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Chicago 'L'
Mark F. Armstrong

Locals refer to the Chicago Transit Authority’s rapid rail system as the ‘L’, although many lines have operated below street level for slightly more than 60 years. Greater Chicagoland’s elevated railroads carried passengers, skyscraper-bound coal, and cemetery-bound coffins for its first 51 years, and even influenced the elevation of suburban-bound railroads which are now part of the Metra commuter rail system.

When the first leg of the ‘L’ went up a century ago, it reinforced (as city boosters maintained when lobbying Congress to approve Chicago hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition) the idea that the upstart “Queen of the Prairie” was coming of age. By the time MGM adapted On the Town to Technicolor, Chicago ‘L’ riders headed to the South and Far North sides had joined New Yorkers in riding in a “hole in the ground.” But had the boys jumped off at Chicago’s Navy Pier instead of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they would have sung that the people ride “flying over the ground.” A precursor to the CTA’s creation in October 1947 was the 1924 consolidation of the rapid rail lines into Chicago Rapid Transit Co. It was around the same time that the Chicago Transit Authority aspired to New-Yorkish ambitions by adopting an A/B system of express stops for its lines.

Suburban sprawl, the establishment of the Interstate highway system, and increased dependency on motor vehicles in the mid-20th century gradually curtailed the rapid growth of Chicago’s ‘L’. In an endless fit of heartland resilience, a good 88% of the ‘L’ has survived everything from the loss of its income-generating sidelines to discontinuation of the A/B stops. The ‘L’ has taken on newer life as a frequent star of television and film since the late 20th century, carrying an average of 500,000 riders daily along 222 miles of track, with eight lines colored-coded European style since 1993, and renewed aspirations for regional growth.

Green Line (Jackson Park-Englewood)
This first ‘L’ line opened as the Chicago & South Side Elevated Railroad in October 1892, with steam-powered trains originally operating from Congress Street in downtown Chicago’s South Loop to 35th Street in the then-fashionable Douglas neighborhood on the Near Southeast Side. Chicago & South Side’s investors boasted plans of ultimately extending the line to the Northwest Indiana line. As a result of the announcements, new residential subdivisions went up on the Far Southeast Side but, more than a century later, the extension has yet to materialize.

The Chicago & South Side ‘L’ was extended southeast along 63rd Street to Stony Island Avenue for transporting visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, with the terminus at Adler’s Transportation Building during fair hours and slightly west beyond Dorchester Avenue and east after fair hours to the Dorchester Avenue stop. Because the railroad’s builders gained rights-of-way along the route through public alleys instead of from private property owners, what’s now the Jackson Park branch of the Green Line was originally nicknamed the Alley ‘L’.

Unlike the Intramural Railroad on the Jackson Park fairgrounds, which first demonstrated the electrified “third rail” method of locomotion, the steam-powered trains of the Chicago & South Side ‘L’ frequently had to stop to take on water and wood. But they were still faster than the traction streetcars and horse-drawn carriages at street level. And ‘L’ tracks encouraged the raising of the Illinois Central and Rock Island District commuter railroad tracks above grade level to ease traffic flow for the 1893 World’s Fair.

The Stony Island Avenue stop became the permanent terminus for the Chicago & South Side ‘L’ after
the fair. (By 1923, the Dorchester Avenue stop was the permanent terminus for the North Shore interurban
line, using overhead cables and trolley-like connector poles and ending off Michigan’s north shore in Milwaukee). A couple of years after the fair, the third rail method was successfully tested for commercial use on the Chicago & South Side ‘L’ for its colleague, the West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad. By 1897, the South Side line successfully tested a multiple cab-control system, which allowed an operator to control a train from any car position.

What’s now the western end of the Green Line, or the west suburban-bound Lake Street-Oak Park-Forest Park Line, began in 1892 as the Lake Street Elevated Railway. That line originally ended at an earlier Chicago city limit around Laramie Avenue until the Cicero Township Board voted to extend the line to Austin Avenue near the then-unincorporated suburban subdivision of Oak Park. Because Cicero Township was controlled by trustees from the urbane village of Austin slightly north of them who were horrified at the thought that affordable transportation would bring an undesirable element to the area, Oak Parkers, including Ernest Hemingway’s father, got even by approving a referendum for Austin’s annexation to Chicago. (The site of the former Cicero Town Hall, now a 1928 Chicago Park District fieldhouse known as the Austin Town Hall and modeled after Independence Hall, is visible from the Central Ave stop).

