to the bad reputation of American big business. Insull was the utilities magnate par excellence. Insull took over the Chicago Edison Company and turned it into the local power monopoly known as Commonwealth-Edison. His Chicago area holdings eventually included Com Ed, People's Gas, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company; at its peak Insull companies operated more than 300 steam and nearly 200 hydroelectric generating plants.
A lot of that electricity was purchased by electric railways such as Chicagoland’s streetcars, els, and interurbans. Indeed, Insull had inherited the Yerkes system; the streetcar companies owed Insull’s electricity company a lot of money; taking them over in 1911 was the only way he said he could get his money.
If it was in Insull’s interest to see electric public transit become popular, it was also in his power, in every way, to make that happen. Insull expanded and improved every line he bought, and he bought plenty, starting with the North Shore Line in 1916. (Insull lived in baronial splendor on the North Shore, and bought the railroad the way other suburbanites might buy a Buick—because he wanted to nicer ride to work.) Insull went on to become the godfather of Chicagoland’s interurbans, adding to his holding the Chicago South Shore and South Bend (1924), and the Chicago Aurora and Elgin railroads (1926).
Insull’s interurbans were the only ones in Chicagoland to survive the Depression, thanks largely to the fact that they were able to carry riders right into the Loop. That was thanks to a deal worked between Insull and the owner of the el tracks—one Samuel Insull. The Great Depression eventually brought Insull’s over-leveraged empire crashing down. Reviled by the press and public and hounded by creditors, Insull left Chicago in 1932 on a rail—not one of his own—and never came back.
During Insull’s heyday in the 1920s, the North Shore Line operated three suburban routes—the original Shore Line (which ran from what is now the Linden Street CTA station in Wilmette to Milwaukee), a Mundelein branch, which ran west from Lake Bluff, and the Skokie Valley Bypass (which ran on tracks now used by the CTA’s Skokie Swift from Howard before turning north along the route of the future Edens Expressway before rejoining the main line in North Chicago). The Skokie Valley run was a high-speed line built to bypass the congested suburbs along the original Shore Line. Shore Line cars were streetcars in effect, but on the Skokie Valley run the famous Electroliner cars were able to open up to 70 mph. These top speeds earned the North Shore its nickname as America's Fastest Interurban, although fast interurbans was a category as underpopulated as honest Chicago alderman. (The journal of the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society is titled First & Fastest) At its peak, in 1923, the North Shore—aka The Road of Service and the Route of the Electroliners, although it could also have been called The Road of the Sloganeers—carried 16 million passengers a year.
In retrospect it is easy to see that Chicagoland’s interurbans were doomed. For one thing, they were slow. If the trains were more like railroads than streetcars, they were more like streetcars than railroads; while they sped along in their own rights-of-way in the open country, in towns they ran down the middle of the street—and in the middle local traffic. Many interurban routes were paralleled by passenger operations of the main-line trains, which offered faster service into the city. And few interurbans had enough freight business to subsidize their services to commuters and day trippers, as the commuter railroads did.
The automobile is usually blamed for putting the interurbans out of business, and indeed the interurbans were easily outcompeted by cars for most trips once average families could afford to buy them, and the government built the highways to drive them on. The interurbans survived through the 1930s (even if their companies did not) because people couldn’t afford cars, and they survived the 1940s because wartime Chicagoans could not get gasoline and tires. The postwar prosperity ended such privations. The Aurora & Elgin, which during the war had carried some 30,000 riders a day, was literally destroyed by the new expressways; in 1953 the Garfield Park elevated, which had long carried CA&E trains into the Loop, was demolished to make room for the Congress Expressway.) Passenger service ended on the CA&E in 1958, with the remaining freight operations gone by 1962.
When U.S. Highway 41 was upgraded into the Edens Expressway in 1947–52, ridership on the North Shore began to slip too, sliding eventually to four million a year from a peak of 16 million. The Shore Line south of Highwood closed in 1955 for want of riders, all trains thereafter running on the company’s newer and faster Skokie Valley route to the west. Service on even that track lasted only another eight years, however, and the rest of the system was shut down in 1963.
History on a Siding
Trains no longer dominate the Chicagoland landscape, indeed are hardly visible, but move through downtown like rats in a wall. The sprawling yards in downtown Chicago are gone (see below), and the trains rumble by largely unseen. The Illinois Central’s commuter trains have long run in a ditch through Grant Park, and that line’s old yard at Monroe Street were recently covered by the $475 million Millennium Park. Most freight operations have been banished to remote yards on the periphery of the city.
