An Essay by Leon Kay


I was born in Chicago in 1946 and lived there for about ten years until my family moved to southern Indiana where I have lived since. I have also been a railfan since 1964 and this colors my memory somewhat. We lived on the West Side at 1335 S. Fairfield, one block from Douglas Park, halfway between Ogden Avenue and Roosevelt Road. Most of our trips downtown were on the Ogden streetcar and our trips to the Field Museum were on the Roosevelt car; both lines used the old red cars of which I have many memories. (According to photos I have seen of the era, these must have been Pullmans, Turtlebacks, and 169 cars, but my mind was not yet tuned to these subtleties.)

The "L" was a little more intriguing. (For one thing, figuring out the power source; trolley poles were easy to understand but a third rail was more mysterious.) When we took the "L" downtown, we generally took the Garfield Park line or the Metropolitan as my mother called it. Why she called it that I didn't know until much later. The Garfield line used wood cars of the typical Metropolitan top-hat design which were painted in the brown and orange paint scheme. (Actually the cars were so faded, it looked like two-tone brown or even a nondescript earth tone.) Each line of the "L" had its interesting features; that of the Garfield line, other than the possibility of seeing a red and gray Aurora & Elgin train race by, was the four track portion from Marshfield east which included Marshfield junction and the Loomis yard and shop which stood right in the center of the structure. If our trip was to Brookfield Zoo or to the Morton Arboretum near Lisle, we would get off at Canal Street for a short walk through a direct passageway to Union Station and the Burlington suburban trains.

My aunt lived in Oak Park and when we went to see her, we would take the Lake Street line. I didn't know the difference between monitor roofs and railroad roofs, but I did know the Lake Street cars looked different and they had trolley poles. They needed them; at Laramie, the poles went up and we descended to street level for a side of the road jaunt to our destination. The crossings were protected by gates; (if I remember right) and the feel was something like a cross between a streetcar ride, an "L" train, and a "real" train. I would get the same feel later when I rode the North Shore to Milwaukee on several occasions.

When we went to the Science and Industry museum or to the Oriental Institute on the U of C campus, we would take the North-South route, or the subway as we called it since at that time there was only the State Street subway. The subway cars were the cars I would later know as the 4000's, and were of two types readily apparent to a child. Both types were different from the wood "L" cars that used the Loop and provided all the service in the subway and could be found only on that route. One type was the Plushies, the 1922-1924 cars with roof ventilators and trolley poles that are now familiar features of many rail museums. The ones that I remembered the best on the subway though (and I would come to know them better later when they were transferred to Garfield) were the Bald Eagles, the 1914-15 cars with center doors (the only Chicago cars with three doors per side other than the articulated 5000's) and clean shaven roofs with a definite Yul Brynner look. The first order of Bald Eagles had longitudinal seats like a New York IRT car and I hated riding in them, but the later ones had transverse seats like the Plushies. The sound that the big motors of these cars made as they accelerated was unforgettable. The most interesting parts of the South Side route were the climb to the structure at 13th Street, the bridge over the IC, and Indiana Avenue station with the CR&I alongside and the junction with the Kenwood and Stock Yards routes. I never rode either of these routes; we had no occasion to go to Kenwood, and considering the fact that our trips to the International Amphitheater for the annual Dog and Stock shows, which we made on the Halsted car and were our sole ventures to the Yards, were a major challenge to my mother's gastric stability and that I have inherited some of her nature, perhaps it was better that we should not have attempted a trip to the heart of Packingtown.

The least familiar part of the "L" in my childhood were the North Side lines, the former Northwestern, although they were to become the most familiar in my adult visits to the "L". This was not because we never went to the North Side, we spent far more time there than on the South Side, but due to geography: the fact that Ogden Avenue ran at a diagonal. Lincoln Park and the attractions there were a straight shot on the Ogden extension bus from our neighborhood; on the "L" it was far more complicated. My family was not a family of sports fans, but on the one occasion when I went to a baseball game I took the subway to Addison for a short walk to Wrigley Field. I don't remember anything of the game except that the Cubbies were playing the New York Giants. The side platforms at several North Side subway stations were intriguing, as was the sharp turn from State to Division and the transition to the "L" at Armitage.