The Oak Park line originally ran at grade level alongside the Chicago & North Western Transportation Co’s elevated railroad embankment and was gradually extended into Oak Park at Harlem Avenue, and by the 1920s through the west suburban shopping center of Hillside to Westchester. By 1963, the terminus was cut back to Harlem Avenue between Oak Park, Forest Park, and River Forest, and the line was reconfigured beyond Laramie Avenue to share part of the Chicago & North Western’s embankment. The approach to the Jackson Park line’s Stony Island Avenue station passing over the Illinois Central was determined to be structurally unsound in 1983 and the Jackson Park branch was cut back to 63rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue in one of Washington Park-Grand Boulevard’s central shopping districts. By then, the Englewood line had reached 63rd Street and Ashland Avenue, with a reconstructed Space Age terminus. Old and new salutes to the South Side line’s glory range from the landmark preservation for the Garfield Boulevard station (built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and frequented by winos), to preservation of the turreted late-Victorian Kedzie Avenue station serving Garfield Park, to the post-modern styling of the 35th Street stop (in lockstep with the remodeling and restoration of the Mies van der Rohe-designed buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology).

The Loop
This signature engineering feat, originally known as the Union Loop Elevated Railroad, opened in October 1897 to provide easy connection and transfer between three rapid transit lines that originally ended at the fringes of Chicago’s central downtown business district. It follows the route of an earlier series of streetcar tracks which followed the Chicago River. The section running north-south along Wabash Avenue and east-west along Lake Street is known as the Outer Loop, and the section running north-south along Wells Street and eastwest along Van Buren Avenue is known as the Inner Loop.

Collectively, the Loop reinforced the popular delineation of downtown Chicago. Salutes to the glorious past, present, and future of the Loop ‘L’ include: the Quincy Avenue (Fifth Avenue) station near Wells Street, restored to its late-Victorian style; the Prairie Style of the Jackson and Van Buren Avenue station near the Harold Washington Public Library; and the postmodern look of the Clark & Lake Street station to complement Helmut Jahn’s Rubik’s Cube-looking State of Illinois Thompson Center.

Blue Line (Douglas Park-O’Hare, Congress-Forest Park)
Featuring the first commercial use of the electrified third rail, this line opened in May 1895 as the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad, ferrying passengers to and from Canal Street in the Loop and a terminus at Robey Avenue (Damen Avenue) in the upper middle-class German neighborhood of Wicker Park-Bucktown. The line was extended farther into the Loop to Franklin Street and father west into Logan Square by the end of the month. The Met converted its rolling stock to multiple-unit control by 1904, and branches expanded to the near west suburban town of Cicero at 54th Avenue & Cermak Road (22nd Street), as well as to the more pastoral end of near west suburban Forest Park at Harlem Avenue.

The Forest Park branch, like the current Cicero branch, operated at grade level toward its end, until it
was elevated in the early 1960s. The Blue Line is also an underrated engineering wonder because it was re-routed for Chicago’s second subway, the Dearborn Street-Milwaukee Avenue subway, which opened in 1951. Beginning in 1958, this subway operated along the very first expressway median bed for a rapid rail line, on the Eisenhower Expressway. The Space-Age design in the mid-20th century stations on the Blue Line, with their choice of stairs and ramp inclines leading from below-grade stations to street level, are still ahead of their time for their handicap accessibility.

By 1984, the Blue Line was extended farther northwest along the Kennedy Expressway’s median through the stadium, hotel, and office park village of Rosemont, and ultimately to O’Hare International Airport. Sights along the Blue Line’s branches include urban- removing University of Illinois-Chicago at Halsted Street, the Illinois Hospital District at Green Street (which includes the pricey new Stroger County Hospital), the art gallery look of the Damen Avenue station in Wicker Park, and the O’Hare station’s irresistibly postmodern design.

Red & Brown Lines (Howard-Dan Ryan & Ravenswood)
The Red Line opened in 1900 as the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, ending at Wilson Avenue in what was then farmland on Chicago’s North Side. A series of somewhat ornate brownstone stations were dotted along the line, which was extended along a concrete embankment to Howard Street at the Chicago-Evanston line in 1908. By 1919, the Wilson Avenue station was a transfer point for the North Shore Electric Line to and from the Loop in the fashionable Uptown neighborhood, which boasted a fledging filmmaking community in the early silent era and claimed Charlie Chaplin among its most famous residents.

By 1943, the Red Line went underground from the Loop to slightly past North and Clybourn Avenues with the opening of the art deco North-South subway under State Street. The Art Moderne transfer tunnels between the State Street and Dearborn Street subways, halted temporarily by World War II, opened in 1951. The line’s far south end, 95th Street, opened in 1969, transforming Chicago’s Far South Side into an urban transportation hub with links to CTA, suburban PACE bus lines, and Greyhound service.

