The Last Trolley Bus in Chicago (3-24-1973)

Two lost Chicago icons--a Pulaski Road trolley bus and The Buffalo (1973)

Two lost Chicago icons–a Pulaski Road trolley bus and The Buffalo (1973)

The last of the trolley buses ran in Chicago this day. Getting them off the street was considered progress. Years later, we’re not so sure.

A trolley bus is an electric vehicle. It draws power from a pair of wires strung over the street. An electric streetcar is tied to tracks, but a trolley bus runs on rubber tires, making it more maneuverable. Still, it has to keep its trolley poles in contact with those overhead wires.

All our big cities once had electric streetcar systems. When it was time to modernize, many of the transit companies bought trolley buses–after all, they already had a heavy investment in electric generating plants. The early gasoline-fueled buses were small and unreliable.

First trolley bus in service on Diversey Avenue (1930)

First trolley bus in service on Diversey Avenue (1930)

In 1930 the first Chicago trolley buses began running on Diversey Avenue. Other lines followed. Many of them were extensions of existing streetcar routes. Laying of track for through-routing of streetcars was supposed to come later.

That never happened. The Depression came, then World War II. In 1947 a new government agency–the Chicago Transit Authority–bought out the private transit companies. CTA planned to replace streetcars with buses.

Trolley buses replace streetcars on Belmont Avenue (1949)

Trolley buses replace streetcars on Belmont Avenue (1949)

At first CTA converted some of the streetcar lines to trolley buses. The electric bus fleet grew to over 700 vehicles, running on 16 routes. The last Chicago streetcar ran in 1958. Once the streetcars were gone, clinging to electric buses seemed to make little sense.

Oil was cheap. The new diesel buses cost less to operate than trolley buses. Anyway, wasn’t it more efficient to have just one type of bus?

Before snow routes--double-parking on Roosevelt Road (1958)

Before snow routes–double-parking on Roosevelt Road (1958)

The Blizzard of 1967 decided the matter. Tied to their wires for power, trolley buses couldn’t get around all the stalled cars.

Now CTA began a determined program to replace all electric buses with diesel vehicles.The conversion took six years. The final three lines–Cicero, Pulaski, and North–went diesel after March 24, 1973. There was no ceremony. When their runs were over, the trolley buses simply pulled into the North-Cicero barn, and that was it.

"New Look" trolley bus in Dayton, Ohio

“New Look” trolley bus in Dayton, Ohio

Then a number of things changed. The OPEC embargo marked the beginning of the end of cheap oil. A battery was developed that allows trolley buses to leave their wires for short detours. Public concern about the environment led to an appreciation for “green” technology, like the non-polluting electric bus.

So in recent years, the buses with the sticks on top have been enjoying a revival. But in Chicago, there are no plans to bring them back.

—30—

For more of my trolley bus pictures, check out this post—

https://chicagohistorytoday.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-last-years-of-chicago-trolley-buses/

 

 

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40 Responses to “The Last Trolley Bus in Chicago (3-24-1973)”


  1. 1 John Soasom March 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

    What were those 16 trolley bus lines in Chicago?

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt March 24, 2014 at 8:33 am

      John–
      CTA’s trolley bus system peaked between 1955 and 1959. The sixteen routes operating then were–#12-Roosevelt, #47-47th, #51-51st-55th, #52-Kedzie-California, #53-Pulaski, #54-Cicero, #65-Grand, #66-Chicago, #72-North, #73-Armitage, #74-Fullerton, #77-Belmont, #78-Montrose, #80-Irving Park, #81-Lawrence, #85-Central. By that time, four earlier trolley bus lines had already been converted to motor bus (#55A-Elston Extension, #76-Diversey, #82-Kimball, #86-Narragansett).
      –JRS

      • 3 John Mackey September 25, 2017 at 2:34 pm

        I know the Kimball line was opened in 1930 as a feeder bus from Peterson Avenue to connect with the Ravenswood train terminal at Lawrence Avenue, but the route was discontinued in 1937 due to low ridership

        I recall the Elston Avenue having trolley wires from Montrose to Bryn Mawr, but at that time they were used by Montrose and Lawrence buses going to the Bryn Mawr garage. I also recall the Elston Avenue bus (Route 13) going as far north as Pulaski and Montrose When did the 55A Elston extension trolley buses discontinue service? I was not familiar with trolley buses on Narragansett Route 86. Did they operate between North Avenue and Irving Park?

      • 4 J.R. Schmidt September 25, 2017 at 6:55 pm

        In 1951 the Elston trolley bus extension was motorized at the same as the Elston streetcar trunk line was motorized, with both combined to make a through motor bus line (#55). Around 1960, the northern part of the Elston line was combined with the #41 Clybourn line. The southern part on Elston then became route #13, with that bit of overlap on Elston between Belmont and Pulaski.

