In 1892, like today, Chicago had a traffic problem.
Streets in the booming Midwestern city were so jammed with pedestrians, carts, horses and streetcars that entrepreneurs tried a new way of getting around, by building train tracks above the street.
On June 6, 1892, 125 years ago this week, the first elevated line called the “Alley L” opened for business, running from Congress Parkway and State Street to 39th Street, along the alley, behind and around buildings and through backyards, said Graham Garfield, CTA general manager of customer information and unofficial agency historian. The agency will be celebrating the anniversary with special events Tuesday, when a 1923 train will make several trips around the Loop from about noon to 1:30 p.m. Then, a train from the late ’70s will travel the Loop for another 90 minutes. Riders can board at any Loop station, and regular fares apply, the CTA said.
It was a novel way to travel — above the streets and eye-level to people’s second- and third-floor windows. Garfield said some residents along the path may have forgotten that the train was coming that first day and had to quickly draw the curtains to protect their privacy, while others gathered on back porches to watch the smoky, steam-powered “L” go by.
The wooden train, run by the private Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Co. along what is now the Green Line, was popular and crowded from the start. And along with other north, south and west sections of the “L” built over the next 10 years, it helped to both expand the city and create its character, said Greg Borzo, author of “The Chicago ‘L.'” The combined subway and elevated system now has 224.1 miles of track and sees more than a million riders daily.
“It developed confidence in the city,” said Borzo. “It created energy and pride and attracted residents. It encouraged people to invest in and move to Chicago.”
Borzo said the “L” also promoted democracy, since it forced people from different income levels, races and ethnic groups to sit together. A Tribune reporter at the time noted that the passengers included both the “lunch pail crowd” and those “resembling gentlemen.”
The “L” was created just after Chicago had started to build skyscrapers, also supported by steel. “It’s very appropriate for this period, that you have this upward movement,” Borzo said.
The early train cars were attractive, with varnished wood and cushioned seats. The train ran 24 hours, and the cars were lit by gas lamps at night, Garfield said.
Riders had to contend with some smoke and cinders from the coal-fired engine, but all trains were like this during the 19th century, so people were used to it, Garfield said. With factory smoke and lower standards of sanitation, the 1890s were a grungier time.
The railroad company had to smooth out a couple of issues at the beginning. One was that it used to have a two-part fare system — passengers would pay a nickel to get a ticket from an agent, and then go to the back of the stationhouse and hand the ticket to a second agent, who would rip it in half before sending riders up the stairs, Garfield said.
This proved to be cumbersome and was changed to a one-step system — just pay and go, Garfield said.
There also was concern that people would fall off the elevated platforms onto the tracks, so there used to be railings on all sides of the platforms, with openings on the trackside to allow passengers to get on the train, Garfield said.
“This required some extremely precise berthings of the trains,” Garfield said. “The doors wouldn’t always line up, so in about a year or less they removed these railings.”
Soon after the original “L” line opened, work began to expand it to 63rd Street to take passengers to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The expansion, opened two weeks after the May 1 start of the fair, is now the Cottage Grove branch of the Green Line. Much of the original structure is still in place, though it’s been refurbished over time, Garfield said.
The South Side “L” converted to electricity about six years after it opened with an innovation that would become standard for future electric trains, Garfield said.
Whereas earlier electric trains in other cities had emulated steam trains by having a lead engine at the front and “dead” trailer cars behind, inventor Frank Julian Sprague had the idea of having a multiple unit system so that every car would have its own motors and brakes. The train, controlled by one operator, could brake faster and accelerate faster, Garfield said.
This also eliminated the need for a “roundhouse” to turn the locomotive around at the end of the line, Garfield said. This system was picked by mass transit operators in other cities and became the standard for the world.
Other lines created by private companies between 1893 and 1900 included the Lake Street “L,” (now the Green Line’s Lake branch), the Metropolitan West Side “L” (portions survive as parts of the Blue and Pink Lines), the Union Loop (now the Loop “L”), and the Northwestern “L,” which went to Wilson Avenue (now forming parts of the Brown, Purple and Red lines).
The expansion of the “L,” along with the commuter rail lines now run by Metra, allowed people to easily live outside of downtown and commute to work. “It helped integrate the entire area with the downtown,” Borzo said.
It also became part of Chicago’s look and feel. You know you are in downtown Chicago by the creak and rattle of the “L” trains overhead. The “L” has been featured in movies like “The Blues Brothers” (1980), “While You Were Sleeping” (1995), “The Fugitive”(1993) and “Spider-Man 2” (2004). It also frequently appears in literature about the city — writer Nelson Algren warned that “Every day is D-Day under the El.”
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Chicago Transit Authority, which took over the bankrupt transit companies and started running the “L” and the streetcars as a unified system. Although complaining about the CTA is every Chicagoan’s birthright, the agency deserves credit for saving the system and making it grow, Borzo said.
He noted that the “L” had deteriorated during the Depression, when people were broke and unemployed, and during World War II years, when the city was busy but parts for repairs were hard to get.
“Calls to tear it down were frequent,” Borzo said. “It could easily have disappeared.”
Borzo said the CTA still could expand the “L” by taking the Red Line from 95th Street south to 130th Street, which is in the planning stages. Other improvements could take the Yellow Line to Old Orchard Mall in Skokie and the Orange Line to Ford City Mall on the Southwest Side, Borzo said. He also said there should be more “fill-in” stations where there are wide gaps in the lines.
But Borzo praised what the CTA has been able to accomplish, keeping the system going.
“One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time ago,” Borzo said. “It’s amazing that the technology and the system and the steel structure are still in place and actually thriving.”
Chicago biking gets safer: study
A new study of traffic fatalities found that the number of Chicago bicyclist deaths has remained stable over the last several years despite a sharp increase in the number of riders, a trend that could be because of better bike infrastructure.
Between 2005 and 2015, the average number of cyclists killed in the city a year was six. There were seven deaths a year in 2005 and 2015, with a high of eight in 2012 and a low of three in 2013, according to a study by the Active Transportation Alliance, using numbers from the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The numbers have stayed stable despite the rise in cycling — the number of Chicago bicycle trips grew 167 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to the American Journal of Public Health, citing U.S. Census data.
Alliance’s executive director, Ron Burke, credited better infrastructure. Chicago has 300 miles of on-street bikeways and off-street trails, including 115 miles of barrier and buffer-protected bicycle lanes installed since 2011, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
The study found an increase in the number of cyclists injured in the city — 1,665 in 2015 from 1,273 in 2005. This has to be considered along with the increase in cycling, as the crash rate has fallen by 54 percent, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
The Active Transportation study also found that between 2005 and 2015, there was a 15 percent drop in the number of people injured or killed while walking or biking in the area, which includes Chicago, suburban Cook and six other counties. Over the same period, the number of motorists injured or killed fell by 27 percent, the study said.