Track connects L's past

Rarely used relic joins Blue Line to Loop routes


By Gilbert Jimenez

Date of Publication: November 27, 1998
Source: Chicago Sun-Times


An ancient elevated rail branch line links the Douglas and Lake Street CTA train lines near Cook County Hospital, but you'll rarely see a train on it.

Still, the CTA couldn't live without the "Paulina Connector."

It's the last working fragment of an 1890s line that once ran along Paulina up to Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

The CTA keeps it around because there's no other way to transfer passenger and work trains from the Congress-Douglas-O'Hare Blue Line to repair shops in Skokie.

The Paulina Connector runs north across the Eisenhower and through a series of parking lots until it curves east at Lake, one of many rail relics. They include bridges that connect to nothing, tracks whose curves end in mid-air and eerie jagged steel columns.

Such is the legacy of the old Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company line-the "Polly L"-that served the West and Northwest sides, particularly Logan Square, from 1895 until 1951. By the early 1960s most of it had been wiped from the face of the earth.

The Polly, built in the 1890s as the city's first electrified elevated rail line, had four branches. Two other privately owned Ls, the Lake Street and South Side Lines, used steam locomotives.

The Polly featured services considered desirable even today: station bicycle racks, baby stroller parking and speakers to alert riders to approaching trains, wrote CTA historian Bruce Moffat in his book, The "L"-The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System.

From a terminal at Franklin and Van Buren the Polly extended west to a three-way junction at Harrison and Paulina. One branch went to Cicero Avenue, a route later elongated into the Congress Branch to Oak Park. Another curved south at Paulina, eventually reaching Oak Park Avenue in Berwyn. That line, since shortened, is the Blue Line/Douglas Park Branch.

The third, whose remains are the Paulina Connector and some strange bridges and supports, ran north, splitting into branches that went to Logan Square and Humboldt Park. The Humboldt Park line ran west from Milwaukee and Damen down an alley just north of North Avenue to Lawndale Avenue.

The Polly's Humboldt Park-Logan Square trains ran for 56 years. When Logan trains began using the new Dearborn Subway in 1951, the Humboldt L stopped running at Damen. The next year the branch was closed. "The Logan Square Branch was a very busy line despite its relatively short length," said Moffat, who is the manager of the CTA's O'Hare terminal. "But the Humboldt Park Branch didn't do nearly as well," he said.

Today, at Kinzie and Hermitage, a rusting hulk of a bridge still stands over railroad tracks, stripped to the bone and connected to nothing but air.

The towering elevated structures between Lawndale and Milwaukee and between the Eisenhower and North stood unused for about 10 years until they were razed.

At the point where Loopbound Blue Line trains head into the subway near Paulina and Milwaukee you can see heavy I-beams that used to carry the L line to Harrison.

Less is left of the Humboldt L.

About 100 feet east of California on its old alley route, a patch of crumbling concrete marks a long gone L station.

As for the Paulina Connector, it was used briefly in the late 1950s to carry Douglas trains downtown while the old Congress elevated branch was lowered to the center median of the Eisenhower Expy.

It almost sprung to life in 1996 for the Democratic National Convention, sources said. President Clinton was thinking of riding the connector to the east entrance of the United Center.

That trip never came to pass.

But the connector still serves a vital purpose. "It is the only link for the Blue Line to the rest of the system," said CTA rail vice president William Mooney.

"It allows us to transport cars to the Skokie [repair] shops for heavy maintenance and structural work. We probably use it two or three times a week for that, and also to move work [and equipment] trains between the lines."