The Original "L" Companies

The South Side "L"

Though the distinction of operating the first elevated railway does not belong to Chicago (New York city's, opening in 1867, has that honor ), Chicago did try many times to create such a service. With the first attempt in 1869, over 70 companies were created for the purpose of started an elevated rail system between 1872 and 1900. The accolade of opening Chicago's first rapid transit line went to the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company. Incorporated in 1888, it was originally envisioned to reach all the way to the Illinois-Indiana state line. Indeed, many counted on this happening, such as Frank J. Lewis, who, when laying out his southeast side subdivision between 108th and 114th Streets and Avenue O and the state line, fully expected a rapid transit line would be built to 106th and Indianapolis to serve his area. Alas, this never happened.

When it opened in 1892, the South Side Rapid Transit went from a terminal at Congress Street to 39th Street, a distance of 3.6 miles, all in a straight line. This was accomplished by one of the S.S.R.T.'s most unique features: its route was behind buildings, on private property along side city-owned alleys (and, north of 12th Street, above the alley itself). Earning it the nickname "Alley 'L'", this was done to circumvent the difficulty of obtaining consent signatures from the property owners along the streets, something required by Cities and Villages Act of 1872. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune noted one of the "L"'s most distinguishing features, its usefulness to all citizens of the city, by observing the variation of the passengers, from members of "the lunch pail crowd" to passengers "resembling gentlemen." Another aspect of the South Side "L" shared only by the Lake Street Line was its use of steam locomotives, just like those used on conventional grade-level railroads. Used in the days before electric traction- running a train electrically from a "third rail"- was commonplace (though it was used on the tram system designed for the Colombian Exposition only a few years later ), these locomotives were used to haul the rolling stock- the cars and vehicles of a railroad- until a third rail was put in place in 1898.

As was to be done with the "L" for the majority of its life, it wasn't soon until public demand and municipal attractions would necessitate the expansion of the line. When Chicago was chosen in 1890 to host the World's Colombian Exposition and Jackson Park was selected as the fair's site, the Alley "L" began making plans to extend its line directly into the fairgrounds. It was decided to continue through alleys, making a slight curve across Wabash, Michigan, Indiana and Calumet Avenues at about 40th Street, southbound until 63rd Street. There, it curved east, utilizing the street this time due to the ease of getting permission due to the vacant nature of the property along the street at that time. The line terminated in Jackson Park at a station of the same name. In 1903, the Englewood Elevated Railroad Company, sponsored by and later absorbed into the South Side "L", was created to build the long planned branch into the growing Englewood neighborhood. Leaving the main line at about 59th Street, it wound its way to 63rd Street, then west to a terminal at Loomis Street, later extended a few blocks to Ashland Avenue. The line opened in 1905. A branch was included in the charter that left the Englewood at Harvard Avenue and went south less than one mile to 69th Street. This short branch, called the Normal Park Branch, was built and opened in 1907 to serve a growing real estate development being created at that time. The line was abandoned in 1954. (For non-Chicagoans, see maps in the Maps Section for visual references.)

Another division that is closely associated with another of Chicago's most famous (and infamous) landmarks was the Stock Yards Branch. The elevated structure that connected to the "L" was built to replace a grade-level train run by the Stock Yards. It left the main line and went west at the same point when the main line turns east to cross Indiana Avenue. It continued until reaching the yards, at which point in terminated in a loop around what was called "Packingtown." The line was created for the purpose of transporting the vast quantity of workers to and from their south side homes. At the same point, another branch was created going east to the Kenwood neighborhood, terminating at 42nd Place. As Kenwood became more and more urbanized, around the period of 1905 to 1915, there was a lot of demolition of the existing housing stock and replaced with large scale apartment buildings. The people who populated them were middle and lower-middle class. Many of the folks who ended up settling there were Stock Yards workers. Says preservationist Timothy Whitman, "it made all the sense in the world to expand that "L" so that it ran directly from Kenwood over to the Stock Yards." The Stock Yards branch was opened in 1908; the Kenwood in 1907. Both ran shuttles to the Indiana Avenue station. Occasionally some went to the loop or south and in later years, some Kenwood-Stock Yards through trips were operated. Both lines were later abandoned when the necessity was gone.

The Lake Street "L"

The history of the Lake Street "L" is an interesting, if slightly sordid, one. Chartered in 1888, at the same time as the South Side's, it opened in 1893, a year after. The franchise was initially owned and funded by a character named Michael C. McDonald, aptly nicknamed "King Mike." McDonald had earned a fortune via gambling and vice and was later, apparently, attracted to the less chancy field of public transportation, in which he became a specialist. He would create new lines and then sell them off for highly inflated prices. He was a powerful man and had several aldermen and politicians under his indirect control.

Nevertheless, the Lake Street "L" opened in 1893, also temporarily using steam locomotives. The line went from 52nd Avenue (later called Laramie Avenue) on the city's western city limits to Market & Madison on the edge of the central business district. The line would eventually be extended to Forest Park, then shaved back one station to its present terminal at Harlem Avenue. The line followed Lake Street for the majority of its run, turning off only at Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to reach its downtown terminus. Market Street was chosen both because it was wide (making it easy to build and not so overshadowed by the structure) and to serve the many factories along the street. The system was fast and efficient, as one stockbroker said, "I took an elevated train this morning and was landed at Market and Madison in fifteen minutes. If I had ridden the cable [cars], would have required thirty..." The problem was, like the South Side's Congress Street terminal, the Lake Street "L" deposited passengers on the downtown's outskirts. What was needed was direct access to downtown. Charles Tyson Yerkes, who bought the road after "King Mike" left, would see to this happening, but not for a time.

