Edgewater's Second Railroad

Edgewater’s Second Railroad

by LeRoy Blommaert

Today it is the CTA’s red line, but long before it was that it was a steam railroad (at least north of Wilson Avenue). This railroad, initially named the Chicago and Evanston, and later the Evanston Division of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, was a long time in coming.
That first run was a low-key affair: one coach with five passengers pulled by a small steam locomotive running backwards, and going from what might be aptly characterized as nowhere to nowhere. It ran from the entrance of Calvary cemetery [where the Chicago and North Western also had a stop] to the depot of another railroad [the Chicago and Pacific] at Chicago avenue and Larabee [then as now a location some distance from the center of commerce.] The exact date was May 1, 1885. We know that because one of the five passengers, an Evanston native named Joshua Seymour Currey with an eye for history, kept a copy of the first timetable and wrote a description of his experiences. Both were saved and are now in the archives of the Evanston Historical Society. That was no coincidence as Mr. Currey was an officer of the Society and no doubt purposely made that first trip to record it for history.
Few railroads in U.S. history had such a long gestation period from conception to birth. Chartered in 1861 as the Chicago and Evanston railroad by a group of men who founded both Northwestern University and the town of Evanston, including John Evans, for whom the town was named, the proposed railroad was designed to reflect the interests of Evanstonians in obtaining reliable and frequent service to and from Chicago’s business district at reasonable fares. It would not offer service between downtown Evanston and downtown Chicago until 1886, some 25 years later!
Even at this early date (1861)—less than 6 years from the date that the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad first provided a single accommodation train to and from Chicago for residents of Evanston— there was both a dissatisfaction with the fares and frequency of service offered by this road and a realization that competition from a second railroad serving Evanston would be beneficial to the village. Rather than just wait for such a second railroad, the founding fathers took matters into their own hands and successfully sought a charter from the State legislature for a railroad that would run from Evanston into Chicago. It turned out that getting the charter was the easy part. Securing funding and obtaining the necessary franchises and properties proved much more difficult.
After an initial flurry of activity, there was a long period of inactivity. John Evans, perhaps the railroad’s primary mover was appointed territorial governor for Colorado and relocated to Denver, and the Civil War intervened and understandably focused resources and attention elsewhere. It was not until after the Chicago Fire of 1871 that the idea of a second railroad between Chicago and Evanston received renewed interest. By this time, most of the initial incorporators had changed. Instead of being controlled by residents of Evanston, it was now in the hands of Chicagoans. Various routes and methods of motive power were proposed (including horse power!), however, nothing really happened until the early 1880s. The line was merged with the Chicago and Lake Superior, in which the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul RR had a major interest. It would be the St. Paul that would finally make it happen.
As was mentioned the first train ran from nowhere to nowhere. The aim of the railroad from the very beginning was to connect the business district of Evanston with the business district of Chicago. A move towards that goal was made shortly after the first run, when on May 20, 1885, a second terminal was opened further south at the corner of Kinzie and Kingsbury street, just a short distance from the North Western’s terminal at Kinzie and Wells. However, the goal of the railroad was to terminate at the Union Depot, then at Canal between Monroe and Adams. To do so the railroad had to cross the busy line of the Chicago and North Western at Kinzie Street and then cross the Chicago River. Understandably, the North Western, not wishing to help a competitor for its Evanston passenger business, objected to the crossing. As is so often the case in our society the dispute ended in the courts. On June 23, 1885, the U.S. District Court ruled that the North Western had to allow the crossing but that the Chicago and Evanston had to pay compensation to the Chicago and North Western. Later in the year the crossing track was installed and a bridge constructed across the river and trains began to operate into and out of the Union Depot.
Extension of operations north into downtown Evanston from Calvary cemetery, interestingly enough given the motive of the original incorporators, did not occur until 1886—over a year after the first train ran on the line. Evanston was a much more developed community in 1886 than it was in 1861 and much more concerned with its residential quality of life. A second railroad did not seem as urgent as it appeared in 1861, and residents were just as focused on the negatives as the positives of railroads. One of the key points of negotiation between the City of Evanston and the railroad’s management was the location of the right of way. The railroad wanted a location closer to the lakeshore; however, residents objected and the City preferred either a right of way west of the Chicago and North Western tracks in less developed west Evanston or a right of way immediately east of North Western tracks. It was the later option that was finally agreed to. A second point of negotiation was fares. The City wanted to establish a fare structure as part of the grant of the franchise; the railroad objected that such a condition was an infringement of its management rights. On this point the railroad prevailed.
