Still on Board

40 years after its last run, North Shore Line stays alive through efforts of rail fans


By Jim Sulski
Special to the Tribune

Date of Publication: January 26, 2003
Source: Chicago Tribune


In late January 1963, a Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad train made the final run along the 90-mile line from Chicago to Milwaukee.

But 40 years later, the electric North Shore railway is hardly forgotten thanks to the efforts and passion of a group of railroad enthusiasts.

"It will never die," said Laura Hedien, 38, a Waukegan firefighter who has created a Web site that pays tribute to the line ( "It will always be running in our minds."

Enthusiasts hang on to the memory of the line, which was phased out because of the growing popularity of the automobile, for a number of reasons.

"There are the obvious things that appeal to railroad buffs: It was an electric interurban line that ran out of Chicago, and it pioneered such things as piggybacking flatbed trailers and automatic crossing gates," said Hedien, who wasn't born when the North Shore stopped operating.

"But there's also something about its uniqueness," she said. "It played such an important part as far as history because it linked Chicago and Milwaukee."

"This was a commuter line that stopped at small stations and small places. It was about small-town America, and it represented a really wonderful era," said Betty Oleson, 74, of Gurnee. Oleson worked at the railroad's accounting offices at its main office in Highwood. Her husband, Ed, 86, worked in the electrical department. Her father, Clarence Bess, was a bonder for the railroad, and her uncle, Glen Watkins, was a conductor.

"Here is this railroad that shut down a zillion years ago and people are still keeping it alive," said J.J. Sedelmaier, 46, an Evanston native who now runs a White Plains, N.Y.-based animation studio that produces material for "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

"It was very close to the communities it served--not only emotionally but it ran through the streets of Wilmette and Kenilworth and Winnetka," Sedelmaier said. "It had the characteristics of a little trolley line but it was also this wild Electroliner right out of the future complete with a lightning bolt on the side."

Sedelmaier got hooked on the railroad as a child. "We would catch the `L' to go to church and every once in a while this blue, green and red train with a lightning bolt on its side would come down the track and I was fascinated," he said. "As I grew older, it became an obsession."

"The North Shore offers much in the way of history," said Bill McMillan, an architect with Antunovich Associates, a Chicago-based architectural firm that is rehabbing a station that served the line in Skokie.

"The line and the station, for example, were meaningful for the Village of Skokie," he added. "It was a harbinger for development for the village, and the community grew up around the station and the line."

The roots of the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad date to the late 1800s, when a one-truck trolley began shuttling employees from their homes in Waukegan to factories in North Chicago. Known as the Bluff City Electric Railway, it was soon absorbed by the Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railway Co. and extended south to Evanston and north to Libertyville. By the early 20th Century, the line reached Kenosha and Milwaukee.

The Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, named to reflect the route, truly became an interurban line around this time, and parlor-buffet cars were used to make the trip more posh. In 1916, the railroad was purchased and reorganized by Samuel Insull, an industrialist who cofounded what would become General Electric.

By connecting the line to Chicago via the elevated system, Insull linked Milwaukee to downtown Chicago. He also created a second line--the Skokie Valley--and by 1926 had cut the commute between Chicago and Milwaukee to less than two hours thanks to the introduction of Electroliners that could top 100 m.p.h.--and did when they were in Wisconsin. (Electroliners, modern articulated trainsets, mirrored the sleek trains of era, including the Zephyr. "The aesthetics of the train were important--but they didn't make them go faster. It was a marketing gimmick," Hedien said.)

The electric railway became known as America's fastest interurban in a time when most medium-size to large cities had at least one. Around the same time, Insull also purchased the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend Railroad, another interurban.

But by the Depression, Insull's empire, including his railroads, began to disintegrate. The North Shore would declare bankruptcy in the 1930s, though World War II brought a revival and record number of passengers--some 20 million--to the line, including sailors traveling from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to Chicago while on leave.

Additional Electroliner cars were added to the North Shore in the early 1940s. The Electroliners could easily navigate the tight Chicago Transit Authority elevated curves and yet provide stylish bar cars for its passengers.

By the 1950s, however, commuters began turning to automobiles and new expressways, and annual ridership dropped to 4 million from 16 million in 1923, the North Shore's non-war high. Operating costs rose and despite fare increases, the North Shore suffered operating losses.

Despite legal fights by commuters, the federal courts in the early 1960s approved the "abandonment," or shut down, of the line by early 1963 for then-owners Susquehanna Corp., which bought the line in 1953.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of that abandonment, the line is remembered in a number of ways. In addition to running the Web site, Hedien each spring hosts an annual dinner for Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad enthusiasts that raises funds for various efforts. This year's event will take place April 26 in Kenosha.

In September 2000, Hedien's group, the Friends of the North Shore Line, secured a state historical marker that designated the site of the railway's Edison Court station in Waukegan, where the railroad was founded.

And every September, the Olesons, along with about 50 to 70 other former North Shore workers, meet for an employee reunion dinner, usually held in Waukegan. They are joined by a handful of railroad enthusiasts.

"When the railroad closed down, people couldn't let go of the people they worked with or the railroad," Betty Oleson said. "We have kept in touch for 40 years."

And now the railroad will be remembered in another way. In mid-January, the nearly 80-year-old Skokie Terminal (formerly known as the Niles Center) near the CTA's Yellow Line Dempster stop was moved 120 feet to the east.

Renovation work on the 4,000-square-foot structure also was slated to begin.

"This is significant because preservationists fought for a decade to save the building from being demolished," McMillan said.

Designed by architect Arthur Gerber, the distinctive Prairie/bungalow style building was one of several Insull commissioned for his North Shore and South Shore lines. It was mostly shuttered when the line shut down in 1963 but parts of the building have been a bus station and a dog-grooming business, among other things. After being rehabbed by a private developer, it will reopen as a Starbucks and retail space in April.

"We now have another way to remember the line," Hedien said. "The [renovated station] will continue to remind people about the importance of the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad."



Dates of interest for the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad.