Posts Tagged 'CTA'

Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.



CTA at War (7-7-1956)

The Chicago Transit Authority was going to war.  The enemy was pigeons.

The birds had been a nuisance at ‘L’ stations for decades.  CTA had been trying to get rid of them, but was hampered by city laws, which said that pigeons couldn’t be shot, poisoned, or otherwise hunted.  The Anti-Cruelty Society had also been watching how the transit agency dealt with the birds.

Now CTA had called in the professionals. A St. Paul Company, Twin Cities Pigeon Eliminating, was given a contract to do some pigeon eliminating.  Twin City’s method involved traps baited with enough pigeon food and water to keep the birds comfortable until they were collected.  The pigeons were then gassed.  This was considered a humane method of disposal, since some exterminators sold the captured birds to gun clubs for target practice.  Twin City’s traps were being set up in five Loop ‘L’ stations, as well as at the Wilson Avenue and the 63rd-Cottage Grove stops.

About the only person objecting to the program was Jerry Scalzo, owner of a hat-cleaning service on Wabash Avenue.  “What are they trying to do?” he asked. “Ruin my business?”


The Abandoned ‘L’ Line Over 63rd Street

I recently posted  a photo of the University station on the abandoned portion of the Green Line ‘L’ to Jackson Park.  Today I’m running some more pictures I took along that line.

Jackson Park 'L' Terminal at Stony Island

Jackson Park ‘L’ terminal at Stony Island (1978)

Chicago’s first ‘L’ line was extended to a terminal in Jackson Park in May 1893, just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition.  Unlike the “alley ‘L'” further north, the final leg of the line was built directly over 63rd Street.

63rd Street 'L' Bridge over IC tracks

63rd Street ‘L’ bridge over IC tracks (1975)

Service continued on the line after the fair closed, with a new terminal (called “Jackson Park”) at Stony Island Avenue.  For a while in the 1930s, the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee electric interurban railroad operated trains along the South Side ‘L’ as far as Dorchester station.

Site of former Dorchester station (1974)

Site of former Dorchester station (1974)

The beginning of ‘L’ service on the Dan Ryan Expressway in 1969 cut ridership along the old South Side ‘L’ lines.  CTA closed the lightly-used Dorchester station in 1973.  Then, in March 1982, structural problems were discovered on the 90-year-old bridge over the Illinois Central tracks.  Service on the Jackson Park branch was immediately cut back to a terminal at 61st Street.

IC 'L' bridge, final service days (1982)

63rd Street ‘L’ bridge over IC, final service days (1982)

That December trains resumed running to a new terminal at University station.  The ‘L’ structure east of there was kept in place, while CTA decided what to do next.  The most-publicized plan was to forget about rebuilding the bridge over the IC, and restore the Dorchester station as the eastern terminal.

63rd and Woodlawn, under the 'L' (1975)

63rd and Woodlawn, under the ‘L’ (1975)

Nothing much was done for the next dozen years.  In 1994 the whole Green Line was closed for a two-year rebuilding project.  When the line reopened as far as Cottage Grove in 1996, trains on the eastern branch were signed for a terminal called “East 63rd.”

'L' at Woodlawn, just east of University station (1975)

‘L’ at Woodlawn, just east of University station (1975)

There was disagreement in the local community over the fate of the 63rd Street ‘L’ structure.  Some liked the convenience of the trains, and wanted to resume service all the way to Dorchester, or even Stony Island.  Others argued that the overhead tracks were a blighting influence, and said they should be torn down.

'L' looking east from Cottage Grove station (1978)

‘L’ looking east from Cottage Grove station (1978)

The final solution was a compromise.  In September 1997 Cottage Grove station was designated as the Jackson Park  branch’s official terminal, and crews immediately began dismantling the structure east of there.  So it remains today.



An Old Idea for Better ‘L’ Service

Sometimes you take things for granted. In 1965, when I first visited New York, I learned just how fast Chicago ‘L’ service was.

I was on my senior class trip.  A few of us decided to check out Coney Island.  We boarded a subway train on Sixth Avenue and away we went.

The train barreled through swiftly under the streets of Manhattan.  We crossed the East River and emerged on an elevated line in Brooklyn.  Then we crept along.  There seemed to be a station every two or three blocks, and our train dutifully stopped at each of them.  At some of the stations, there wasn’t a prospective passenger to be seen.  I don’t know how long it took us to get to Coney Island.  It seemed like two hours.

North-South Route, skip-stop map (1961)

North-South Route, skip-stop map (1961)–CLICK TO ENLARGE!

That’s when I appreciated my hometown’s “A” and “B” train system.  Here’s how it worked—

Those CTA stations with fewer passengers were designated as either “A” or “B” stations, while the busier stations were “A-B”.  Trains running on a line alternated between “A” trains and “B” trains.  An “A” train would stop at “A” stations and “A-B” stations, and run through the “B” stations without stopping.  A “B” train would stop at the “B” and “A-B” stations, and skip the “A” stations.

"A" train at Spaulding on Ravenswood (Brown) Line

“A” train at Spaulding on Ravenswood (Brown) Line

CTA first adopted this skip-stop plan on the Lake Street line in 1948.  It worked so well that it was soon put into place on all of the main rapid transit lines.

There was also a color-code, so you could readily identify your train at a distance.  Lines that operated through a subway had red signs for “A” trains, green signs for “B” trains.  On lines that didn’t use a subway, the signs on “A” trains were yellow, while “B” trains had blue.

The lines with the heaviest traffic ran skip-stop service all day, while those with fewer passengers—like Ravenswood—had “A-B” service only in rush hours.  On weekends and at night, all trains made all stops.

