The "L" Comes to Edgewater

Vol. XIX No. 2 - SUMMER 2008

By: LeRoy Blommaert

The day was Saturday May 16, 1908. That’s when public service began on the long awaited – but long delayed – extension of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad from Wilson Avenue north through the communities of Argyle Park (present day north Uptown), Edgewater, Rogers Park and Evanston. Few, if any, events have had as great an impact on the development of these communities as the coming of the “L.”

The Northwestern Elevated Railroad was the fourth – and last – of Chicago’s elevated railroad companies that actually began operations. The first was the Chicago South Side Rapid Transit Company. It was incorporated on January 4, 1888, and began service to the public June 6, 1892, from a stub in the downtown district to 39th Street. Operations to the end of the line at Jackson Park did not begin until May 12, 1893, about two weeks after the World’s Columbian Exposition opened.

The second company was the Lake Street Elevated Railway Company. It was incorporated February 7, 1888, and began operations November 6, 1893, to California Avenue. It would not be until 1899 that operations would be extended to Oak Park. Initially, both the South Side and Lake Street lines used small steam engines to pull their trains, following the example of the New York City and Brooklyn lines. Conversion to electrical operation occurred in 1898 on the South Side lines and in 1896 on the Lake Street line. Today, the South Side and Lake Street lines have been combined as the Green Line.

The third company was the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad. It was organized March 9, 1892, and began service to the public on May 6, 1895, to Damen Avenue on its northwest line. Service on its Garfield Park line began on June 19, 1895, to Cicero Avenue and, on its Douglas Park line, on April 28, 1896, to 18th Street. It was an all electrical operation from the start. Today the Metropolitan lines are known as the Blue and Pink lines.

The Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company (not to be confused with the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, with which it had no relation other than a similar name) was incorporated October 25, 1893. However, unlike its predecessors, service to the public was much delayed. It would not occur until May 31, 1900, 6-1/2 years later! That service would extend from downtown to Wilson Avenue. By this time, the Elevated Loop had been in operation over 2-1/2 years. Prior to the development of the Loop elevated, the three earlier elevated railroad companies each had it own terminal in the downtown business district. The Ravenswood branch opened to the public May 18, 1907, to Western Avenue, with service (at ground level) to Kimball and Lawrence Avenues in December of the same year.

The extension to Evanston, like the original line, was long planned, but also long delayed. When it came, it was not on a new right of way; nor was it elevated. It ran at ground level on the right of way of the Evanston Division of the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (hereinafter referred to as the “St. Paul”), which retained ownership and continued to operate freight service on the line.

The St. Paul, which began commuter service between downtown Evanston and the Chicago downtown business district in 1886, had gradually built up its business as the communities of Argyle Park, Edgewater and the east section of Rogers Park grew in population, spurred in no small part by the railroad itself. By 1899, it was running 48 trains during the work week (about half in each direction).

When the Northwestern Elevated began service to Wilson Avenue, the St. Paul reduced the number of its trains drastically – to only 14. For residents of Argyle Park, this was not too great of a problem – they could walk to the Wilson Avenue terminal.

For residents of Edgewater and North Edgewater, however, it was more of a problem. It was a long walk to Wilson, probably too long to be a viable option. They did however have the option of taking the trolley that ran on Broadway to Wilson avenue; however, in doing so they had to pay another fare. The trolley and the Elevated were separate companies, and there were no transfer privileges (and there would be none until the Chicago Transit Authority was established).

For most Evanston residents, the reduction in service was less of a problem, as the St. Paul paralleled the Chicago & Northwestern as least as far as Davis Street and had adjoining stations. They could just switch to the Chicago and Northwestern. It was Rogers Park residents living on the east side who were inconvenienced the most. Taking the trolley to Wilson Avenue made for a much longer journey; there was only one Chicago and Northwestern stop – between Greenleaf and Lunt – and it could be a long walk for many.

It was no wonder that both Rogers Park and Edgewater residents eagerly waited for the “L” to be extended through their communities. It turned out to be a long wait, with many a prediction too optimistic and many a plan premature. Though the St. Paul was eager to find a way out of what it considered an unprofitable commuter operation, a solution was not to be agreed to for some time.

