Car 1 at Chicago History Museum Gallery

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One of the more unique historical "L" artifacts to survive today is the first "L" car. Car 1 from the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit, the first "L" company, luckily was able to survive long enough to be recognized by transit historians, professionals, and fans for its importance and saved from the scrapper's torch. Later restored but out of reach from most of the public, car is now on display for all to see.

About the Car | About the Move | About the Exhibit | Photos

About the Car

Car 1, Chicago's first rapid transit passenger car, was part of an order for 180 cars purchased by the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company. Ordered on February 15, 1892 from the Jackson & Sharp company, the cars were trailers built to be hauled behind steam locomotives.

The cars were of wood construction and had center end doors with open platforms at each end of the car and railroad-style roofs with stained glass clerestories. The cars, as delivered, were painted dark Pullman green and had intricate stripping and gold leaf decoration on the exterior. The railroad's name was spelled out in gold lettering along the letterboard -- the long, thin, horizontal space on the carside between the tops of the windows and the roof -- with a unique peculiarity: a period at the end of the name.

The interiors were luxurious and typically Victorian, with varnished woodwork, ornate light fixtures, decorative ceiling trim, slatted window shades, cork floor mats, rattan seats, and leather straps hung from the ceiling for standees. Originally, the cars were heated by steam from the locomotives, circulated in the cars through pipes, and were lit by gas lights supplied from tanks under the car floor. The cars weighed 42,500 pounds; were 46 feet long, 8 feet 9.75 inches wide, and 12 feet 10 inches high; and seated 46 people.

After electric traction became a proven technology, most transit companies were quick to covert to the more cost-effective form of power. The SSRT, which became the South Side Elevated Railroad in 1897 following the bankruptcy of the original company, also tested another technology as part of the conversion to electric traction: multiple-unit (MU) control. MU, developed by inventor Frank Julian Sprague, allowed the controls in one car to control the motors and brakes of every car in a train consist. The South Side Elevated was the first application of MU control, which became standard equipment on rapid transit cars.

One hundred twenty of the 180 original cars, including Car 1, were converted into motor car in late 1897 and early 1898, mostly at the Pullman Car Company in Chicago, with addition of two motors on one truck of each car and the installation of a standard drum-type hand controller. Because the cars were not designed as motor cars, a motorcab had to be retrofit into the 120 cars. This was accomplished by partitioning off the right corner of each end of the passenger compartment of the car to make a small cab for the motorman. At the time of conversion to motorcars, the gas lights were also replaced by electric lights and Gold electric heaters were installed in place of the steam heat units.

The 1-180 series motorcars were retired by 1930. From 1930-39, the cars were stored in Lower 63rd Yard, where they were allowed to deteriorate. Most were scrapped in 1939, but Car 1 was moved to Lower Wilson Yard and stored there for many years. When Lower Wilson closed in the 1950s, car 1 was moved to Skokie Shops, where it sat for several more years.

In 1959, CTA staff partially restored the car, retaining the inside motorman's cab and original seating configuration. The car was further renovated in the early 1960s. While the car still had much of its original fabric, it had also significantly deteriorated and required extensive work. Most of the exterior siding needed to be replaced and many of the intricate brass fittings had to be recreated. To the extent practical, the car was restored to its original condition, save for the fact that it retained its motor equipment. However, it was no longer able to operate under its own power. Therefore, it is perhaps more precise to say that it was restored to its 1897 appearance.

One of the car's early public appearances after restoration was at the 1962 opening of the new Desplaines Shops. The site of the Victorian car going down the new, modern Congress Line was quite a juxtaposition! Later, the car was moved to the former Lincoln-Wrightwood car barn, a former streetcar barn across Sheffield Avenue from the "L"'s North Side Main Line (today the Red and Brown lines) that housed the CTA's historic equipment collection, which included "L" cars, streetcars and buses.