The City of Evanston did not want operations to begin until siding tracks had been installed. On July 17, 1886, a picnic train went as far as Dempster Street and on August 2 of the same year, operations began to Church St, where the St. Paul later built a very substantial brick depot, just a half block from the North Western depot at Davis St. Extension of the line into southern Wilmette did not occur until the end of 1888—over 2 years later.
In the first year of operations between Chicago and downtown Evanston, the railroad operated a total of 18 trains with a median transit time of 50 minutes. In 1888 the number of trains had increased to 34 and the median transit time had decreased to 40 minutes. In 1895 the number of trains had increased to 42 and in 1899 it had increased to 54—the highest number for any year for which a timetable is known to exist. The median transit time, however, remained the same at 40 minutes.
Edgewater’s founder J. L. Cochran had persuaded the St. Paul to add a stop in Edgewater at Bryn Mawr, and an August 1886 timetable shows that Edgewater had 12 weekday trains. The number of trains had increased to 27 in 1887 and then again to 33 in 1888, where it remained until 1892. The number of trains remained in the low 40s through 1897.  However, the October 22, 1899 timetable showed 54 trains—an all time high. North Edgewater at Granville generally had 4 to 6 trains fewer than Edgewater, although in 1899 it had 54 trains—the same as Edgewater.  In 1899 the average time to Union Station was 26.3 minutes from Edgewater and two additional minutes from North Edgewater.
Stops within the City of Chicago were added at Birchwood (present day Jarvis), North Edgewater (present day Granville), and Sheridan Park (present day Wilson)—all in 1890 or 1891. The depots at these stops were paid for by the developers who owned the land nearby, as was also the depot at Edgewater (present day Bryn Mawr), and probably also Argyle Park (present day Argyle). Apparently, it was the railroad that paid for the construction of all the stations in Evanston.
In May 1900 an event occurred in Chicago that would have a major impact on the Evanston Division of the St. Paul Railroad and on those who rode her. That event was opening for public service of the long planned, and long awaited, but long delayed Northwestern Elevated Railroad from the Loop north to Wilson Avenue. It was Chicago’s fourth and last elevated company to actually operate trains. While the opening was a boon for north side Chicagoans south of Argyle who lived near its stations, affording them a faster trip to the Chicago downtown business district, it had the opposite effect on those living further north, particularly those in Rogers Park, but also those in Edgewater. And that is because the St. Paul, anticipating a decline of its business by the opening of the Northwestern Elevated severely cut back the number of trains it operated between Evanston and Chicago. From a high of 54 less than a year before, it reduced the number to only 14. These trains primarily operated in the rush hour. Initially the St. Paul had proposed running what in effect would be shuttle service between Evanston and the Northwestern Elevated terminal at Wilson—and may actually have initiated it—but there was strong opposition to it from riders and so it continued to run service to Union Station but at a considerably reduced frequency.
Prior to the opening of the Northwestern Elevated in 1900, there were more trains on the St. Paul’s Evanston branch than on its other two branches. And yet despite what would appear to be a successful operation, the St. Paul very early on sought to either electrify its Evanston line or else transfer operations to another entity that would operate electric trains over its right of way. We do not know the reason for this view. Perhaps it was because it had been thwarted in its earlier attempt to extend its line north along the North Shore to link with its mainline to Milwaukee somewhere around Rondout.  The Evanston branch was considerably shorter than the other two branches and was primarily a commuter passenger operation, whereas the other two routes were on its main lines north and northwest both for freight and long distance passenger service.  In contrast, the Evanston branch just went to Wilmette and had limited freight business.
Interestingly, a “solution” involving electrification of the line was advanced very early—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.) Nothing came of this proposal either. 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, 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 all this work was completed in just a few months in the winter and spring of 1908.
When the “L” opened through Edgewater on May 16, 1908, the St. Paul ceased service between downtown Chicago and the communities of Evanston, Rogers Park, and Edgewater. Only four trains made the journey on the line south of Wilson Ave, and they stopped short of Chicago’s Union Station.
While the “L” would transform Edgewater from predominately a “suburban” community of single family homes with it’s link to the central business district dependent on train service on a fixed schedule to a part of the urban fabric with frequent service downtown 24-7, it was the St. Paul that gave Edgewater its start. Without rail service, it is very doubtful that Cochran and his partners would have bought the land when and where they did. Edgewater’s first business district at Broadway, Ridge and Bryn Mawr developed near the St. Paul station. By the time the “L” came in 1908, the business district was almost fully developed.
For a more detailed account of this railroad see "Competing Rails: The Milwaukee Road’s Legacy in Evanston and Wilmette" published by the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society, 2011.