Riding Around Town on a Rail
Train-based public transit in Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
Folks in Downstate Illinois seldom appreciate how much the city of Chicago and its suburban hinterland depend on public transit. To the extent that Chicago public transit makes it possible for people to get to work, and that Chicago is the economic driver of Illinois, Chicago transit matters to Downstaters too. Nevertheless, Downstate lawmakers, who would never demand that their rural constituents pay the full cost of their state highways, insist that Chicagoans pay the full fare for transit.
I also wrote about Chicago public transit here and here. (There were people who did it better, such as Ed Zotti and Gloria Mundy in the Reader.) This sketch is taken from my never-published draft of a guide to Illinois history and culture.
For a generation after the city’s official founding, Chicagoans had to walk but a mile west, to Halsted Street, to see cows grazing. By 1870 the city’s population had skyrocketed to around 300,000 people, and the only creatures grazing around Halsted west of downtown were lawyers and grain traders and their families. Chicagoans walked or rode aboard wagons or in carriages or in horse-drawn omnibuses. The last was Chicago’s first public transit vehicle, an in-town stagecoach in effect, whose capacity was limited by what a horse could pull, which, given the condition of Chicagoland streets through the 19th century, wasn’t much.
By 1900, Chicago was home to nearly six times more people. The corporate city whose borders took in 36 square miles of land in 1869 had swelled to cover 191. A city that size could not have worked at all had not a succession of risk-taking entrepreneurs taken Chicagoans for a ride. After the Civil War there appeared on the streets one marvelous new contraption after another to carry people to and fro, in the form of passenger cars on rails that ran first on streets, then on platforms above the streets and in tunnels below them. The motive power of these machines went from the horse (1859) to steam-powered cables (1880s) to on-board steam engines to electric motors (1890s). Each new machine was faster and heavier than its predecessors, each penetrated farther into the hinterland, each was more costly to ride.
The horse doesn’t usually get mentioned in lists of transportation technologies, but during Chicago’s first half-century it was central, and for the first half of that period it was essential. Horse-drawn streetcars of the sort introduced in 1859—they ran on State Street from Randolph to Roosevelt—were the only alternative to walking for those who could not afford a private carriage or horse cabs. The streetcars found an enthusiastic market not because of their speed—a fit walker could easily outpace them—but because they spared walkers having to slog through Chicago streets filthy with muck and mud.
The horse was harnessed for intercity transportation too. The cargo wagon was as ubiquitous in commercial service as the trucks and vans of today, and stagecoaches ferried passengers and mail in Chicagoland until they were rendered outmoded by steam trains in the 1850s and ‘60s.
Steam trains were not, however, well adapted to the stop-and-go of in-town service. There horses—the icon of the countryside—were kept on the job in the city for decades after the railroads arrived. Horses were the engine of choice for freight and delivery wagons, cabs, and omnibuses. Horse-drawn omnibuses, for example, were excellent short-haul shuttles between train stations; millions on people on cross-country trips first saw Chicago from behind a horse as they changed trains downtown. New technology (mainly electric motors) that suited the quick acceleration and short runs of city service eventually rendered the noble horse outmoded even for these roles, but horses still plodded the streets of Chicago until the automobile era.
If a trip in a horsecar was tedious for humans, it was murder on the horses; a major cost of the streetcar companies of the day was disposing of dead horses (most of them worn-out farm animals) which piled up nearly as fast as worn-out automobile tires do today. Nor was a horse-propelled transit system cheap to operate, as it required investments in feed lots, stables, and wagons needed to dispose of manure. (A vestige of that infrastructure survives at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. in the Loop, in the former private alley known as Pickwick Lane, is a three-story building that in its original two-story version was a stables dating back to the 1850s.)
The effects of the system on the city were less lethal than on its horses but still noxious, as tens of thousands of horses left urine and manure on the streets in amounts that would make modern Chicagoans yearn for diesel fumes and smog.
Life for commuters and horses was improved when cars began to roll on steel rails rather than pavements, but a new kind of streetcar introduced in 1882 offered faster speeds and less pollution than a horse-drawn transit system of any type. The cable car was pulled along its tracks not by horses but by moving steel cables driven by central steam engines. The technology enabled the new cars to move at twice the speed of horsecars at half the operating cost—advantages that saw them quickly adopted in a city that was on the go and wanted to get there faster. “Our horse-cars in New York move at the rate of about six miles an hour,” reported journalist Julian Ralph in 1892.