Of the six main line passengers terminals that operated in downtown Chicago, four—the Illinois Central’s Central Station at 12th Street and Michigan, Grand Central Station at Wells at Harrison, the Chicago and North Western Station at Madison at Canal, and LaSalle Street Station at LaSalle at Van Buren—have been torn down, although the terminals of the last two continue to serve commuters. Union Station survives and the Dearborn Station at Dearborn at Polk still stands, minus its imposing tower, but it has been converted to offices and shops.
A few of the big yards can still be seen downtown. (One is the Metra/Burlington Northern suburban train yard south of Union Station.) Declining freight revenues forced many firms to capitalize on their last remaining asset, and many acres of unused rail yards disappeared beneath office towers and overpriced condos and townhouses. Illinois Center is a development of the land south of East Wacker Drive and north of Grant Park that is the site of the 80-story Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center) among other lesser buildings; the whole project was built above 83 acres of the former freight yards of the Illinois Central railroad.
Illinois Center was not a model in architecture or planning sense—it is universally excoriated on both grounds—but financially it was inspired, and since then the city’s downtown railyards have seen more developers than hoboes. Some 50 acres of the rail yard south of Dearborn Street Station was redeveloped in the 1970s as Dearborn Park, a pioneering near-Loop residential project. A bit farther south, around Roosevelt Road, the IC’S main passenger yard at Central Station has been redeveloped beginning in the 1970s and when built out will be home more than 3,500 homes, plus hotels, shops, and offices.
Already being built on is railroad land to the west along the Chicago River, and what was city planners’ hope 20 years ago—that these long-derelict rail yards would become a Grand River promenade—is today coming true. Already a Santa Fe yard south of the Loop has been transformed into Chinatown Square and Ping Tom Memorial Park.
Only one of Chicago’s grand passenger depots survives in anything like its former glory. When Union Station opened it replaced a smaller Union Station nearby at Canal and Monroe that dated from 1881. (It was so called because it was a project of several railroad companies working jointly in one of the industry’s periodic, and doomed, attempts to cooperate to solve the chronic congestion of the city’s rail system.) The new Union Station was announced in 1913 but strikes and World War I delayed its completion until 1925. It was massive project—the complex covered ten city blocks (literally, as it involved raising streets onto platforms beneath which trains could roll in and out of the station) and ended up costing perhaps $75 million. Great Hall is a waiting room disguised as a cathedral, with its pink marble floors and walls, Corinthian columns, bronze floor torches, vaulted sky lights and long-wooden benches. It turned out to be none too big; during the 1940s, Union Station entertained upwards of 100,000 people daily who hustled in and out of more than 300 trains.
The decline in intercity passenger rail travel rendered such a mammoth facility largely redundant. The Union Station concourse was removed in 1969 so an office building could be built atop it, turning much of the station space into a dungeon. Happily, Union Station underwent major renovations in the early 1990s and remains a station that, while it can never recreate the original for bustle, is handsome and convenient. Today Union Station serves 50,000 commuters and interstate travelers daily.
Many a main-line railroad facility in the suburbs has been abandoned too, but their location near the center of towns gave them new lives. In Aurora, the 1923 Classic Revival-style depot built in 1923 by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad at the south end of downtown was closed in 1986. New uses have been found for some of these orphaned buildings. Aurora’s current commuter rail station is the rehabbed administration building of the Burlington’s shops. Next to the station is the old “Q” roundhouse, whose locomotive turntable has been converted into an outdoor dining area for patrons of a brew pub. When fire destroyed the Burlington’s depot in nearby Lisle, in 1874, the company rebuilt it, and it was used for years as that town’s commuter station; when Lisle got a new Metra station in 1978, the 1874 building was moved and restored as the Depot Museum, which today provides a name and a theme for the Lisle Station Park museum complex.
Grossdale station in Brookfield was constructed in 1889 when the town still bore that name; the oldest intact depot on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Line, according to local historians, it was threatened with demolition by the company in 1977 until aghast locals organized themselves as the Brookfield Historical Society and arranged to move it to the site of the original Village Hall. The Grossdale Train Station was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982, and today houses a museum.