Interestingly, a solution involving electrification of the line was advanced very early in 1894. This was shortly after the Northwestern Elevated had been incorporated and before any construction had commenced. It was advanced by the St. Paul itself; however, the City of Chicago would not alter the franchise to allow for the substitution of electric for steam power. The interurban Chicago and Milwaukee Electric railway next advanced a proposal to run its trains south over the St. Paul right of way and onto the planned elevated of the Northwestern Elevated (by 1899 the interurban had extended its service from Waukegan to Evanston). However, when electrification did occur, it was by extension of the Northwestern Elevated north over the St. Paul’s Evanston division.

In 1904, the St Paul Railroad and the Northwestern Elevated finally signed an agreement that permitted the Northwestern to extend its service into Evanston over the tracks of the St. Paul, contingent on approvals by the City of Evanston and the City of Chicago. However, it wasn’t until 1907 that such approvals were given. In March, the City of Evanston gave its approval for electrification of the line. That approval was contingent on the tracks being elevated by the end of 1910.

The approval of the City of Chicago followed in July. Its conditions were that 3rd rail operations were prohibited (even though they existed at ground level on other lines) and that service be provided 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.

Once the final approval was given, work proceeded rapidly to allow service to begin. Track was re-aligned, stations were erected, trolley wire strung, the elevated structure extended north from Wilson to Lawrence and a ramp built from the extended elevated structure down to the ground between Lawrence and Ainslie (similar to the one that exists today on the Ravenswood/Brown Line west from the Western Avenue stop).

Stations were erected at all the former commuter stops on the St. Paul. In Chicago, they were (in south to north order): Argyle (Argyle Park), Edgewater (Bryn Mawr), North Edgewater (Granville), Rogers Park (Morse) and Birchwood (Jarvis). Stations were added at Hayes Avenue (later renamed Loyola) and Howard Avenue (later renamed Howard Street).

The stations were rather rudimentary, consisting of a short wooden elevated platform access to which was through a short station house at one end that was adjacent to the street. All were placed between the two tracks. Photos of all the Chicago stations are known to exist, except for the one at Granville. They were rudimentary because they were designed to be replaced in a few years after the tracks were elevated. Remarkably, almost this work was completed in just a few months in the winter and spring of 1908.

Community agitation for stops to be added at Thorndale and Berwyn date to as early as 1911. A stop was added at Thorndale in 1915 and at Berwyn in 1916. The Lawrence stop was not added until February, 1923.

Though Wilmette was only a short distance north of Central Street in Evanston, the new line was not extended to Linden Avenue until April, 1912, and, when it was, it was not with the blessing of Village authorities. Quite the contrary was the case. The Village sued to stop “L” service, but to no avail.

The opening of the Evanston line necessitated extensive revisions of the schedule. The following summary of these changes appeared in the May 23, 1908, issue of the Street Railway Journal and is reproduced here thanks to the scholarship of Bruce Moffat:

“A complete rearrangement of the schedule of the entire line has been worked out to accommodate the extra trains which will run over the new extension. Through trains will leave the terminal at Central Street, Evanston, every 10 minutes from 6.a.m. until midnight, making all stops to Wilson Avenue. During the rush hours they will run express between Wilson Avenue and the Loop, but between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and after 7 p.m. they will run local from Wilson to Belmont Avenue and then express to the Loop. Between every two Evanston trains one Wilson Avenue Express will be started during the non-rush hours, giving a five minute service south of Wilson Avenue, and during rush hours two extra trains will run, giving a 3-1/3 minute service. The Wilson Avenue expresses will also run local north of Belmont Avenue during the non-rush hours. In addition to this express service Wilson Avenue local trains will be run at intervals from 4 to 5 minutes. Trains for the Ravenswood branch which now run express south of Belmont Avenue at all hours will run at 5-minute intervals as local trains during the non-rush hour and as express south of Belmont during the rush hours. This will give a 2-1/2 minute local service and a 5-minute express service during the non-rush hours south of Belmont Avenue and a 4 minute local and a 2-minute express service during the rush hours.