The cable-cars of Chicago make more than nine miles an hour in town, and more than thirteen miles an hour where the population is less dense . . . . with such a racket of gong-ringing and such a grinding and whir of grip-wheels as to make a modern vestibuled train seem a waste of the opportunities for noise.
The cable car had its limits, of course, mainly limits on how many loaded cars even the massive steam engines in each lines powerhouse could pull. Better to equip each car with its own power source, which was done by the electric streetcar propelled by a motor atop the car powered by electricity supplied through overhead wires. Introduced to Chicago in 1890, the electric streetcars did not offer much of a speed advantage over cable cars, being capable of top speeds of 15 miles per hour. But the trolleys—the name came from the rooftop mechanism that connected each car to its electricity supply as it was trolled along beneath its power wire—were smoother, quicker, and quieter than cable cars. (The shrieking, grinding, and banging of a city run by machines made just walking down a street in 1890s Chicago a trial to people who had grown up with the clip-clop of horse hoofs on cobblestones.) The trolleys’ electricity also was tapped to bring heat and lights to the cars, both welcome amenities.
Each new streetcar technology brought a boost in travel speed, which both was a response to and a cause of the accelerating dispersal of Chicago’s middle-class to outlying neighborhoods. A horse-drawn streetcar could go two to three miles an hour at best, while cable cars had a maximum speed of 10 to 12 miles per hour. (The average speed, taking into account stops and traffic delays, was much slower.) Within a decade of their introduction, trolleys were capable of 35 to 40 mile per hour, which meant that even their average trip speed was not much slower than the peak speed of the old cable cars.
Trolleys quickly became the standard mode of intracity travel for all but the very rich and the very poor. Passengers loved them, as did the trolley companies, since electric streetcars were cheaper to run and less prone to breakdown than cable cars had been. City Hall loved them too; trolleys reduced the stink and the mess of horses and the soot and smoke of steam trains, which was why the city in 1906 required that all the city’s streetcar lines be electrified. “Perhaps no other invention in history, not even the automobile,” enthused Donald Miller in his history of the era, “was put into use more quickly than the electric trolley.”
Coping with congestion
The success of the trolleys did make one problem worse. The proliferation of new lines added to the congestion on the streets. Like previous forms of streetcars, trolleys shared city streets with wagons, horse cabs, omnibuses, and other vehicles. They were obliged to wait for traffic lights and pedestrians and were constantly vexed by vehicles blocking their rails.
Putting horses, people, and streetcars in the same right-of-way imperiled more than schedules. Accident rates were appalling; contemporary accounts describe running street battle between the civilians and the armored fleets of the traction companies. “These Street cars distribute the people grandly,” wrote Julian Ralph in Harper’s magazine, “and while they occasionally run over a stray citizen, they far more frequently clear their way by lifting wagons and trucks bodily to one side as they whirl along . . . .”
As the 1800s drew to a close, it was plain that the only way Chicago traffic might move faster would be if some of it was removed from surface streets. This could be done either by burying it below ground, in subways, or by lifting it above the streets on platforms. Daniel Burnham, in his 1909 Plan, proposed just such a solution in the form of an elaborate new downtown infrastructure of separate underground rights-of-way and elevated structures.
Elevating some of Chicago’s public transit trains began in 1892. The local precursors to the familiar Chicago el were both cattle cars, in effect—an electrified freight line built in 1892 to serve Armour & Company’ sprawling packing plant and the elevated line built by the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, which ferried visitors to and from downtown and the site of the World Columbian Exposition. (The use of the letter “l” as the abbreviated form of “elevated” is nearly universal in Chicago in spite of the facts that “elevated” does not begin with “l” and “el” is plainly a shortened form of the parent word, as is many a person’s nickname.) In the 184 days of the fair’s run, the latter system, known as the Columbian Intramural Railway, carried nearly six million riders, or more than one in four visitors. The Intramural Railway was demolished like the rest of the fair structures at fair’s end, but the efficiencies possible by putting trains into their own right of way were compelling, and the fair's railway was a model for the city’s commercial elevated railways then a-building elsewhere in the city.