The car moved around periodically for several decades while making occasional public appearances. Car 1 was later moved to 61st Yard. Car 1 came out for certain events, such as Mayor Byrne's "Loop Alive" celebrations, the 100th anniversary of the "L" in 1992 and the 100th anniversary of the Loop/50th anniversary of the CTA in 1997. On these occasions, the car was pulled by 4000-series Historic Cars 4271-4272, which have compatible couplers. Around 2000, Car 1 was moved to Skokie Shops and storied there. However, it did not made any more public appearances in large because, although it still looks good, there were concerns on CTA's part about the unit's road-worthiness.

About the Move

On December 5, 2005, the Chicago Historical Society closed for renovation. The museum would reopen with completely revamped exhibition and galley spaces and a new name, the Chicago History Museum. As part of the overhaul of the museum's exhibits about Chicago history, the museum decided that they wanted to include one of best-known and beloved parts of Chicago culture, the "L".

By that time, Car 1 was little seen by the public, spending most of its time protected from the elements inside maintenance shops. Since the car was last out on the "L" for public rides at the Loop Centennial in 1997, the car aged and the CTA determined it too be too risky to allow to mingle amongst the heavier steel cars of the current fleet. For the most part, the car was only seen during the CTA's annual transit rodeo competition and open house, held at Skokie Shops.

The CTA was, however, amenable to loaning the car out to be displayed for the public. Talks were at one time being held with the Museum of Science and Industry for this purpose, but they did not come to fruition. Finally, it was the Chicago Historical Society that agreed to take the car and display it as part of the museum's new exhibition space. Officially, the car is still owned by CTA and is on long-term loan to the History Museum.

Once the museum's renovation had reached a certain stage and the structure of the second floor, where it would be housed, had been sufficiently reinforced to bear the weight of the car, Car 1 had to be moved from CTA's Skokie Shops to the Chicago History Museum at North and Clark in Lincoln Park. Before the car left, certain preparations were made. The only alteration done to the car to make it "museum friendly" was rewiring it to allow its lights to operate on standard 110 volt alternating current, instead of the 600 volts of direct current used on the "L." The work was performed by CTA employees at Skokie Shops.

During the month leading up to the move, museum personnel performed conservation tasks and prepared a written assessment of both the interior and exterior conditions. Conservation included inspection of the car's sides and roof and then injection of special adhesive where the paint was blistered or broken and loose. The adhesive was let set for a day or so and then low heat and pressure were applied to adhere the paint to the wood. A written assessment was prepared of the car's condition both inside and out to have a record of exactly how the car looked when it was moved. Broken seat covering, wear and scuff marks, missing pieces, broken glass, gouges, and other items were recorded for future reference.

After these steps were completed, the moving contractor, Belding Walbridge, wrapped the car for shipment. This consisted of putting a layer of foam plastic on the roof and part way down the sides to protect the car from scrapes or light impacts during the move. This was important because of the numerous low tree branches encountered along the route. Then sheet plastic was placed over the car and both ends and under the center to protect it from rain or snow. To hold all this in place, shrink wrap was placed around the car from end to end and around the middle from top to bottom. Finally a tarp was placed over the car and tied to the carrying platform.

Once this was completed, Car 1 was ready for shipment. The big day was January 18, 2006. A special carrying/lifting platform was built to hold the car since it had to be lifted up to the second story level at the museum to be rolled into the exhibit area. This platform was placed outside Skokie Shops and a ramp was placed to permit the car to be rolled up onto the platform. This was accomplished the same way the CTA had loaded the 2600-series cars onto trailers for shipment to Alstom for rehab. Once on the platform, the car was secured with welded chocks under the wheels, steel framework around the trucks, steel posts under the side sills and nylon straps tying the body bolster down to the platform to prevent rocking during shipment. Since the car weight is not the same at both ends -- one end has the motors while the other does not -- extra weights were added to the platform to help balance the load.