“The service on the Evanston extension will be started with two-car trains, adding and cutting off additional cars southbound and northbound respectively at Wilson Avenue. The running time between Central Street, Evanston, and Wilson Avenue will be 20 minutes, and from Wilson Avenue to the Loop 20 minutes, with 13 minutes on the Loop. The total time from Evanston to the Loop stations will average therefore about 45 minutes, as against 33 minutes by Chicago & North Western suburban trains, which land passengers, however, at Kinzie Street across the river.”

The schedule south of Wilson was undoubtedly a complicated one and was often revised over the first several years that followed the opening of the Evanston line.

Though the extension of the “L” was welcomed by commuters in the communities through which it passed, it didn’t take very long for complaints to be raised. The practice of cutting off cars at Wilson for north bound trains proved especially irritating. As early as June 2, less than three weeks after service began, a meeting was called to protest the practice of forcing patrons riding north of Wilson Avenue to give up their seats and “move to the car ahead” where there was standing room only. Edgewater architect J.E.O. Pridmore was one of those objecting and urging through service. There was also a report of an instance of several commuters refusing the order to move to the car ahead. It was a sit-in. This act of civil disobedience had its effect, for the practice was soon dropped as additional cars on order came into service.

As noted, the City of Evanston stipulated in its permission for electrification that the tracks had to be elevated by the close of 1910. And they were. Construction started in October, 1908, and was completed on time – at least to Central Avenue. It was another story in the city of Chicago. It wasn’t until August, 1914, that work began. Progress was slow and intermittent.

The United States entry into the Great World War in April, 1917, caused work to be suspended, as the war effort preempted all other claims for resources. After the war, the project resumed and, by 1921, most of the work had been completed. What remained was the construction of permanent stations and the addition of a fourth track. That was accomplished in 1922. Prior to elevation, there were two tracks for the Northwestern Elevated and a third track to the west for freight trains of the St. Paul.

One interesting aspect of operations on the Northwestern Elevated was that its trains operated in the opposite manner than they do today. Northbound trains operated on the track west of the center platform and southbound trains on the track east of the platform. This “English style” manner of operation lasted until November 2, 1913, when crosstown operations began linking the Evanston line with the Jackson Park line.

Given the importance of the “L’s” extension, there was surprisingly little advance publicity in the daily press; nor was there much publicity afterwards. One exception was the Inter-Ocean newspaper. A number of merchants in Edgewater got together to celebrate the event as well as promote their business with a major spread. On the day itself, Edgewater photographer R.E. Jackson was there to record the event. One of his photo postcards is reproduced here (see Page 5).

The coming of the “L” was truly a transformative event for the communities of Edgewater, Rogers Park and Evanston. It was so in two ways. The first was in the area of transportation. Before the coming of the “L,” residents were bound by fixed schedules for trips to and from the downtown business district, much like suburban communities are today, with very limited mid-day and evening schedules and even fewer trains on Sunday.

With the coming of the “L,” residents had service 24/7 with trains, even in the evening hours, no more than 30 minutes apart and during the day no more than 10 minutes apart and, during the “rush hour,” even less. Travel time between the north end of the Loop elevated and Edgewater, for example, was less than 30 minutes. Initially, “rush hour” service in-bound was local to Wilson avenue and then express from there. In the evening, it was express from the Loop and then local north of Wilson.

The second way the coming of the “L” was transformative was the way it changed the communities themselves. Though flat buildings had been built earlier, prior to 1908 they had been smaller buildings, primarily 2-flats and some 3- and 6-flats. After 1908, larger apartment buildings began to be built and, initially, primarily near the “L.”

In Edgewater, the first courtyard apartment building was built as early as 1911. Others followed soon afterwards. Prior to the coming of the “L,” the communities had been composed primarily of single family homes and were considered as North Shore suburban communities; they had a suburban feel to them. Over time, the “L” transformed them into being part of the urban fabric, with the majority of their residents being apartment dwellers.

For more information about the early development of the Chicago Elevated, with plenty of old photos, consult “The ‘L’: The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932” by Bruce Moffat. It is available for sale at www.cera-chicago.org

There is also another book that captures most of the information in the Moffat book; it is “The Chicago ‘L’” by Greg Borzo, which is currently on sale at Chicago book stores. Also, visit the most comprehensive website about Chicago’s rapid transit system: www.chicago-L.org