We rode the North Shore on several occasions, both in standard cars (including one time over the Shore Line) and once on an Electroliner. (I was privileged to ride the Aurora & Elgin also at least once and was surprised to find that it did not change over to trolley as the North Shore did. I liked the Aurora & Elgin cars better than the North Shore standard cars, but not as good as the Electroliners.) The "L" portions of the trip opened up new vistas, among them were the serpentine curves from Chicago to North Avenues and the changeover to trolley (at Howard Street for the Shore Line, the Skokie line changed over at speed at the same place it does now-Crawford Avenue). I also discovered a Mystery Station and a Mystery Train. The Mystery Station was a stub-end terminal east of and visible from Merchandise Mart station. I never saw any trains using it, nor had I heard or read of any service using that station. It reminded me of the Aurora & Elgin's Wells Street terminal and I thought it might be a North Shore facility, but North Shore used the Loop. I later found out it was the North Water Street terminal, a Northwestern Elevated overflow facility and was closed about the time of my birth but not demolished until 1963.

I saw the Mystery Train at Howard. It was painted red and silver with sheaths over the trolley poles. I asked my dad, and he said that it was the Evanston "L". Since the paint job was like no other on the "L", I thought for a long time that Evanston had its own "L" system much as many suburbs had their own bus systems. When I found out different, I was still puzzled. What were those red and silver cars and why didn't I see them? When I returned to Chicago as a teenage railfan, I couldn't find them. Finally in the 70's, I purchased CERA's Bulletin 113, Chicago's Rapid Transit Vol. 1, and there in full color was a shot of my red and silver train, complete with trolley sheaths just like I remembered it and I could have kicked myself. They were the 5000's, Chicago's only articulated rapid transit cars (the Electroliners were also articulated), and by the time I had bought the book, I had seen them many times on the Skokie Swift as the 51-54 series. Incidentally, while the 5000's were the only Chicago cars to use an articulated design with one truck supporting two body sections, New York's BMT had a large fleet of them, ranging from mammoth Triplexes and 5 section Multis to PCC design Bluebirds which were very similar to the 5000's. The Bluebirds were even used in artists' renderings of the State Street Subway before its opening and I have in a tourist brochure a painting of the Chicago subway with a BMT Bluebird posed at the platform. (For those interested in the BMT articulateds, may I suggest www.nycsubway.org.) The artist conveniently ignored the fact that a real Bluebird would have demolished every platform on the "L" and plugged up the subway portal like a cork in a wine bottle due to the 10 foot width of the BMT cars

In the early 50s, a number of changes in the "L" occurred. The first of these was the opening of the Dearborn subway. I had long noticed the closed subway entrances along Dearborn Street but had paid them little attention. One day we noticed people going down into the entrance at Clark and Congress, a little north of Dearborn Station and Old St. Peter's Church. We followed them and when we arrived at trackside, I received my second surprise, new cars. I didn't know the term PCC yet, but everything about these cars reminded me of the streetcars that I took on Western to go to Riverview Park or on Clark-Wentworth to go to Chinatown: the light green, orange and cream paint scheme, the blinker doors, the crank openers on the windows and the little windows above, even the smell. This was my introduction to the 6000's. We boarded for a ride to Logan Square and the ice cream served in the parlor in the terminal building was as good as the ride. (It is one of my regrets that I never rode to Logan Square over the original "L" route.) The railfan seat with its motorman's eye view was a thrill watching the signals change in front of us and getting a close look at the trackwork for the first time. We were to make the ride to Logan a number of times just for the fun.

As soon as enough 6000's arrived to displace the 4000's from North-South, the latter migrated to the West Side lines. The Bald Eagles began to be regular features of the Garfield and Douglas lines and I became quite familiar with them, while the Plushies moved to Lake Street. Both were now painted in the Everglades green and cream paint scheme that they carried to the end of their careers and looked like new cars. They were a change from the brown woods which were a bit shabby by this time.

The next change in the "L" affected us more deeply, and made us more dependent on surface transport (which now was motor bus on Ogden and trolley bus on Roosevelt, after a short stint as a motor bus route as the double overhead was strung) than we had been. This was the demolition of the Garfield "L" structure and the rerouting of the trains over a grade level right of way along Van Buren Street to allow for the construction of the Congress Expressway. There was no longer a station at California or anywhere else on the ground level portion leaving us with two options. One was to walk through Douglas Park to the nearest open station on the Garfield line, but we soon discovered that although there were no stations on the relocated line, the ride was far from nonstop. Instead of using gates like Lake, Ravenswood, Douglas, and other surface portions of the "L" to protect grade crossings, trains on the temporary Garfield trackage obeyed traffic signals and were no faster than the bus. I have memories of riding a Bald Eagle on this surface route seated in front of the center door (which I believe was marked with an emergency exit sign) wondering when, or if, I would get to my destination. (The CERA book A Rainbow of Traction has a photo of a train of Bald Eagles on the temporary Garfield route meeting a PCC streetcar at either Western or Halsted. I wonder if I was on that train.)