The centerpiece of the main passenger boarding and alighting area at the Illinois Railway Museum at Union is an 1851 depot from Marengo that served riders on the the Galena Division of the Chicago and North Western Railroad, and which the IRM is pleased to call the oldest continuously operating passenger station west of Pittsburgh. The abandoned Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad depot in Batavia stood at Webster and Van Buren Streets for 119 years until it was moved in 1973 and restored for use as the Batavia Depot Museum; among the relics there displayed is Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Caboose #14662, built in the Aurora shops in 1907 and retired in 1973.
One cannot put a railroad track into a display case, but nearly every other kind of Chicagoland railroading relic has been. The West Chicago City Museum has been in that town’s former Turner Town Hall (a National Register site) for more than 390 years; while the exhibits touch on the whole of West Chicago's rich history, it is in effect a railroad museum, because of the central role played by the railroads. Nearby is West Chicago’s Heritage Commons, a “railroad park” that contains the original 1890s Chicago Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) railroad depot, an 1890s CB&Q caboose, and a handcar; also on display are a one-quarter scale model of a C&NW steam locomotive and a scale model of the C&NW roundhouse.
Oddly, there is no museum dedicated to the story of one of the great rail cities of the world. A few relics of the Chicagoland’s rail system are on display in other facilities. The pieces of rolling stock from the region’s lines—passenger and baggage cars, freight cars, steam and diesel locos— in the collection of the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin number in the dozens.
The two most historic of the relic machines are in Chicago. The first locomotive on William Ogden’s Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was bought used in 1848 from the Michigan Central; the wood-burning 4-2-0, built in 1837, was renamed "Pioneer," and is on display at the Chicago Historical Society on the north side. On the South Side, at the Museum of Science and Industry, is the Pioneer Zephyr, the first of nine of those famed trains. It was displayed outdoors for thirty-four years with other classic locomotives such as the New York Central 999, in its day a world speed record holder. The Museum began restoring the Pioneer Zephyr in 1994, and the spiffed-up train is the centerpiece of the new permanent exhibit, All Aboard the Silver Streak, inside in the Museum's new underground parking garage.
Metra, the public agency that now runs all of the region’s once-private commuter railroad lines, inherited a number of historic properties when it took over the system in the 1970s. Of its 229 stations on 12 lines, more than 40 were 50 years of age or older by 2001, and fifteen were built before 1900; the oldest is the Lemont station, which was built in the 1850s by the Chicago and Alton Railroad.
The train depot at Riverside, which was designed and built by William LeBaron Jenney and other company architects for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, is in appearance essentially unchanged from the day it opened in 1902. In the Fox River valley, Bartlett’s train station is the third oldest in Chicagoland and the only original station left on the Milwaukee Road West Line. The C&NW passenger station at 306 Main Street in West Chicago, which opened in l912, has served since 1983 as the Wayne and Helen Fox Community Center. The presence of six grade-level commuter railroad stations from the late 19th and early 20th century—at 91st, 95th, 99th, 107th, 111th, and 115th streets, along tracks now used by the Rock Island District Beverly Branch commuter line—earned the Beverly/Morgan Railroad District its status as an official City of Chicago landmark. The stations were built in various styles by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad between 1889 and 1945 to serve the then-suburban communities of Beverly, Morgan Park, and Washington Heights.
Metra has undertaken a program of rehabilitation and restoration of the oldest of these—among them Norwood Park, Chicago Street in Elgin, Ravinia in Highland Park, Evanston’s Main Street, Winnetka and Hubbard Woods, Crystal Lake and McHenry 13th Street Station in Lockport, New Lenox, and Linden Street in Wilmette. The object is rehabilitation rather than restoration in its strictest sense. Changing manners have forced this abandonment of integrity; separate waiting rooms for men and women that once were considered prudent have been combined. Here and there space has been found for today’s essential amenities, from local police stations to coffee shops like the one that operates in the former baggage room at Woodstock.
Spotting the physical remnants of Chicagoland’s interurban provides scant sport for buffs, since in most places they consist of little more than a widened street here and there or the foundation stones of vanished trestles. Between Fort Sheridan and Lake Forest, the bridge over Westleigh Road still bears the inscription of its builder—“North Shore Line.” Villa Park owes its existence to Insull’s Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin interurban which carried new homeowners to subdivisions opened on what was until then-remote farmland in 1908 and 1910. A CA&E station there houses the Villa Park Historical Society Museum, one of the two CA&E stations in Villa Park on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stations on the interurbans were modest, more like bus shelters than train stations, and most have long since been razed. Not even a plaque today marks the former presence of most of them. An exception is the marker at the Edison court station on the NSL in Waukegan, which served the seven-mile street railway completed in 1892 between Waukegan and North Chicago that grew into the North Shore.