The first elevated trains of the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Company began running in 1892, between Congress and 39th Street, and eventually carried riders to the distant horizons at 55th streets. Steam-powered at first, these mini-railroads within five years, like most of the downtown streetcar lines, were running on electricity, which in their case was delivered via the famous third rail rather than overhead wires. A New York inventor came up with a system by which the motors on every car of such a train could be controlled by a single mechanism. He was an advisor to the South Side firm when it converted from steam to electric propulsion, which is why Chicago & South Side installed the first multiple-unit control on a train anywhere in the world.
Unencumbered by traffic of the streets, Chicago elevated trains were capable of faster movement; hence the system’s designation as “rapid transit” to distinguish the system from the trolleys operated by the city’s surface lines. That the els served a need is reflected in the eagerness with which it was expanded; at its peak in the 1920s, the el system comprised more than 200 miles of track and carried more than 600,000 riders on an average weekday.
Since then, the els have become essential part not only of Chicago’s transportation system but of its civic identity. Not every citizen likes them—they are noisy and cost a lot of money to run—but complaining about them is a local rite, like commiserating about the Cubs. As reporter Julia Keller nicely put it in the Tribune, the el system is a nuisance, ”the nutty uncle in the Loop's attic,” but it's part of the family.
Burying Chicago’s traffic proved trickier. Here too the transit companies had a model in the form of an earlier experiment. Movable bridges had solved the problem of traffic jams on the Chicago River but at the expense of aggravating them on land by forcing traffic to waiting at upraised bridges while boats and barges passed. So cumbersome was the process of moving traffic over the downtown stretches of the river that the City of Chicago undertook to move it under it. A tunnel was built beneath the South Branch at Washington Street in 1869 and another under the main river at LaSalle Street in 1871. The latter project proved its worth in an unexpected way; the new tunnel was the only way to get to and from the north side after the Great Fire wrecked all the river bridges.
Pedestrians found the river tunnels forbiddingly dark and damp, and they were not used by horsecars either, as the approaches were too steep for horses pulling heavy loads. The tunnels did not realize their potential until 1886 when transit magnate Charles Yerkes acquired the rights for their use and converted the LaSalle Street tunnel for use by his cable cars. The result was what David Young calls “possibly the first mass-transit subway of any kind in the United States.” Yerkes later converted the Washington Street tunnel for cable car use too, which worked well enough that one of his companies built a new 1,517-foot cable-car tunnel under the South Branch between Van Buren and Jackson streets in 1894 for use by cars of his West Chicago Street Railroad. Yerkes’ cable car tunnels were converted to carry electric trolleys in the 1890s. The Washington and LaSalle river tunnels had to be closed to streetcars in 1906; deeper and wider versions were dug, which opened in 1911.
Just as congestion on its river crossings inspired tunnels under the Chicago River, so congestion on the streets led to tunnels under downtown streets. Construction was begun in 1898 by a company chartered the City of Chicago to build a below-ground system capable of carrying telephone and telegraph wires and cables. The resulting tunnels were much larger than needed to carry wires; roughly 7 feet tall and 8 feet wide, they were large enough to handle mini-freight cars pulled by electric locomotives. A compliant city council amended the franchise to allow them to deliver packages and mail to Loop businesses.
Hauling packages was not the limit of the firm’s ambitions, however. It began to widen its subterranean passageways to so they measured 12 by 14 feet—large enough to handle streetcars. The plan was to build the city’s first subway train system and present it to the council as a fait accompli. That subterfuge was too much even for Chicago, and City Hall forced an end to the digging.
As it was finally finished in 1909, the freight tunnel system consisted of approximately 62 miles of intersecting passageways running 40 feet beneath most downtown streets and which connected all major railroad freight houses and many stores. Two firms operated the system, delivering parcels and carting away ash from building boilers with more than 3,000 mini-freight cars pulled by a fleet of 149 locomotives.
The switch to oil and gas building heating doomed the ash-hauling part of the tunnel business, and by the 1950s the cost of maintaining the aging system was crippling. The underground trains stopped running in 1959, the tunnels were sealed off, and the rolling stock was sold for scrap or simply left to rot where it stood.
