The Loop ‘L’ has become a tourist attraction. Major cities no longer have iron railroad trestles running over streets in their central business districts. This remnant of Nineteenth Century transit is distinctly Chicago, the same way the cable cars are distinctly San Francisco.
Yet there’s another feature of the Chicago ‘L’ that most visitors ignore—the ground-level run on the Brown Line.
The original South Side ‘L’ opened in 1892. Soon other lines on elevated iron trestles followed. But building trestles cost serious money. When the transit companies wanted to extend their original lines into sparsely-settled areas, they simply laid the tracks on the ground.
Over the course of a century, much of this surface trackage was grade-separated. Today four CTA routes continue to have some ground-level service.
The last mile of the Purple Line runs at grade to its terminal at Linden Avenue in Wilmette. The outer portion of the Pink Line, from Kildare Avenue in the city to its 54th Avenue terminal in Cicero, is also on the ground. So is the Skokie section of the Yellow Line.
Still, the Brown Line is the real point of interest. The last mile of this route operates at grade-level in the middle of an alley, right through one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods of Chicago.
The Brown Line was originally the Ravenswood branch of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad. In May 1907 service was opened on the branch to a terminal at Western Avenue near Wilson. As required by city franchise, the trains ran on an elevated trestle.
West of terminal, a large parcel of land stretching to Kimball Avenue was being developed by the Northwest Land Association. The company knew that train service would boost the sale of its lots. So a deal was struck between the developer and the railroad.
Northwest Land gave Northwestern Elevated a free right-of-way through its property to Kimball. Since this part of the line was being built entirely on private land, no city franchise was needed, and the tracks could be laid at grade level. Construction would be quicker and cheaper.
There were also some bonuses. Northwest Land agreed to share the construction costs of two stations. And for three years after the extension was built, the developer would pay for all operating losses.
Before 1907 was over, trains were running on the extension. At first there was only a shuttle car between Kimball and Western. As traffic picked up, this was replaced by through service from Kimball to the Loop.
As mentioned, the area around the outer edge of the Brown Line is now thickly-built, justifying Northwest Land’s concessions to Northwestern Elevated. The ground-level track has six crossings and four stations. Despite the obvious safety concerns, there are very few accidents.
From time to time there are proposals to grade-separate the outer Brown Line. However, CTA recently spent millions of dollars to extend the station platforms here, so perhaps these ground level ‘L’ trains will stay in place for another century.