Insull house architect Arthur Gerber designed six new stations for the North Shore’s Skokie Valley line in 1926 in what is now known as "Insull Spanish," a Mission Revival look. Of these, only the former Briergate station at 1495 Old Deerfield Road in west Highland Park —now the offices of a local plumbing firm—still stands.
Most of the old interurban infrastructure that wasn’t destroyed survives in disguise, having been converted to other uses. In Frankfort, a trolley barn used to repair cars from the Joliet & Eastern Electric Line from south suburban Chicago Heights to Joliet was turned into a shopping center. The North Shore Line stations in Wilmette and Winnetka are now a branch bank and office supply store respectively. The Dempster Street CTA terminal in Skokie originally was a station on the Skokie Valley route of the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee. The station was designed by Gerber in 1924 in his signature bungalow vernacular style. After 30 years housing retail tenants, in 2003 it was moved 130 feet east and restored to its original appearance, although it has a new function as a Starbucks.
Miles of interurban tracks have disappeared, but the rights of way through which they ran are now cherished as open space. The recreational potential of these cross-country corridors was plain to local activists from the start, although it usually took governments longer to see their wisdom of their reuse. As has happened across Illinois, much of the ROW abandoned by interurbans has been converted into hiking and biking trails under the aegis (usually) of local park and forest preserve districts and municipal governments and private not-for-profits.
Chicagoland was a pioneer in the Illinois rails-to-trails movement. Among the conversions is the Illinois Prairie Path, which provides off-road travel for hikers, bikers, even horses for 55 miles through Cook, Du Page, and Kane counties on old ROW of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway. (Nearly all the CA&E is now public recreational path.) By far the longest such path in the region, the Illinois Prairie Path starts at 1st Avenue and Adams Street in Maywood and runs west to Wheaton; there it splits into a northwest fork that extends to Elgin and a southwest fork to Aurora, with additional spurs that link it to Batavia and Geneva.
Connecting to the Illinois Prairie Path is the 33-mile Fox River Trail that 's end points are Aurora and Crystal Lake. The Fox River Trail runs about 35 miles from Aurora to Algonquin atop the old track bed of a CA&E branch line run by the Aurora Elgin and Fox River Electric Co. Old Plank Road Trail runs west on Park Road in Joliet for 21 miles to Western Avenue in Park Forest using part of the abandoned ROW of the freight-hauling Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad that ran from Joliet to East Gary, Indiana, until its abandonment in the 1970s. Bicyclists now roll along where once whizzed Sam Insull’s 70-mile-per-hour Electroliners on the Skokie Valley Path (aka the Skokie Valley Trail), an eight-mile trail that runs parallel to busy US 41 between Old Elm Road in Lake Forest to Lake Cook Road in Highland Park.
Until Chicagoland’s bright new future in rail transportation arrives, the region’s many rail fans will continue to savor its rich past. That past lasted longer in Chicago than one might assume. The rail junction at Brighton Park was the last one using manually-operated semaphore towers for traffic signally in the U.S. until 2007, when it was finally equipped with modern remotely controlled electronic system was installed; rail buffs and historians reportedly traveled from all over the world to photograph the trackside shanty used by the signalmen.
There are few buffs like a railroad buff, and a continental rail center like Chicago is bound to have its share of them. They have founded and manage the several groups are devoted to the rail history of the region; their diligent research informs much of the history of local roads; they have put their checkbooks and sometimes their wrenches to work to save the physical remnants of railroading’s past.
The Central Electric Railfans' Association was formed in 1938 to encourage the study of the history, equipment, and operation of urban, suburban, interurban, and main line electric railways in Chicago and Midwest. The Shore Line Interurban Historical Society's primary focus are the North Shore Line, South Shore Line, and CA&E, as well as several other Chicago area electrics, including the el. The CTA has its buffs too, who in the late 1990s began crowding chartered trains for annual historic tours of Chicago's el stations.
The region’s rail buffs also are behind two important rail museums. The Illinois Railway Museum at Union in suburban McHenry County has a fascinating collection of passenger, steam, commuter and el cars. The IRM has 24 CTA el cars, for example, and six “trolley coaches” —electric buses in effect that ran running on rubber wheels rather than tracks—of the Chicago Surface Lines and its successor, the CTA. Excursion riders board from the 50th Avenue el station that was built in 1910 in Cicero, and which was relocated at the IRM grounds. The Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin even offers rides on various el and interurban cars. ●