The abandoned system was largely forgotten until 1991. Workers accidentally poked a hole in the ceiling of one of its branches running beneath the Chicago River. River water pouring through the leak quickly filled the tunnels. Water threatened to back up into the many Loop buildings still connected to the network; the risk of electric failure and other mishaps was grave enough that the city closed down the Loop for a time. New bulkheads had to be installed to limit the damage from any future such mishap. The tunnels themselves, now dried out, make dandy conduits for telecom cables, and thus—finally—serve the original purpose for which they were built.
The diligent visitor does not have to dig to find relics of this odd monument to congestion planning. Four above-ground depots were built to accept goods to be moved by the system. One of these still exists—Chicago Tunnel Co.’s Universal Freight Station No. 4 (later known as the Soo Line Terminal) at 501 W. Roosevelt Road. Re-dubbed the South Loop Marketplace, the building now accommodates a weekend flea market.
Most of the rolling stock that had been abandoned underground by the defunct tunnel company nearly 50 years ago is assumed to have been destroyed by the 1991 flood. In 1978, rail buffs associated with the Illinois Railway Museum learned that five cars and one electric locomotive of the old fleet survived, entombed in a spur tunnel far from the river that led to the Field Museum of Natural History. Officials of the city and the Field wanted to unearth the relics but neither institution had the money to excavate them. Happily, the relocation of the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive in the mid-1990s exposed the equipment’s grave and made possible its removal, which was achieved by a team of rail buffs, city staff, and contractors; Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive 508 and wooden ash cars, now awaiting restoration, may be seen at the IRM in the McHenry County town of Union.
Freight was not the only cargo that moves faster by going under the Loop; people do too. Plans had been made for a subway to carry elevated trains beneath the Loop since the days when men wore high collars. The job proved too expensive for the city to undertake, and it was not until federal money was made available for such public works project (during the Depression and again in the postwar urban renewal era) that construction could begin. The first, the tunnel beneath State Street that carries today Red Line trains, was begun in 1938 and opened in 1943; the second, which carries Blue Line trains beneath Congress Parkway, Dearborn Street, and Milwaukee Avenue, was delayed by wartime materials shortages and was not finished until 1951. These projects supplied less than nine miles of a then-planned 50-mile system. Chicago transit planners continue to make new subway plans—principally one under Clinton Street that would complete an underground Loop—but so far no new subways.
Order out of chaos: The regulation of rail public transit
Private enterprise gave Chicago a great transit system, but not a sensible one. The system that evolved to provide intracity transportation was a hodgepodge of private lines that was a system only insofar as its many owners were misregulated by the same public authorities. The city had been divided into parts for purpose of franchise-granting—or rather franchise-selling, this being Chicago—which made a unified system impossible. Some parts of town were served by several lines, others ill-served if at all. There were no coordinated schedules, and transfers were not routine until 1907. Living hand to mouth, the firms built and ran their lines on the cheap.
Keeping order in such a menagerie proved beyond the city of Chicago’s will, if not its skill. All deals involving private transit companies had to be approved by Chicago aldermen, less to give them leverage on the firms in the public interest than in their own. The aldermen of the day indulged their appetite for bribes shamelessly— “as hungry and bold a company of gray wolves,” wrote Theodore Dreiser in The Titan in a much-quote description, “as was ever gathered under one roof.”
Transit—or “traction,” in the idiom of the day—produced not just a gallery of rogues but a whole museum of them. One stands out, not one of the gray wolves but more like their keeper: Charles Yerkes. Yerkes moved to Chicago in 1881, catching the smell of money in the breezes blowing east. He had spent seven months in jail in the 1870s in Philadelphia after being convicted of embezzlement. Pardoned, he rebuilt his fortune before resettling in Chicago. Here, man and methods were perfectly matched.
In the 1880s he began buying up rail transit companies and soon owned more than half of the private elevated railway companies in the city as well as two thirds of the streetcar system, including eight separate street railway companies that controlled 250 miles of track. The financial structure of Yerkes’s empire may have been rotten but in every other way it was a model system. A superb builder and organizer, Yerkes consolidated this lines into a more coherent system, which he then modernized and expanded. Yerkes’ signal achievement was the Union Elevated Railroad, formed in 1894 to connect three elevated lines that until then terminated their runs at stations on the edge of downtown. Yerkes did this by building the loop of elevated tracks around the central business district that became the symbol of the city.
