The Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company was incorporated on January 4, 1888, and secured a franchise from the City of Chicago on March 26 of that year to construct an elevated railroad between Van Buren Street and 39th Street (Pershing Road).
The South Side Elevated Railroad (originally Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad) was the first elevated rapid transit line in Chicago, Illinois. The line ran from downtown Chicago to Jackson Park, with branches to Englewood, Normal Park, Kenwood, and the Union Stock Yards. The first 3.6 miles (5.8 km) of the line opened on June 6, 1892, when a small steam locomotive pulling four wooden coaches carrying a total of 27 men and 3 women departed the 39th Street station and arrived at the Congress Street Terminal 14 minutes later. Much of its route is still used today as part of the Chicago ‘L’ system.
The entire length of the road, including a trunk line which runs directly away from the lake front, and ineluding four branches into which it ultimately separates, is nearly 18 miles. In 1893, trains began running on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and in 1895 on the West Side Metropolitan Elevated, which had lines to Douglas Park, Garfield Park (since replaced), Humboldt Park (since demolished), and Logan Square. The Metropolitan was the United States’ first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors, a technology whose practicality had been demonstrated in 1890 on the “intramural railway” at the World Fair that had been held in Chicago. The 27 April 1895 issue of Scientific American (Vol LXXII No. 17), did a feature article on the innovations introduced by the West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad. Here is an excerpt:
Visitors to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition remember the Intramural Railroad which carried such numbers of people on its elevated structure by electric propulsion. This was an example of an electrically operated elevated road. There is now in process of construction another electric elevated road in Chicago; one which, starting from the lake front in the heart of the business district, is to reach by several branches the entire area bounded by the branches of the Chicago River and denominated the West Side. The road is termed the West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad. With a track carried on an open-hearth steel elevated way, with plate girders throughout, built upon land owned in fee simple by its projectors, except for street crossings, and operated by the most advanced electric system of propulsion, the road will occupy a unique position.
The main line, starting on Franklin Street and running west to Paulina Street, is l.81 miles long, but having four tracks is rated at double this length. From Paulina Street west to the city limits the main line becomes the Garfield Park branch, 4.02 miles long. The Logan Square branch starts from the same point on Paulina Street and runs north and then northwest to Logan Square, 4.49 miles. The Humboldt Park line, branching off from the Logan Square line, runs west, 2.13 miles. Finally, the Douglas Park line runs south from the Paulina Street terminus of the main line and then west a distance of 3.7 miles. AII the branches are two track. It is calculated that five-eighths of the population of Chicago live within the West Side area, and this immense population of about 800,000 people will be served by the road.
Two years later the South Side ‘L’ introduced multiple-unit control, in which the operator can control all the motorized cars in a train, not just the lead unit. Electrification and MU control remain standard features of most of the world’s rapid transit systems.
A drawback of early ‘L’ service was that none of the lines entered the central business district. Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown. This obstacle was overcome by the legendary traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of the London Underground, and who was immortalized by Theodore Dreiser as the ruthless schemer Frank Cowperwood in The Titan (1914) and other novels. Yerkes, who controlled much of the city’s streetcar system, obtained the necessary signatures through cash and guile—at one point he secured a franchise to build a mile-long ‘L’ over Van Buren Street from Wabash Avenue to Halsted Street, extracting the requisite majority from the pliable owners on the western half of the route, then building tracks chiefly over the eastern half, where property owners had opposed him. The Union Loop opened in 1897 and greatly increased the rapid transit system’s convenience. Operation on the Yerkes-owned Northwestern Elevated, which built the North Side ‘L’ lines, began three years later, essentially completing the elevated infrastructure in the urban core although extensions and branches continued to be constructed in outlying areas through the 1920s.
After 1911, the ‘L’ lines came under the control of Samuel Insull, president of the Chicago Edison electric utility (now Commonwealth Edison), whose interest stemmed initially from the fact that the trains were the city’s largest consumer of electricity. Insull instituted many improvements, including free transfers and through routing, although he did not formally combine the original firms into the Chicago Rapid Transit Company until 1924. He also bought three other Chicago electrified railroads, the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, and South Shore interurban lines, and ran the trains of the first two into downtown Chicago via the ‘L’ tracks. This period of relative prosperity ended when Insull’s empire collapsed in 1932, but later in the decade the city with the help of the federal government accumulated sufficient funds to begin construction of two subway lines to supplement and, some hoped, permit eventual replacement of the Loop elevated.
Chicago Elevated Train Station
Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1897
FIRST TRIP ON LOOP.
Successful Test of the Big Down-Town Elevated.
SOON WILL BE IN USE.
Lake Street and Metropolitan Lines to Run Trains.
STRUCTURE IN GOOD SHAPE.
The first train was run over the Union Loop yesterday. It consisted of a motor and three cars and carried as passengers the officers and most of the directors of the Lake Street “L,” as well as the heads of tho various departments. The test was pronounced successful. In a few days the trains of the Lake street and Metropolitan tines will begin using the structure.
The trial trip was decided upon late on Saturday afternoon, and the officers of the road had no opportunity of inviting city officials and prominent business-men to par- ticipate in it, as was intended originally. At a meeting of the officers on Saturday afternoon President Louderback expressed a desire to inspect the new loop and Gen- eral Superintendent Itedley was asked if a tour of inspection Were possible. He answered that it was and it was agreed to informally inspect the loop.
Start Made at Noon.
At noon President Louderback. Secretary Abel, Chief Electrician James Chapman, General Superintendent Hedley, and a dozen other ana employes of the company met at the Fifth avenue station and boarded a speial train In charge of Motorman John 0’Brien. Three complete circuits of the loop were made. causing much interest in the down-town section. The Impression was created that the loop was at last In operation and the platforms along the line soon were filled with people anxious to take a ride. It required the efforts of specially assigned to clear and keep clear the platforms at the stations.
Every switch and curve was gone over and carefully examined, the signal system was inspected, and at the end of two hours the train was sidetracked and the tour of the Union Loop was at an end.
Pleiased with the Test.
The officers and heads of departments ex- themselves as more than pleased with what they had seen of the loop and its workings, and General Superintendent Hedley was congratulated by all. Another trip, which will be more formal, and to which several city officials and prominent businessmen will be invited, will be made during the latter part of the week, and after this formal tour the opening of the loop system to the public will be a matter of but a short time. The date for putting the loop in full operation has not yet been decided upon, but in the light of the trial trip the officers of the road are convinced that as far as the Lake Street ‘L” is concerned, trains can be run over the loop at once. It has been deemed advisable, however, to wait a few days to allow the Metropolitan road to com- plete its arrangements, so that both roads may begin using the new circuit about the Bame time.
Hedley Says He’s Satisfled.
“I am more than satisfied with the trip.” said General Superintendent Hedley. “The loop is in perfect condition, and only the orders to start trains are necessary to put the enterprise in full operation. Every switch and curve was critically examined, and not a fault was to be found. We made all kinds of speed, and the running was as easy as on an old track bed. The switches, which are many and complicated, worked to perfection.’
Superintendent Hedley said he had no idea when he would receive orders to start trains over the structure, but he could do so at any time on two hours’ notice.
Motor No. 101 Was the first to draw a train around the loop. and when it was put into the yard after the trip it was dressed in flags and bunting and was given a sidetrack by itself.
Chicago Elevated Train Station
Lake and Wabash Streets