        The #86 Narragansett line originally operated from a wye in Irving Park to a southern terminal via Wabansia, Austin, and North. The wye in Irving Park was later replaced by a wye a short block north in Cuyler, and that lengthy street-running at the southern end was abandoned in favor of an off-street turn-around at North-Narragansett. Motor bus conversion came in 1953.

        BTW, you can see that trolley bus wye in the older photo of “Then and Now, Irving Park-Narragansett”—Click CHICAGO’S CHANGING SCENE, then scroll down. I posted the photo last October, so you’ll have to scroll for a while!

        –JRS

      • 5 John MacKey September 26, 2017 at 10:29 am

        Thanks for your info about Elson Avenue and Narragansett Avenue buses. I do remember the Elston-Clybourn bus which operated from downtown Chicago to Elson and Milwaukee avenues in the Gladstone Park area. That route (41) was discontinued 20 years ago.
        .
        If I am correct, the route 86 buses were extended once the trolley buses were gone. The name was changed to North-Narragansett-Irving Park. On the north end, the route was extended west of Neenah Ave. to Cumberland Ave. We would ride that buses to go to Schiller Woods. On the south end, the bus operated west of Narragansett to Harlem Avenue,so it served the Sears Roebuck store at North and Harlem

    • 6 Thomas W. Atkielski March 21, 2017 at 7:13 pm

      Yes, remember them well! But I remember in 1949 as a young kid, when Kedzie Avenue had those Monstrosity rail cars on 2 tracks! A conductor in back, and a driver up front! With one trolley in the middle of the bus if I remember right as well? Built like a Tank, that thing could crush a car if it was in its way! THEN, in either 1950 or ’51, a major transformation occurred! They took out the tracks (I think,) removed all the reddish Street bricks, then paved the whole street! We lived behind a cleaning store right on Kedzie, (3707 N.,) so we watched this slow laborious process that disallowed any motorized vehicles from travelling on N. Kedzie for over 1 year, maybe 1 1/2 years! I remember distinctly that I had one of those pinkish Moon faced balls, and I threw it on the street curb just a few feet North of 3707 N., just when they were laying the concrete! They just poured the quality cream colored concrete right over it, where it still lays today! That’s the Block where both my brother and I found Native American relics in our back yard (Ornamental Beads,) and about 5 doors North, where there was an empty lot with only one Bush right in the center of the lot, where my Brother found an “ARROWHEAD” in between the roots somewhere! Those old streetcars were a blast to ride on, as they made stops all along the way, but took-on passengers, and let others off, right in the middle of the street! But there weren’t many cars until sometime in the mid’60’s! I remember my Brothers and I playing “Catch” right on the street, there was so little traffic! I can guess that maybe previous to 1910 or so, there were horseback riders and Horse and Buggy trips up and down the street! What a great time that must have been! I wish I could have seen it live?

  2. 7 Ralph March 25, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Are trolly buses used anywhere today yet?

    • 8 J.R. Schmidt March 25, 2014 at 2:47 pm

      Ralph–
      In the U.S,, five systems that I know of–Boston, Dayton, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle; also Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but I did see them in Milan last fall.
      –JRS

  3. 9 Ralph March 25, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    I can remember riding the #80 everyday to school and back.

    Thanks JR

  4. 10 Sam Paris March 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I remember the Pulaski bus at Belden Avenue, where there’s a tight “S” curve as the street goes under the old Milwaukee Road tracks, the trolleys would come off the wires once in a while. It was a real problem, as the bus would sometimes block traffic for minutes as the bus driver struggled to maneuver the trolley poles back on the wires. A battery system that allowed the bus to get out of the way of traffic, or better, just continue on its way until it was more convenient to reattach the poles would make this a more practical system.

  5. 11 Justin Brideson April 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    My father talks about the days he took the trolley – it looks like it would be so much fun to ride on.

  6. 12 John C Cargill August 24, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Unfortunately on that s curve, which was actually Grand west of Cicero, some hooligan types would step of the high curb under the underpass and pull the trolleys off the wires by grabbing their retaining wires. I of course only heard of this, (lol)

    • 13 J.R. Schmidt August 24, 2015 at 9:23 am

      Pulaski-Belden was one S-curve. Grand actually had two S-curves—the one at Lamon you mentioned, and another one at Homan. However the worst trolley bus curve was in San Francisco, route #33 at Market and Clayton. No railroad viaduct there, just a steep street grade. I believe the trolley buses still operate there.
      –JRS

  7. 14 Stephen M. Scalzo September 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Toronto has not had trolleybus since the mid 1990s.