Yerkes was a classic of a popular Chicago type, the heroic rogue. Certainly, Yerkes lacked what a fussier age would call people skills, being a bully who was vindictive, and vain. But even his enemies admired his bravado; his nemesis, Mayor Carter Harrison II, called him a “gallant though perverted soul.” Burton Hendrick in his 1919 history of American big business lauded him as “a buccaneer of no ordinary caliber.” Hendrick noted that in spite of his crimes, “there was something refreshing and ingratiating about the man. Possibly this is because he did not associate any hypocrisy with his depredations.”
The fact that Yerkes was a crook was hardly a disqualification to industry leadership in Chicago in the gaslight era. The problem was not that Yerkes resorted to bribery and blackmail—all transit companies did that. The problem was that that he admitted it, as if shopping for votes was like shopping for roof shingles for his train stations. Much was alleged, nothing proved, but Yerkes prudently left Chicago anyway, in 1900, having sold off most of his transit holdings; he ended up in England, where he had a hand in building London’s famed Underground.
If reformers and earnest editorial writers were obliged to condemn Yerkes, and the working stuffs to resent him, novelists embraced him. Theodore Dreiser novelized Yerkes as traction magnate Frank Cowperwood in The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic, the second of which deals with the Chicago years. Dreiser too found much to admire in Yerkes, mainly his lack of moral cant and his boldness—qualities of course that Dreiser liked in himself. That Yerkes was eventually done in by do-gooders also would have recommended him, as that fate was also suffered by Dreiser himself in Chicago.
To conclude that Chicago’s failure to produce an honest and efficient public transit system owed to corrupt politicians and venal capitalists, however, is to conclude wrongly. Private firms were regulated by laws that conceived of the public interest in, well, interesting ways. Franchises were granted to street railway firms for ridiculously long terms, so that poorly performing companies need not fret about being disciplined by City Hall losing them when time came to renew them. The different parts of the system were even regulated by different government overseers; the city regulated surface lines, after a fashion, while its els were regulated by the state. The Cities and Villages Act of 1872 required the builder of a elevated track to obtain the consent of a majority of property owners along each mile of the affected streets; that consent often came at a cost, as many owners of private rights of way had to be bribed into signing. Not all agreed even then; as transit historian David Young notes, the builders of Chicago's original el lines put the tracks where the building of them was cheapest, not where it was most efficient.
Municipal ownership was offered as a cure for what ailed the system, but a bevy of political and philosophical objections blocked that reform. If common ownership remained cripplingly controversial, common management was medicine that all parties were able to swallow. The city’s smaller lines already been merging for years in the hopes of achieving economies of scale and eliminating costly duplication of services. As early as 1900 an advisory commission had urged that all surface lines be managed as one system. Negotiations took years, and it was not until 1914 that the city’s two main streetcar firms, the Chicago Railways Co. (Charles Yerkes’ outfit) and the Chicago City Railway Co., consolidated operations under management of the new Chicago Surface Lines or CSL). The combined system was the country’s largest operator of streetcars.
The Chicago Surface Lines operated the city’s streetcar lines for 33 years. The CSL system was known for its bright red and cream-colored trolleys (1921–54). The streetcar system not only was reckoned to be the largest in the U.S.—in the 1920s, it employed more than 16,000 people—but one of the best. In the first quarter of the 20th century, Chicago’s streetcar companies rationalized routes and coordinated schedules. The streetcar firms also updated their car fleets. In 1934 Chicago Surface Lines took delivery of a radically new car made by the Pullman-Standard Co. Made of blue-painted streamlined aluminum, the car was known as the Blue Goose. (Car 4001 of Pullman’s streamlined car series, which was used from 1934 until 1948, sits at the Illinois Railway Museum.)