A large 250-ton crane was used to lift the car on the platform onto a low truck for shipment. Unfortunately, the truck was not in the best of condition and it sagged under the weight of the car and grounded itself in the Skokie Shops loading area. Steel 'I' beams were placed from end to end of the platform and chains were attached to the truck frame to hold it up. This gave just enough ground clearance to permit the move.

The transport was originally scheduled to leave Skokie Shops around 8am, but due to the low-trailer problem, the move did not leave until 2:30pm. The shipment took a particularly circuitous route because it had to avoid certain obstructions, most notably low viaducts. Ironically, the "L" car, when on a trailer, is too high to clear most "L" structures. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) had to sign off on the special routing and issue permits because of the size of the car.

The original route from Skokie was to be up McCormick Boulevard to Green Bay Road, then through Evanston, Wilmette and Kenilworth before heading over Kenilworth Avenue to Sheridan Road (the car went that car north because it was the first place to cross the Metra/Union Pacific-North Line that wasn't either too low of a viaduct or too severe of a hill leading to a grade crossing). From there, the car was to go back down south on Sheridan Road into Chicago, then over private drives on the Loyola University Lake Shore campus in Rogers Park (to avoid passing under the Red Line viaducts at Sheridan/Loyola and Devon/Broadway, which were too low to clear the trailer) and down Lake Shore Drive to the museum at North Avenue. Loyola was consulted; it is unclear if they agreed to the routing or not. Whatever the case, this was not the routing that was finally used.

The route that Car 1 traversed was similar to the one above up to the point where the car was heading south on Sheridan Road in Evanston. At that point, the car went south on Chicago Avenue and continued on Clark Street in Chicago. The transport veered down Ashland Avenue south of Devon and successfully passed under the Brown Line at Newport because the elevated structure is unusually high there to pass over the Metra/Union Pacific-North Line a few blocks west. From there, the route followed Clybourn, Division, Orleans, Grand, and LaSalle, where the truck turned right down Clark Street to reach the museum at Clark and North. Low trees and the steep slope down from Sheridan Road and Isabella in Evanston took some time to negotiate and traffic backed up in both directions while the intersection was blocked. The truck had to run against traffic in several places to avoid low tree limbs and traffic signals. The move all the way down to Grand Avenue was necessary because is another of the few locations where high loads can get under the "L".

Car 1 arrived at the History Museum at 6pm. The CTA approved for their bus turnaround at Clark and North to be used for the truck to drive onto museum property. CTA bus supervision cleared the loop and rerouted North Avenue and Armitage Avenue buses to allow the move. The car spent the night on its trailer parked outside the south side of the museum building.

The next day, January 19, 2006, Car 1 was lifted up into the museum's second floor. The Park District had to approve the placement of cranes on its property to facilitate the move. The move began around 8am as the car and platform were lifted from the truck onto a short piece of elevated structure outside the second story of the building and placed on roller dollies so that it could be gently pulled into the building. This actually involved three moves.

The first move allowed the flatbed trailer that brought Car 1 from Skokie Shops to be moved out from under it. The second put it back in position for crews to remove some of the wood used to stabilize the car during the move, strengthen welds on the steel bracing that kept it in place and check for any other problems. The third time, a giant 400-ton crane lifted the "L" car more than 20 feet off the ground, turned it 45 degrees, and then placed it gently into atop the temporary yellow structure, from which it was pulled inside.

Over the next week, the car was moved inside the building and placed in its final location. This required the car to be turned 90 degrees (from north-south to east-west) in a very tight space without touching the interior walls or columns. It was then be jacked up with small hydraulic jacks under the axles so that the rollers and platform can be removed and it can be lowered onto the permanent supports rails on the exhibition hall floor. In order to support the car, the museum has had to install new support beams and columns where the car was placed.

After more than a century, Chicago's first "L" car reached what may be its final destination.