    The system currently left in North American are Boston, Philadelphia, Dayton, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Mexico City and Guadalajara.

    It should also be noted that 124 CTA trolleybuses were sold to Guadalajara afterwards, where they received heavy overhaul and lasted in service until the early 1990s, replaced by new Mexican built trolleybuses.

    Also, the Illinois Railway Museum operates trolleybuses on its short demonstration line – which includes a number of former CTA trolleybuses.

  8. 15 RON JANISCH January 4, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Our family moved to an address on Marshfield just south of Irving Park in 1959. I remember those electric buses were fast going down Irving Park Road east and west. They went as far east as Marshfield and then turned around between the Diner Grill and Biasetti’s Steak House and went back west. The driver would get out and reattach the electric trolleys to the overhead lines making a loud electrical type noise upon contact. Kind of sounded like an “alien ray gun” to me. My mom used to take us kids out west to the Portage Park Sears on Cicero and Irving for shopping trips. The Diner Grill, which I think is still there, used to be an old street car and it had great food, the hamburgers with grilled onions were the best. Great memories.

  9. 16 sderailway January 7, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    The Blizzard of 1967 decided the matter. Tied to their wires for power, trolley buses couldn’t get around all the stalled cars.

    I believe the ’67 blizzard was just used as a handy excuse to get rid of trackless trolleys, which were quite popular among many transit riders. It just doesn’t make sense that severe winter weather recurring in say 10 to 20 year cycles is a substantive reason why a class of service merits replacement. Chicago had operated trackless trolleys for 30 years in 1967, a good ten years after the last notable blizzard of ’47. Of all the trolley bus systems in the northern hemisphere worldwide subjected to severe winter weather, I have never heard of severe winter weather being a reason for abandonment of superior electric bus service.

    • 17 John C Cargill January 7, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      I thoroughly agree, I grew up near the intersection
      of North ave. and Central. And very much preferred the trolley buses. they were quick, roomy and efficient. They even seemed to have better heat. Certainly I’d rather have them than some diesel smoke belching replacement. Their ability to keep up with traffic made them better. I drove through the blizzard of 67 and yes trolley buses were blocked but they had no more problems in that regard than the oil and propane buses.

      • 18 sderailway January 8, 2016 at 8:31 pm

        Indeed they had better heat, in winter they were electric toasters. The electric resistive heaters drawing from the 600 volt DC overhead as well as electric current generated from the regenerative braking system whenever the brakes were being applied was more than adequate to heat the vehicle interior evenly throughout the bus on even the coldest winter days.

    • 19 J.R. Schmidt January 7, 2016 at 2:26 pm

      I remember that the CTA chief, Michael Cafferty, was adamant that the trolley buses had to go. He said they were old-fashioned, and often cited the problems from the ’67 blizzard. What’s strange about the story is that Mr. Cafferty died of cancer at 48 early in 1973—just before trolley buses ran their last miles.
      –JRS

      • 20 sderailway January 11, 2017 at 4:36 pm

        I don’t think electric transportation can ever be considered old fashioned.

      • 21 J.R. Schmidt January 11, 2017 at 5:55 pm

        Ditto!
        –JRS

      • 22 Thomas W. Atkielski March 21, 2017 at 7:25 pm

        I had a little cleaning store at 3116 N. Milwaukee Avenue at the time of the ’67 snow storm, so I watched the snow come down hour after hour! What a spectacle it was! But already at that time, they had the engine driven buses on Milwaukee avenue, as they were strewn all over the street, lifeless for about 3 days! Evidently, if I remember correctly, Milwaukee Avenue was one of the first streets to have Wireless buses? Why I DO NOT know! Etched so strong in my mind, it seems like just 15-20 years ago, not 50 years? Something rare like that is still in the forefront of my mind! I hope I remember the Buses correctly, but I don’t remember any street car tracks or Trolleys? If I am wrong please update me, ok? The tremendous snowfall was the focal point, so I may have missed other things? TWA.

      • 23 J.R. Schmidt March 21, 2017 at 7:49 pm

        Milwaukee Avenue never had electric trolley buses. When the streetcars were taken off Milwaukee in the early 1950s, they were replaced by motor buses.
        –JRS

  10. 24 Kathy January 13, 2016 at 11:09 am

    I was very little between 2 – 5 years of age when I rode these buses. However, I do remember seeing tracks on the street as well. I lived at Orchard just south of Lincoln. I can’t remember if it was on Lincoln or Fullerton. We may have walked to Fullerton to catch the trolley bus. At one time could there have been a streetcar on Lincoln or Fullerton as well?