Since 1900 the city’s elevated railroads had been owned by Samuel Insull, who took over the properties of the departed Charles Yerkes. Insull had come close to making the private el system a monopoly but to achieve needed efficiencies the whole system had to be run as one, which it was in 1913 when four lines merged operations via a voluntary trust; an actual as well as effective consolidation took place in 1924 when the Chicago Rapid Transit Company (CRT) was created. Under Insull, the el system was modernized and expanded. In the 1920s Chicago’s el lines were extended into Wilmette and Berwyn, and in the 1930s to Dempster (Niles Center, now Skokie) and to 22nd & Mannheim (Westchester) in anticipation of housing booms.
The CSL and the CRT gave Chicago one of the best transit systems in the nation, if not the world. Scheduling and maintenance were first-class, although Chicago lagged other cities in technology. It offered a choice of rides, technologies appropriate to each kind of trip, and covered most of the developed parts of the city. The system made unnecessary the presence on the streets of uncounted private vehicles, because nearly everyone rode the rails. People took els to the graveyard to bury their relatives, on special funeral trains, and to the racetrack to place their bets. In 1900, by one count, Chicagoans climbed aboard streetcars and els for about 160 rides annually per resident; ridership hit a peak in 1926 when the system carried more than a million and a half riders—more than 280 rides per citizen.
What the personal motorcar was to be to the development of the suburbs, electrified rail transit was to the city in its boom years. The streetcar even improved housing by making more land available for newer, more spacious dwellings. The commuter railroads had pushed the suburban frontier outward in all directions to 30 or 40 miles from the Loop in the 1880s, but the workers and middle-class rode streetcars and els to a newly expanded urban frontier whose outposts were new, closer-in suburbs (later swallowed by the city).
As the main-line railroads had shaped the city center, so the streetcars and els shaped life in the neighborhoods. The tracks ran down the main streets, laid out at half mile intervals, which as Carl Condit explained, was “exact, coherent, monotonous, but thoroughly efficient for economy and circulation.” Commerce depended on the streetcars, but as the streetcars dispersed riders along the length of these streets, so were the shops dispersed; the result was what Condit called “the most extreme form of ribbon development in the United States.”
If the streetcars spread out commerce, the els, downtown, concentrated it. The downtown was already hemmed in by lake, rivers, and rail yards; the construction of the Union Loop in 1897, in Condit’s words, “threw a tight ring around the inner heart” of downtown. The result was that all downtown offices, stores, theaters, and government institutions were in or within a ten-minute walk of the Loop. Such compactness was seldom matched by other U.S. cities.
The social life of the city also rode into new directions on the rails. Donald Miller notes that the builders of the city’s mass transit system, acting from motives not the least bit civic- minded, did more to tie city and suburb together than city planners ever did. “Without mass transportation,” Miller wrote in City of the Century, “ever-spreading Chicago, with its sharpening divisions of work, residence, and shopping and its growing class and ethnic segregation, would not have been a real city at all.” Chicago was made more interesting by bringing places, amusements, and people within reach of all but the very poorest of its people, and thus played a not small part in keeping the social peace in a city otherwise prone to upset. Many an historian and urban planners agrees with Miller that this “streetcar city” was “perhaps the most livable of all historical urban forms.”
The streetcar runs off the rails
The automobile carried off many of intracity rail’s passengers in Chicago—not least by carrying them to the suburbs, where they were beyond the reach of public transit—but the car was only one of the devices of mass entertainment that eroded demand for interurban travel beginning in the 1920s. The popularity of radio meant that, as Werner Schroeder has noted, people began to stay home for their entertainment instead of hopping a streetcar to go to a movie in the Loop.
It was not a quick death. Streetcar use in fact peaked in the 1920s, and declined only slowly after that. The surface lines sought to match the car’s convenience by adding more flexible service (in the form of motor buses and trackless trolley buses) and by investing in new equipment such as the Pullman-made PCC cars, a sort of in-town equivalent of the North Shore’s streamlined Electroliners. It was not enough. Streetcars remained popular but not popular enough to make money.
Chicago’s streetcar lines were financially derailed by the Depression. By cutting into ridership the Depression had crippled all transit companies. By 1932, Samuel Insull’s Chicago Rapid Transit Company had gone bust, and later entered receivership. Only three interurban lines survived the Depression. World War II boosted demand temporarily, but the longer-term effect of the war was lethal, especially to surface transit. Postwar affluence made affordable to even the working class both cars and new houses in suburbs beyond the reach of the street cars. The private firms got by skimping in maintenance, under-investing in new equipment, and cutting service, which saved money in the short run but cost it riders in the long run.