A better option was walking to 22nd and California and catching the Douglas train, also likely to be a Bald Eagle or a Met wood. This route was eventually rerouted over the stub of the old Logan Square route (the routing used today as the interchange connection between the West-Northwest lines and the rest of the system) and to the Loop via Lake Street. I still have bitter feelings about the disruption that the expressway construction caused in my early life and the effect that this has on the neighborhoods expressways go through.

It was at this state of affairs that we left Chicago. When I returned in the mid 60's, things had changed totally. The Green Hornets, the 6000's and their single unit 1-50 cousins, had completely taken over and were providing at least base service on all routes except Lake Street. The woods were gone, as were the Bald Eagles (although a fan trip in 1968 turned up a number of Bald Eagles in the back lot of Skokie Shops), and the Plushies were restricted to rush hours only on Ravenswood and Evanston. They had their front poles removed (the Ravenswood cars had lost both poles) but the bases remained and they looked like amputees. What I consider the best looking "L" cars ever, the 2000's, had arrived and were providing all Lake Street service and a healthy proportion of West-Northwest (the restructured Metropolitan). The Aurora & Elgin and the North Shore were both gone and the overhead on the Evanston route had been cut back from Howard to South Boulevard (within less than ten years, the entire Evanston route would be third railed). The surface portion of the Lake route had been relocated to the CNW right-of-way, the Kenwood, Stock Yards, and Normal Park routes were history, and my Mystery Station was gone. The "L" still had its freight service and I took several pictures of the Baldwin motors at Howard; I also remember spending an hour or so late one night watching them pick up coal hoppers at Buena Yard next to the cemetery with the "L" structure overhead.

The "L" has seen many changes since. For one, the 6000's are gone. For me, this was very traumatic, a sign of advancing age almost like the death of a contemporary. There was a time in the 60's and 70's that I hated them for their omnipresence and ignored them in favor of the rarer models but I am now able to see them for what they were and remember the magic I felt when I first rode in one. True, I look on the woods and 4000's with nostalgia, but I remember the delivery of the 6000's. I also remember the woods as being drafty in the winter, and both they and the 4000's were not the most comfortable even in good weather. (Since children did not often travel at rush hour, I avoided the worst horrors of the woods. My mother told me of riding to work in the winter on the open platform of a gate car because the inside was packed and being almost frozen.) The 6000's were a quantum leap forward. Even with the chance of getting a backward facing seat, the seats in a 6000 were more comfortable than the seats in a wood or Plushie and a lot more comfortable than the bench seats in the first order of Bald Eagles, not to mention the fiberglass seats in the present cars. They were also a symbol of Chicago by virtue of their being almost everywhere and I shall miss them.

I married late and have two young children. They have ridden in a Plushie at the Indiana Transportation Museum and even blown the air whistle. I regret that they will not know what it was like as a train of them took the curves at North Avenue or raced along the Northwestern four track main with an Evanston Express. I regret that they will not know the sound as a train of Bald Eagles climbed from the 13th street portal to the South Side structure or ride in the railfan seat of a 6000 (or any other car now that one man operation and full width cabs are the norm) on a Douglas train as it threads the back alleys of Cicero, rises for an elevated jaunt through the West Side, then makes the spectacular descent at Marshfield Junction to the expressway and plunges into the subway under the Post Office. I regret that children can no longer take the subway to Jackson Park and a short walk to the Science and Industry and people of all ages no longer have a direct connection to Union Station from the "L".

The move to one-man operation and the loss of the railfan seat affects no one except children and railfans (also the conductors who have lost their jobs and the motormen who now have to do two jobs) but other recent changes do. Service cutbacks such as the truncation of the Jackson Park route, the closing of inner-city stations like California (Congress) and 22nd St. (South Side) and the termination of A/B express service affect everyone, particularly in neighborhoods dependent on public transit where few have cars. There have been positive changes too, the Midway line and the extension of the Kennedy line to O'Hare have provided rapid transit service to parts of the city that have always lacked it. Another positive change is subtler; that children of both sexes and all ethnic groups can dream today of having their hands on the controller. When I was a child, "L" motormen were just that, men and almost invariably of European descent. On my last trip to Chicago in 1994, I took my wife and daughter (my son was not yet born) for a ride on the Douglas line (unfortunately my daughter was only a year old and remembered nothing). Our motorman was a black woman, in the late 40's and early 50's, this would have been as novel as a 6000. Whether these positive changes can outweigh the negative ones remains to be seen.