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A steam-pulled 'L' train at Indana on the South Side 'L' in the 1890s
125th Anniversary of the ‘L’

In addition to the 70th anniversary of unified transit services in Chicago as CTA, we’re celebrating 125 years of ‘L’ service in Chicago!

The first trains began running on the city’s first elevated railway, which was built by the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company, on June 6, 1892.

Commonly known as the “Alley ‘L’”, the line ran from Congress down to 39th just east of State Street, with trains of wooden passenger cars pulled by small, coal-burning, steam locomotives. This would be the very first part of a massive rapid transit system commonly known as the ‘L’—consisting now of elevated, at-grade and subway lines.

125th Anniversary of the Chicago 'L' posterThe event

On Tuesday, June 6, 2017, we’ll commemorate 125 years of ‘L’ service with goodies and rides on historic train cars in our Heritage Fleet!

Get a commemorative poster!

We’ll be handing out commemorative posters at Clark/Lake on the Inner Loop platform (the side that’s most directly accessible via the Thompson Center side of the station and where Orange & Pink line trains stop) on Tuesday, June 6, 2017, from noon until 3:15pm (or supplies run out).

Ride historic trains!

On Tuesday, June 6, 2017, from noon until 3:15pm. Here's the approximate schedule:

  • 12:00pm-1:45pm – Our historic 4000-series cars (built in 1923) will operate continuously around the Inner Loop
     
  • 1:45pm-3:15pm – Our 2400-series cars (built in 1976) in their original red-white-and-blue bicentennial livery, will operate continuously around the Inner Loop
     

Both trains will make all stops around the Loop ‘L’ on the Inner Loop track (Orange & Pink Line side).

What are these trains?

Learn more about both of these special trains on our Heritage Fleet page:

4000-series cars2400-series cars

 

One ‘L’ of a history

Rapid transit’s rapid expansion

Soon after its opening in 1892, the South Side ‘L’ was expanded south to 63rd Street and east into Jackson Park to for the World’s Fair. In the successive years, the South Side ‘L’ would see several branches added, including ones to serve the Union Stockyards and the Kenwood and Englewood neighborhoods.

Most of the original line lives on today as part of the Green Line, from downtown down through to Cottage Grove, along with the Englewood branch to Ashland.

However, the South Side ‘L’ was just the first of four private companies to build their own elevated passenger railways through Chicago. Within just a few years of its opening, ‘L’ lines began to span the city:

  • The Lake Street ‘L’, which opened in 1893 with service from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) and Madison, up and then along Lake Street west to Homan (and later out just beyond Harlem—now the west part of the Green Line)
     
  • The Metropolitan West Side ‘L’ in 1895, with service from just west of the southwest corner of today’s Loop out to today’s Illinois Medical District with branches out to Douglas Park, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square (this network of elevateds evolved into today’s Blue and Pink Lines)
     
  • The Northwestern ‘L’ in 1900, with service from the northwest corner of today’s Loop up through the North Side with a mostly four-track line from downtown up to Wilson (now the core of today’s Brown, Purple and Red Lines, since extended far north and
    with a branch to Ravenswood added).
     

‘L’ectrification

Though both the South Side ‘L’ and Lake Street ‘L’ opened with cars pulled by coal-burning steam locomotives, electric streetcars were only just beginning to replace horsecars and cable car services, electric rapid transit services were not yet terribly common by the 1890s.

Electric locomotion could save rapid transit lines money (no more needing to stock and deliver coal and reducing maintenance costs) and would offer some operational efficiencies and allow for increased capacity.

It wasn’t until an inventor by the name of Frank J. Sprague devised a scheme to allow electric motors  under multiple cars in a train to be controlled from one operating position at the front—a technology which would be known as “multiple unit (MU) control”.

Though it seems obvious, today, this common technology was first proven and implemented right here in Chicago.

Sprague convinced the South Side ‘L’ to let him convert 120 of their 180 trailer cars to his MU technology, where each would become motor cars themselves (also equipped with braking systems, electric lights, heaters, and more as part of the upgrade). Before performing the conversion, tests were run on a center track over East 63rd Street in 1897, borrowing power from a street railway below, to first prove the technology would work. It was a success!

By April 1898, the South Side ‘L’ began running its first electric trains and by the end of July their entire service was electric. The Lake Street ‘L’ and the Metropolitan West Side ‘L’ also quickly converted to the more flexible and efficient MU model soon thereafter.

Though the technology under the floor has evolved over the years, trains around the world—elevateds, subways, tramways even mainline railroads—commonly use forms of multiple unit control today.

The Loop

The Loop ‘L’ didn’t open until 1897, several years after the first ‘L’ trains ran in Chicago. Prior to the Loop, the existing ‘L’ companies of the day had their own terminals just outside of today’s Loop, limiting their ability to deliver their riders directly into the heart of the central business district.

The solution to this problem was to build a downtown loop to serve as a common terminal for the various elevated railway companies.

A transit magnate by the name of Charles Tyson Yerkes, who controlled two of the four early ‘L’ companies, saw an opportunity for the elevated lines and persevered through years of financial and political hurdles to get the Union Loop built.

He was, of course, successful—getting the necessary approval from the City of Chicago, business owners along the streets over which the previously disconnected ‘L’ trains from all over Chicago would chug along—opening in parts during the mid-to-late 1890s.

Though the first part of today’s Loop opened in 1895 as an extension of the Lake Street ‘L’ (stopping as far east as State/Lake, still in service today) and later then extended further down the Wabash leg, the Loop ‘L’ would fully and formally open on October 3, 1897 with all three existing companies seeing their service extended fully around Chicago’s downtown central business district. The Northwestern ‘L’ up to the North Side would, of course, join upon its opening in May of 1900.

Yerkes ultimately sold his interests in Chicago and moved on to London, where he was a key figure behind massive expansion of the London Underground—particularly its iconic deep tube lines.

Today’s ‘L’

Though the ‘L’ system is made up of multiple lines with some original sections from the 1890s still thriving, the ‘L’ is now a unified rapid transit system with modern trains, tracks and signaling systems and providing around 750,000 rides to people in Chicago (and several neighboring communities including Evanston, Oak Park, Wilmette, Skokie, Forest Park, Rosemont and more) on a typical weekday.

With a fleet of nearly 1,500 cars and 224 miles of track on 100 miles of elevated lines, at-grade rights-of-way and subways, ‘L’ trains travel over 221,000 miles in a day and provides direct service to two international airports!

Of course, we continue to be good stewards of this famous, historic and invaluable transit system, with multiple improvement projects underway and plans to continue to expand it to meet Chicago’s ever-growing and changing needs. Check out System Improvement Projects for info on recent and current projects, as well as Planning & Expansion to see what we’re looking to in the future!

 

Love the ‘L’?

You can get a variety of ‘L’-related gifts from our shop at CTAGifts.com (proceeds help our historical preservation efforts as part of our Heritage Fleet program!).

Want the real deal? You can even charter your own ‘L’ train for an event! You can choose from train types in our modern fleet or even the retired 2400-series cars and work out a schedule with our rail operations team—your charter can go pretty much anywhere on the system you like! Learn how to charter a train.

 

Can’t join the celebration?

Follow along with us online as we’ll be posting photos and info about the events online through the following social media accounts:

 

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