The automobile has been blamed for the deterioration of Chicagoland’s rail transit system, but in fact it was sickly for years; the car was merely the infection that overwhelmed and an already weakened body. Intracity rail was a necessity for which people were grateful but it was never a pleasure. As public transit became less pleasant and less reliable, the private car looked more and more attractive.
Public ownership of Chicago’s public transit system was finally achieved some half-century after it had been seriously proposed, after the public no longer wanted it. The takeover took place in 1945, when the General Assembly authorized creation of the Chicago Transit Authority to acquire and run the city’s surviving surface and elevated railways and bus lines, which it had done by 1953.
The CTA’s authorizing act was a classic Illinois political compromise—the reformers got public ownership, but opponents of the measure conditioned the deal with so many budget-protecting provisions that the new system never had a chance to succeed either as a public amenity or as a competitor to the car. The new CTA was saddled with debt and hobbled by the charter that required it to “pay as you go.” This forced the agency to cut back services and system improvements as ridership dropped, which guaranteed further losses of riders, which guaranteed further service cutbacks.
Street cars were phased out beginning in 1947 and replaced by cheaper-to-run diesel-powered buses (they needed only one person to operate, the streetcars two) that have never matched the popularity of streetcars. During the 1950s the CTA was obliged to close some 16 miles worth of money-losing branch el lines, including those serving the Stockyards, Kenwood, Humboldt Park, and Normal Park. Service to Niles Center was ended, if only for a while; the Garfield Park line was cut back to Desplaines Avenue.
Still, the CTA in its early years saw itself as a reformer, and with a reformer’s zeal did much to rationalize and upgrade a system that once was the jewel of the city. Postwar federal aid provided capital that the old private firms had never been able to get and made possible long overdue infrastructure improvements. Congress—the old Garfield Park line, relocated to the median of the new Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway, from where it connected to the new Dearborn street subway and Kennedy medians. State and Dearborn subways. Skokie Swift service brought els back to Skokie in 1964, and two new lines were constructed in expressway medians: the Milwaukee Avenue line’s extension to Jefferson Park—in the 1990s the el tracks stretched all the way to O'Hare—in one way, at least, Chicago bested New York City in having a public transit rail connection to its main airport—and the Dan Ryan line to 95th Street.
The CTA stuggled financially as had its private predecessors until 1974, when lawmakers finally provided a source of ongoing operating subsidy for what was plainly always going to be—like libraries and schools— a money-losing proposition. The Regional Transportation Authority was created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1973 and ratified the next year by the voters of the city and collar counties. That helped, but several suburban bus companies went bankrupt in the 1970s, and in the early ‘80s two commuter rail lines also collapsed. Fares on both CTA and commuter trains were going up, service down. The RTA had to be restructured in 1983, with the RTA providing the money (including, for the first time, cover fo operating losses) and CTA, Metra (a new consolidated commuter rail agency) and Pace (a new suburban bus system) providing actual services.
Under the new system, commuter rail has flourished and suburban bus service has stabilized. But the CTA was still under fiscal siege. In the 1980s and early 1990s, per capita ridership dropped nearly a third, and parts of the system—the buses, lost nearly half their riders. Population decline, fare increases, service cutbacks, fear of crime—all hurt. Policy-makers started talking about transit riders as special interest, and coddled one at that.
The latter 1990s saw a public transit renaissance of sorts, especially in el service. Money from a cancelled expressway project paid for a new line to Midway Airport (which opened 1993) and the old Lake Street and Ravenswood els, the oldest in the system, got badly needed overhauls. But public transit in the city remained in delicate condition. But by then the city was changing in ways that favored public transit, and policy-makers might be wise to read their history, and recall the interurban and el lines that were shut down just before they would have been really useful; els that ran to a rebuilding Kenwood and a newly populous Humboldt Park—both closed in the 1950s—would be useful additions to today’s system.
