The Elevation Project

The following is in draft form and may be amended when published in the society’s newsletter.

The Elevation or: How our “L” Became Elevated
By LeRoy Blommaert
Any northsider born after 1920 knows from experience that the “L” that runs through Edgewater is elevated. But it was not always so: When it began in May 1908, it ran on the ground. A ramp between Lawrence and Ainslie connected it to a newly constructed iron structure that crossed Broadway and connected to the original iron elevated structure which terminated just north of Wilson Avenue. And the trains got their power from trolley wire, much like the streetcars did, not from the third rail.
So how and when and why was it elevated? And how come we didn’t get the standard iron structure but instead got the embankment we now have? The last two questions are the easiest to answer. It was elevated because a city ordinance required it. It was a requirement for the extension of the line. The reason for the requirement was public safety. As for the embankment: it came about because the structure had to be strong enough to handle the freight trains that serviced the several businesses along the route, including three coal yards and an ice company in Edgewater. The standard iron structure wouldn’t have been strong enough.
Of the first two questions, the “when” is easier to answer, although it is complicated. The elevation was conducted in segments. The first segment was in Evanston, and it was completed by the end of 1910 at least to Church St. That was less than 2 years after the line opened.
The second segment was in Chicago (between Howard and Ainslie). Work on this segment did not begin until April 22, 1914 (Evanston News) and stopped in 1917 due to the U.S. entry in WWI. Work did not resume until early 1920 and was not completed until sometime in 1922. By the time work stopped in 1917, the eastern two tracks had been elevated on an embankment. But even the first period of construction was not continuous. Work stopped sometime in the fall of 1914. A letter to the editor published in the November 14, 1914 issue of the Chicago Tribune is instructive: “What right has the Northwestern Elevated railroad company to leave up the obstruction from Lawrence to Foster Avenues? The work on the elevation has ceased, with no prospects of continuing, and it hardly seems fair that they should be allowed to block our streets for an indefinite time.” Francis J. Owens, Commissioner of Track Elevation, gave this response: “The obstruction referred to is the temporary false work which is made necessary before the permanent work is installed. To remove these obstructions now would mean the undoing of the work thus far accomplished. The railway company has found it necessary temporarily to suspend the track elevation work for financial reasons, but expects to resume it as soon as practicable.” From this exchange we know that the elevation proceed from south to north and that in November 1914, it had gotten as far north as Foster (not all that far). An further indication of progress can be gleaned from a February 27, 1915, Chicago Tribune article on elevation work in the city. It showed that the schedule for elevation of the Evanston division called for 1.50 miles of roadbed to be elevated. Later in the year (July 2nd) there appeared an item that the Birchwood station had been temporarily moved (in the middle of the night) to Sherwin “to facilitate track elevation.” And finally, in a December 1, 1920 Tribune article, announcing the opening of new stations at some of the stops in January, there appeared the following: “Of the 100,000 cubic yards of filling necessary to build the solid elevated structure in conjunction with the St. Paul tracks, 50,000 cubic yards is in place.” Thus, we know that even at this late date, the embankment was only half completed.
The “how” it was done is the least known. We know that there was no interruption of service. Before the elevation project began, there were two tracks at ground level for the “L” and various sidings west of them for the freight trains which were servicing the businesses along the lines. When it was all done there were four tracks, with the western-most track used for freight—though not exclusively.
Basically a wooden trestle was first constructed; then concrete embankment walls constructed, then the space between the walls filled in and ballast put on top. Presumably there was a single trestle constructed that carried the east two tracks and a separate trestle constructed for the west two tracks, rather than four separate and independent trestles. The process involved re-aligning the ground level tracks to the west to allow continued service while two new elevated tracks were elevated to the east of the ground level tracks. A very interesting photo taken between February 15, 1915 and November 1916 shows the status of the work and how the temporary stations were aligned. The photo shows that the Thorndale station which opened February 15, 1915, was not the single platform structure that existed after the elevation was completed (and still exists) but was a two platform structure with one platform hung over the east end of the embankment, with two sets of stairs going down to the street and two ticket agents, one at each entrance. The photo also shows just three tracks, not the eventual four, and all are elevated on an embankment.
There may have been more than one temporary station at each stop. We know from a Chicago Tribune item that there was a temporary station at Argyle as early as November 11, 1914. In the Voice of the People column one patron complained about the lack of protection from the elements at this temporary station and the Northwestern Elevated replied that repairs would soon be made.
The work was done by the St. Paul Railroad, which owned the right-of-way, rather than by the Northwestern Elevated Railroad which leased the right-of-way. The elevation was thus constructed to steam railroad standards. By the time work started in 1914, the St. Paul had considerable experience in track elevation work. It had already constructed what we now call the Bloomingdale Line, later abandoned and now converted to a linear park called 606, as well as the line in Evanston, which was completed in 1910. There is an extensive description of the construction in engineering publications.  See: Electric Railway Journal, March 10, 1923 and Engineering News, 1910, Vol 63, No. 6, p. 158
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