In 1907, the Edgewater branch, later known as the Ravenswood line, reached Kimball and Lawrence Avenues on the Far Northwest Side, crossing the North Branch of the Chicago River and running at grade level after Montrose Avenue. Until the State Street North-South Subway opened, both the Howard Street and Ravenwood lines traveled a jostling, nearly zig-zagging route from Chicago Avenue along the Inner Loop tracks to Sedgwick Avenue in the Gold Coast, because the railroad’s builders choose that route as an alternative to paying German farmers steep prices for rights-ofway. The Brown Line enters the Loop, runs through alleys at grade level, and is characterized by the suburban-like crossing gates and simplistic styling of its grade-level stations. The only vestige of its original cluster of Prairie Style buildings at the Kimball Avenue
terminus is the old railroad house used by railroad employees to observe approaching trains.

Originally upscale Uptown, which had declined into a red-light district by the ‘70s and ‘80s, is now noted for its gentrifying bookstores, coffeehouses, and health clubs near the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban commuter railroad line’s embankment. The line’s Lawrence Avenue station features glimpses of Chicago’s oldest jazz club, the Green Mill, dating back to 1907, and the 1920s Spanish baroque revival Aragon Ballroom, once the site of national big band radio broadcasts and now a general urban performance venue. The Red Line also reaches two cemeteries in which many prominent Chicagoans rest, including Graceland in Sheridan Park near Wilson Avenue and Calvary in Evanston beyond Howard Street. The Red Line’s newest feature is an ornate transfer tunnel at Roosevelt Road, with decor and music chronicling the evolution of the world, animals, and humanity. The spectacle reinforces how the Roosevelt Road station is the CTA rapid rail stop nearest the Museum Campus of Burnham Park, which includes the Field Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.

Since 1988, The Chicago Area Transportation Study has discussed the merits of extending the Red Line farther southeast beyond 95th Street along the Bishop Ford Freeway to 103rd Street & Stony Island Avenue, and farther southwest along the Dan Ryan Expressway to 119th Street near southwest suburban Blue Island and Calumet Park. Approval of a 2004 advisory referendum seeking extension of CTA rapid rail service to 103rd Street, especially for the low-rise Altgeld Gardens housing projects, has renewed discussions of an ‘L’ line finally reaching Northwest Indiana.

Purple & Yellow Lines
(Evanston Express-Evanston Local & Skokie Swift)

The Purple Line originally ran from Howard Street at the Chicago-Evanston Line into Evanston at Central Street in 1907. In 1908, it was extended farther north to Linden Avenue in the Northwestern University seat’s sister North Shore suburb of Wilmette, beginning along a concrete embankment and ending at grade along the route of the originally grade level Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railway. During weekday rush hours, the Evanston Express branch of the line enters the Loop. On weekends and non-rush hours, the Evanston Local branch shuttles from Howard Street to Linden Avenue.

By 1915, the Yellow Line provided express service from Howard Street to a below-grade and ultimately at-grade route ending at Dempster Avenue in the North Shore suburb of Skokie. That service is not available
weekends except on special occasions, such as Cubs and White Sox games. Sights to check out include a 1947 granite marker at the Purple Line’s Davis Street station, placed by the Evanston Historical Society to mark the station’s and Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul’s contributions to commuter transportation and development of Evanston as an urban area, as well as the Purple and Yellow line’s original Prairie Style stations preserved alongside their newly-reconstructed and streamlined termini.

The Orange Line (Midway)
This brat of CTA’s rapid rail system opened in November 1993, circling the Inner Loop and Outer Loop tracks, flying over Chinatown’s new condo and townhouse subdivision boom, then along rights-of-way formerly used by the Illinois Central Railroad, Santa Fe Railway, the Beltway of Chicago. It also ran along a route originally intended for a Crosstown Expressway dating back to Boss Richard J. Daley’s mayoral years. The Orange Line was originally planned for a Ford City Shopping Center terminus at 79th Street & Cicero Avenue, as reflected in many of the line’s trains having Ford City signs. A Ford City station has never materialized, even with subsequent discussions about extensions to the Far Southwest Side.

Like the Blue Line’s O’Hare terminus, the Orange Line’s terminus at Chicago Midway Airport is subterranean. But the Orange Line’s southwest terminus is a bit more stripped-down than the Blue Line’s northwest terminus, with its platform and pedestrian bridge far more exposed to the elements. Gone with the wind from the Orange Line’s initial grand opening are the balloons, trams ferrying riders from the Midway station in the 78-year-old airport, and greeters ever ready to assist with everything from wheelchairs to luggage carts. The Orange Line also marked the beginning of ‘L’ conductors being replaced en masse with train motor operators who doubled as conductors by announcing stops and other travel information. Such is life.

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