    • 25 J.R. Schmidt January 13, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      At one time, both Lincoln and Fullerton had streetcars. Trolley buses replaced streetcars on Fullerton in 1949, and remained in service until 1973. Lincoln Avenue never had a trolley bus route of its own—the eastbound Fullerton trolley buses were routed down Lincoln and Orchard to turn them around to run westbound.
      –JRS

  11. 26 KenC January 24, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    I remember riding the electric buses (overhead wires) daily on Belmont around 1972-1974. I don’t remember when the last electric ran on Belmont though (I started driving that route by ~ 1974). I do recall the bus driver once or twice needing to use a pole to get the trolley back in place. The buses were old and creaky, but they accelerated quickly, were quiet (other than the squeaks), and didn’t belch smoke. Yes, the smoke came from the coal plants, but back then, I bet that was still cleaner than those nasty diesels.

    But the replacements had air conditioning, which was nice!

    -KenC

  12. 27 Dan #2 March 3, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    I love trolleys and trolley buses, so don’t get me wrong. But to say they’re not pollutive isn’t correct. They may not pollute where they’re running, but they run on electricity, so somewhere, someone has to burn coal or natural gas to keep that electricity flowing. Pollution is happening somewhere.

    • 28 J.R. Schmidt March 3, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      Good point. Same thing with electric cars. But since the vehicle itself doesn’t pollute—while the power-house does—it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”
      –JRS

  13. 29 Ron Huritz May 21, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Mr. Schmidt, would you have any pictures or historical information about a local shuttle company called Sheridan Plaza Bus Lines that operated between Chicago’s north side and the horse racing tracks in the 1960s and 1970s? I was employed there for several years and would like to perhaps put together a book about that company and many of my recollections.

    • 30 J.R. Schmidt May 22, 2016 at 6:26 am

      I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about Sheridan Plaza Bus Lines, though it sounds like you have an interesting story. You might want to contact the Omnibus Society of America/PO Box A3051/Chicago, IL 60690. I don’t know if they can help you, but they might be able to point you in the right direction.
      –JRS

  14. 31 tr2manz September 1, 2016 at 7:59 am

    Sorry to see that the Buffalo is gone. Haven’t been to that part of Chicago for a while.

  15. 33 John Stone September 4, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    I remember the #81 Lawrence route. Lived 2 blocks away from the west end of the line. Rode it many many times, getting off at Kimball to grab the Ravenswood line. Loved the electrics. Big buses with lots of room. I remember that there was a problem at Central where the#81 bus line crossed with the #85, also electric. The overhead lines were quite intricate at those crossings, and a trolley would jump off there rather often. Big sparks! Also on the turnaround at Gunnison where they’d often take the turn a bit too wide.

    • 34 J.R. Schmidt September 4, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      I grew up on Mason Avenue, a few blocks south of Lawrence. As a youngster, I was very impressed that Mason Avenue had its own trolley bus—even if it was only for one block at the Lawrence turn-around.
      –JRS

      • 35 John Stone September 5, 2016 at 10:29 am

        Yes. It took the right off Lawrence onto Mason (Jay’s Dairy), left on Gunnison, left on Austin and left back onto Lawrence. I lived on Meade Ave. Got off at the end of the line right at the stop on Gunnison, and walked a few blocks west down Gunnison to get home. As I recall, you could only get off there, but had to board eastbound at Lawrence. Long time ago.Great times, and a great neighborhood!

  16. 36 Mulebuk Sam June 10, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Who ever published this article has the date of 1973 as the last trolley bus in Chicago wrong. I rode a trolley bus in Chicago on Belmont ave. in the spring of 1974 . And it had seen better days. But I distinctly remember it because I had moved back to Chicago in the early spring of 1974.

    • 37 J.R. Schmidt June 11, 2017 at 9:42 am

      I stand by the 1973 date. I’ve lived in the Chicago area all my life, and took hundreds of trolley bus pictures during their last days in Chicago—and I have no pictures after early 1973. The 1973 date is also referenced in numerous sources. For one example, see Sebree and Ward, The Trolley Coach in North America (Interurbans Press, 1974), pp. 48-59.
      –JRS

  17. 38 Barb Zimmers June 18, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    In what year did the electric buses stop running on #76 Diversey Ave.? I thought my mother and I rode them in the late ’60s to church on Sundays until they were phased out.

    • 39 J.R. Schmidt June 18, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      Trolley bus service on the #76-Diversey line ended on June 19, 1955. Perhaps you were riding the Belmont line, which lasted until 1973.
      –JRS


  1. 1 Historic Chicago Buses | The Trolley Dodger Trackback on September 8, 2015 at 8:42 pm

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