Rail City relics
Remains of the "good old days" of the streetcars can still be found in Bucktown, one of Chicago neighborhoods where old streetcar tracks have been exposed by potholes in the pavements that buried them. The railcar collection of the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin includes one real curiosity, an 1891 streetcar post office, which the museum and the South Elgin post office use it as a branch post office for the handling of mail during the museum's annual Trolley Fest. The 1887 LaSalle Street Cable Car Powerhouse at 500 N. LaSalle Street also survives; the Chicago City Council in 2001 landmarked the building.
For a time, companies sought to persuade riders that public transit was very much a thing of the future; thus did riders enjoy the Chicago Surface Lines PCC cars, in the 1930s and the streamlined Electroliners of the North Shore Line, the latter the interurban equivalent of the high-speed Zephyrs of the Burlington Road. Recent administrators of the CTA, in contrast, seek to recall the system’s past, when all of Chicago, it seemed, rode the CTA. The agency published a wall calendar each year with period photos and system trivia that promises “Ride through history.”
CTA riders, a famously complaining lot, grumble that every ride one takes is a history lesson, given the age and decrepitude of some of the stations and rolling stock. This is unfair, but not entirely inaccurate. A few Loop stations such as Madison/Wabash and Randolph/Wabash, have been in service since the Loop el was completed in 1897; the subway platform that runs under State Street, for example, has not been renovated since it was built in the 1940s.
Keeping in good repair useful structures that happen to be historic is merely sensible business practice. As a result, several el stations have since been restored to the style of their original plans. Recent station upgrades (conspicuously not “modernizations”) appeal to the appetite for nostalgia, either by using period motifs in new construction or by the literal restorations of stations. The first was the Loop station at Quincy and Wells, whose station houses were restored in 1987; among the features that were resurrected were Decorative chess pawns atop entrances and exits that honor the chess-playing President John Quincy Adams.
When the CTA in 2003 undertook a nearly half-billion-dollar “rebuild” of the Brown Line—the CTA’s old Ravenswood line, and before that, when it opened in 1907, the private Northwest Elevated Line—plans were made to restore the eight stations on the line deemed eligible for National Register status. (Those stations are Francisco, Damen, Belmont, Fullerton, Armitage, Diversey, Sedgwick and Chicago; Montrose was added to the list later.) Arthur Gerber built a terminal building on Wilmette’s Linden Avenue for what was then Samuel Insull’s Northwestern Elevated Railroad (today the CTA Purple Line). Built in 1913 and expanded in 1921, it is a great example of the “Bungaloid” Style; it has since been converted into a branch bank.
A Queen Anne-style station at Homan Avenue was constructed in 1892-93 for the Lake Street Elevated Railroad, near Garfield Park. What didn’t rust or break or wear out over the ensuing century was obscured; the station’s finials and railings were made of pressed metal whose details were buried under thick layers of paint. The station retained enough of its original features in the form of decorative windows and a trademark tower that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency designated the station eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. A massive overhaul of the now-renamed Green Line saw the old station disassembled in 2000 and its outer shell rebuilt two blocks west, at Central Park Avenue; as the Conservatory-Central Park station, it was expected to draw tourists to the adjacent park and its newly renovated conservatory.
Farther south, on the south leg of the Green Line, is the Garfield Boulevard el station. One of the oldest intact elevated rail stations in the U.S., it was named an official City of Chicago landmark in 2001. Built in 1892, it was part of Chicago's original "Alley el," which ran above the alley between State Street and Wabash Avenue on its way to the South Side.
One would need more than a nickel transfer to get to Chicago Transit Authority elevated train car No. 6719. One of only two of the 720 green, cream, and orange cars in its series to survive, No. 6719 today is the centerpiece of an exhibition about the CTA in the Smithsonian Institution’s new national Museum of American History exhibition of the history of U.S. transportation. Visitors are able to take a virtual ride on the el circa 1959; the exhibit also includes a facsimile of the Wabash and Madison station and platform and the front section of a 1950s vintage CTA bus.
Happily, one can take a pretend ride on a vintage el car closer to home. Chicago's very first el car, which carried visitors to and from the Loop and the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, has been on display since 2006 at the Chicago History Museum. Originally steam-driven, it was converted to electric propulsion in 1898 and worked until 1930. It stands now next to a period train platform from which visitors will be able to board it for an imaginary trip to the fair. ●