“B” train at University on abandoned Jackson Park (Green) Line

You did have a problem if you boarded at an “A” station and wanted to get off at a “B”.  Then you had to change trains at an “A-B” stop.  But most riders simply accepted this as the price of swifter service.

The skip-stop system worked well for forty years.  Then declining ridership caused CTA to make schedule cuts.  With longer intervals between trains, some lines reverted to all-stop service.  In 1995 the last “A-B” trains were eliminated from the Howard line.

Twenty years have passed.  Rapid transit ridership is again strong.  We’d have to survey current business at all stations.  But isn’t it time for CTA to bring back the “A-B” skip-stop trains?


The Last Year of Chicago Trolley Buses

I’ve noticed from the stats that one of my most popular posts is “The Last Trolley Bus in Chicago (3-24-1973).”  That post has some historic pictures of those buses through the years.

In 1972, when CTA announced it was getting rid of the buses with the sticks on top, I started taking pictures of them in earnest.  I didn’t have a great camera then, so the results are spotty.  Still, I’m posting nine pictures from that final year of trolley bus operation, one for each of the last nine lines.


#12—Roosevelt.  We begin at Roosevelt Road and Paulina Street.  Note the old arrangement of this stretch of Roosevelt, with two service lanes flanking the main roadway.

6-16-1972--Roosevelt @ Paulina

6-16-1972–Roosevelt Road @ Paulina Street


#53—Pulaski.  At Pulaski and Grand, the large building on the left (behind the auto dealer sign) was a generating plant for the electric buses, and is gone.  But Jimmy’s Red Hots is still there.

2-12-1973--Pulaski Road @ Grand

2-12-1973–Pulaski Road @ Grand Avenue


#54—Cicero.  The Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad, just north of Roosevelt, still hauls freight, and is unlikely to be converted to a bike path in the near future.

3-15-1973--Cicero Avenue @ B&OCT RR

3-15-1973–Cicero Avenue @ B & OCT RR


#65—Grand.  The viaduct in this Grand Avenue photo, just west of the Chicago River, has been torn down.  Traffic now crosses the railroad tracks at grade.

7-19-1972--Grand Avenue @ CMSP & P RR

7-19-1972–Grand Avenue @ CMSP & P RR


#72—North.  North Avenue near Goose Island was mostly industrial when this photo was snapped.  Note the still-new John Hancock Building in the distance.

2-25-1973--North Avenue @ Magnolia

2-25-1973–North Avenue @ Magnolia Avenue


#74—Fullerton.  Since there was no room for an off-street terminal at the east end of the Fullerton line, trolley buses looped via Lincoln and Orchard.

6-16-1972--Lincoln Avenue @ Orchard (Fullerton line)

6-16-1972–Lincoln Avenue @ Orchard Street


#77—Belmont.  Belmont-Central, pictured here, is still a busy outlying shopping district.  Notice the newsstand, once a common feature at major intersections.

11-8-1972--Belmont Avenue @ Central

11-8-1972–Belmont Avenue @ Central Avenue


#78—Montrose.  I rode the Montrose Avenue trolley bus to high school and college.  This picture is a few miles east of my home.

7-25-1972--Montrose Avenue @ Ravenswood 'L' (Brown Line)

7-25-1972–Montrose Avenue @ Ravenswood ‘L’ (Brown Line)


#80—Irving Park.  The final picture documents the last day of service on the Irving Park line—by the time I found this out and got my camera, it was already getting dark.  Here Lakeview High School dominates the Irving Park-Ashland intersection, just as it has since 1898.

1-13-1973--Irving Park Road @ Ashland

1-13-1973–Irving Park Road @ Ashland Avenue


The Ground ‘L’

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.

Ravenswood (Brown Line) train at Rockwell

Ravenswood (Brown Line) train at Rockwell

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.

Douglas Park (Pink Line) train in Cicero

Douglas Park (Pink Line) train in Cicero

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.

1958--Proposed Ravenswood 'L' grade-separation at Kedzie

1958–Proposed Ravenswood ‘L’ grade-separation at Kedzie

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.


Up the Middle (7-28-1955)

The Mayor of Chicago stood in the dusty median of the unfinished expressway in his shirt sleeves.  He raised the sledge over his head, then pounded the spike into the tie near the rail.  The two dozen onlookers cheered.

The mayor was Richard J. Daley, the place was the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway at Pulaski.  Though it looked like the old Golden Spike photos of the transcontinental railroad, this ceremony marked a beginning, not an end.  The CTA was going to run trains up the middle of the expressway.

1955--The First Spike

1955–The First Spike

Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago had called for a major east-west highway along the line of Congress Parkway.  That had evolved into an expressway.  Then someone came up with the idea of tearing down the Garfield Park ‘L’ line, and rerouting the trains over the highway’s median.

Critics thought this would be a waste of precious city land.  Why leave that empty space in the middle of an expressway, for trains that might never run?  Put in a couple more lanes for auto traffic instead!

The expressway line was supposed to link up with the Logan Square ‘L’ via the new Milwaukee-Dearborn subway.  But when the subway opened in 1951, the tunnel stopped abruptly at La Salle and Congress.  Chicago now had its own Subway to Nowhere.

And it seemed that trains might always end there.  The Congress ‘L’ project was running into trouble.  Crews tunneling under the Post Office found 16 support caissons in their path.  The caissons had to be reinforced, and that added 40% more to the project’s cost.

1979--Up the Middle

1979–Up the Middle

Daley became mayor in May 1955.  He was determined to push the line through.  That’s why he was out pounding a spike in 90-degree weather.  At the ceremony, he called the project “a new era in highway construction and mass rapid transit.”

The mayor was right.  When the Congress ‘L’ opened in 1958, it was universally hailed as a major innovation.  Now cities routinely combine express highways with transit lines.