The Metropolitan West Side "L"

Chicago's third elevated company, incorporated in 1892, was significant for three reasons: 1) it was not owned by Charles Tyson Yerkes, who was fast becoming a rapid transit mogul in Chicago; 2) it was the first to service the growing populations of the northwest and (what was then) southwest sides and; 3) it was the first "L" to be opened using electric traction technology. The main line began at a Franklin Street terminal and went west until it split into three branches at Marshfield Avenue: Garfield Park directly west, Douglas Park to the southwest and Logan Square to the northwest. Under its initial configuration, the Douglas Park went to Western Avenue and 21st Street, very soon being extended to 46th (Kenton) Avenue. The Garfield Park went due west to the city limits at 48th (Cicero) Avenue. The Logan Square went due north to Milwaukee Avenue, then northwest to Logan Square. At Robey (Damen) Street, a branch came off, going due west a short distance to Humboldt Park. The Met (or "Polly", both nicknames of the period for the Metropolitan) was the first to serve many of those communities. The Met would continue its tradition of serving Chicago in the years to come: Douglas Park would be extended to Oak Park and by 1913, Garfield Park went all the way to Des Plaines. Even more extensions to serve the public would be added later, when the Met was under the control of another company. For the time being, though, a more pressing matter needed addressing: the Met, like the South Side and Lake Street Lines, ended just outside the business district. As one reporter noted, "[The Met] practically begins and ends nowhere." This is an issue that Yerkes would soon resolve.

Union Loop

The need for a common terminal in downtown serving all the elevated lines had been realized as early as the opening of the S.S.R.T. The operation of separate terminals outside of downtown- the Met's Franklin Street Terminal, the Alley "L"'s Congress Street Terminal and the Lake's Market & Madison Terminal- prevented both efficient "L" service and an marketable advantage over streetcars. The only man who could accomplish this difficult task was Charles Tyson Yerkes. He had enough political deftness and power to convince store owners to sign consent forms allowing construction of the overhead structures on their streets (although alley routes were briefly contemplated). Though it was difficult- two segments had to be obtained under the names of existing "L" companies while for the two other legs, two companies, the Union Elevated Railroad and the Union Consolidated Elevated Railroad, had to be created- Yerkes managed to coordinate it all. As can be imagined from its piecemeal obtaining of leases, the Union Loop (referred to simply as "the Loop" today) opened in pieces, starting in 1895 with the Lake Street "L" making the first full circuit in 1897.

As can be imagined, the Loop offered the citizens of Chicago advantages they'd never even remotely had access to before. Workers, shoppers and cross-town travelers could now be deposited directly into the central business district or change to another line's train without walking anywhere. There were also direct entrances to various buildings, most notably the Carson Pirie Scott & Company's department store. The public was quick to take advantage of the new facilities, as all companies had significant ridership gains after the Loop's completion. The Metropolitan's, for instance, went from 40,000 to 60,000; an increase of 50%.

The Northwestern "L"

The last leg of the elevated structure to be built for the growing transit-using public was that of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company. The company, backed by transit magnate Yerkes, was incorporated in 1893, but didn't begin full service until 1900 due to more financial and legal difficulties than any other line had experienced. Their 50-year franchise only remained valid if service was inaugurated by December 31, 1899. Numerous financial problems, most of which were due to the depression of the mid-1890s, pushed completion back more and more and when the structure was complete with one track and three stations (out of a planned 20 or so) in place, token service was begun on New Year's Eve. The city found this unacceptable, shutting the "L" line down, but ultimately granting them an extension to May 31,1900, which the Northwestern met with ease. When opened in 1900, the Northwestern "L" connected to the Loop at Fifth (Wells) and Lake, then wound northward to a terminal at Wilson Avenue. The route went through a number of growing communities with many potential "L" passengers. In 1903 a franchise was granted to build an extension into the newly developing Ravenswood neighborhood. Opened for service in 1907, the branch, which wound northwest from about Clark Street to a terminal at Lawrence and Kimball, was handling 10,000 riders a day within two months , along with continually growing ridership, making the line a success.

The Northwestern would soon thereafter be extended even further north, beyond the city's ultimate city limits at Howard Street into the northern suburbs for the first time. Trackage rights were secured with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, whose tracks met the "L"'s at Wilson Avenue. The tracks were realigned and electrified, with service to Central Street in north Evanston commencing in May 1908. Evanstonians couldn't have been happier -- in 1901 the St. Paul had reduced its Evanston-Chicago service to 14 trains a day, making transit to Chicago much less convenient. Service was so overwhelming that the Central Street terminal and yards were insufficient to handle the load. The line was extended even further north along the tracks of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad's tracks to a new terminal at Linden Avenue even further north in the suburb of Wilmette. By 1909, the city of Chicago enjoyed one of the best rapid transit systems in the world, one which not only provided reliable unified service to outlying communities and neighborhoods then in existence, but in places, most notably on the North Side above Wilson Avenue, lay in open prairie land still awaiting the development that transit service powerfully stimulated.