About the Exhibit

Car 1 is the centerpiece of a new permanent exhibit at the Chicago History Museum called "Chicago: Crossroads of America". The exhibit explores Chicago history and development, and well as its influence on other cities and aspects of national culture. Also part of the exhibit is the historic Galena & Chicago Union locomotive "Pioneer" -- the locomotive from the first train to enter Chicago in 1848 -- which was already in the museum's collection. Five galleries in the exhibit look at Chicago's economy, Chicago crises, Chicago neighborhoods, innovations that Chicagoans gave the world and Chicago as a hub of entertainment and culture.

Opening on September 30, 2006, Car 1 greets visitors when the first enter the exhibit. The car stands at a replica South Side Rapid Transit platform, complete with a replica of the SSRT's short-lived humpbacked platform canopy, with accessible ramp at one end to allow visitors to look into the car. The car is open to the public, who are welcome to walk through it.

On the platform are three figurines: One represents a common laborer, in this case one of the ironworkers who built the first Ferris Wheel for the World's Columbian Exposition. Another is based on a Wisconsin woman whose letters home about the 1893 World's Fair have been preserved in the museum's archives. The third will be Ida B. Wells, the early civil rights crusader of the era who spoke out against the exclusion of African-Americans from the Fair. A prerecorded conversation among the three based on the letters and Wells' statements plays from speakers overhead.

Thanks to First & Fastest magazine (Summer 2006 issue), Walter Keevil, Bruce Moffat, and Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk for information for this article.


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A tractor-trailer carrying SSRT car 1 to its new home at the Chicago History Museum passes by the Main station on the Purple Line during the afternoon of January 18, 2006. Note that the move is protected by vehicles in front (left, out of frame) and behind the truck. The car passed under the "L" structure three times during its journey. (Photo by Bruce G. Moffat)

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Car 1 is on the move on January 18, 2006, heading southbound on Ashland Avenue as it passes 3400 North. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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Car 1 passes underneath the Ravenswood branch of the Brown Line as its heads south on Ashland Avenue on January 18, 2006. This location was one of the few where the car could make the clearance under the elevated. At this point, the Brown Line is ascending to pass over the elevated tracks of the Metra/Union Pacific-North Line. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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Car 1 has reached its destination and is now being prepared for the next phase: its lift into the building. In this view on the evening of January 18, 2006, the car is resting on its the trailer, ready to be lifted into the museum the following day. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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The next phase is now underway: On the morning of January 19, 2006, Car 1 is being lifted off its trailer and set on the platform to be rolled into the second floor of the Chicago History Museum. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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This long-angle view shows Car 1 being moved into the museum by crane on its special platform on January 19, 2006. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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Now lifted to the second story of the museum building, the process has begun for slowing rolling Car 1 into the exhibition space through an opening in the exterior wall of the building on January 19, 2006. (Photo by Robert Bresse-Rodenkirk)

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Entering the "Chicago: Crossroads of America" exhibit on the second floor of the Chicago History Museum, visitors are immediately greeted by Car 1. This view looks south into the exhibit from the main hallway on October 28, 2006. (Photo by Graham Garfield)

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Car 1 is presented to visitors in context with a replica of an original South Side Rapid Transit platform, including the SSRT's original humpbacked canopy. These canopies were replaced with flat ones fairly early on, so detailed information on them was scarce. Several "L" historians, including Bruce Moffat and Graham Garfield, worked with the History Museum to provide documents, drawings, and photos that allowed as accurate a recreation as possible. (Photo by Graham Garfield)

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Along with the reproduction platform and canopy, visitors are presented with three figures -- a laborer, a visitor to the Columbian Exposition from Wisconsin, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells -- to help interpret the era. There are also audio and visual displays to read and experience. (Photo by Graham Garfield)

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A long view of the exhibit shows the car, canopy, platform with lights, and accessible ramp that make up the Car 1 exhibit on October 28, 2006. The wall above the exhibit is a photo of a two-car "L" train crossing the Chicago River. (Photo by Graham Garfield)