June 6th, 1892 – The Chicago “L” Comes to Life

Today-In-History

The first “L”, the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, began revenue service on June 6th, 1892, when a small steam locomotive pulling four wooden coaches carrying a total of 27 men and 3 women departed the 39th Street station and arrived at the Congress Street Terminal 14 minutes later, over tracks that are still used by the Green Line. Over the next year service was extended to 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, then the Transportation Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.

Intramural_Railway

In 1893, trains began running on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and in 1895 on the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which had lines to Douglas Park, Garfield Park (since replaced), Humboldt Park (since demolished), and Logan Square.

The Metropolitan was the United States’ first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors, a technology whose practicality had been demonstrated in 1890 on the “intramural railway” at the World Fair that had been held in Chicago. Two years later the South Side “L” introduced multiple-unit control, in which the operator can control all the motorized cars in a train, not just the lead unit. Electrification and MU control remain standard features of most of the world’s rapid transit systems.

Chicago L train 1922 680

A drawback of early “L” service was that none of the lines entered the central business district. Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown. This obstacle was overcome by the legendary traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of the London Underground, and who was immortalized by Theodore Dreiser as the ruthless schemer Frank Cowperwood in The Titan (1914) and other novels.

Yerkes, who controlled much of the city’s streetcar system, obtained the necessary signatures through cash and guile—at one point he secured a franchise to build a mile-long “L” over Van Buren Street from Wabash Avenue to Halsted Street, extracting the requisite majority from the pliable owners on the western half of the route, then building tracks chiefly over the eastern half, where property owners had opposed him. The Union Loop opened in 1897 and greatly increased the rapid transit system’s convenience. Operation on the Yerkes-owned Northwestern Elevated, which built the North Side “L” lines, began three years later, essentially completing the elevated infrastructure in the urban core although extensions and branches continued to be constructed in outlying areas through the 1920s


 

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