Throwback Thursday: Chicago’s First “L” Service

Thus begins the weekly historical section of Ever Evolved popularly titled Throwback Thursday. We will use this section every week to highlight a specific historical event pertinent to the city’s upbringing and colorful past.

On June 6th 1892 the private company Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit (later renamed South Side Elevated Railroad) conducted their first ever L ride that morning at 7AM. The trains spanned from Congress to 39th street, now the south section of the Green Line, and extended to Jackson Park shortly after. The portion of the elevated line that ran between State and Wabash became to be known as the Alley “L”.

South Side Elevated Railroad Train at Indiana Ave Station

The early train car models featured wooden varnished and cushioned seats. Rides cost a nickel, ran for 24 hours, were lit by gas lamps and the steam-powered locomotives pulled the trains. Customers would have to deal with some steam, smoke and cinders from the engine but this was normal for the time period and the technology.

In fear of people falling of the platforms and onto the tracks they installed railings. Unfortunately these were cumbersome and did not always line up with the trains sliding into the station. After a short while they were removed. The Lake Street Elevated Railroad, today as the west section of the Green Line, was completed a year after just in time for the 1893 Worlds Fair held in Chicago.

Lake Street Elevated Railroad train pulled by steam-powered locomotive

In 1895 the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad added their services to Logan Square, Humbolt Park (demolished), Garfield Park (replaced) and Douglas Park areas branching off from downtown Chicago. Parts of this line is used now as the Blue and Pink Lines. It is the first of Chicago’s transit lines to be electrically powered and the first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors in the United States. This technology was demonstrated on the “intramural railway” at the World Fair in Chicago.

The Northwestern Elevated Railroad emerged in 1900 with the original deadline being 1899 but construction temporarily halted two years prior due to financial backing issues. After an inaugural run declaring it unsafe, the company defiantly ran a train to the Loop, transferring onto Lake Street Elevated to avoid police. Eventually the company and the city reached an agreement. This line ran from the Loop to Wilson with a branch extending to Ravenswood and Albany Park. The branch now operates as the Brown Line while the main line to Wilson operates as the Red and Purple.

Chicago Rapid Transit Map

The merging of the South Side Elevated, Lake Street Elevated, Metropolitan West Side and Northwestern Elevated Railroad private companies created the Chicago Elevated Railways Collateral Trust (CER). Laying down the ground work for Chicago Rapid Trasit Company (CRT) in 1924, they continued under private ownership. After the opening of the subway system in 1943, by 1947 it merged into the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) we know today following a public takeover. Since its start over, 125 years later the CTA sees more than a million riders daily and has a combined 224.1 miles of rail. The rails are now electric, cleaner, and quieter.

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