Today’s photo essay features pictures of the former Chicago Rapid Transit/Chicago Transit Authority Westchester branch, which ran from 1926 to 1951. You can find an excellent track map here. (You can also read our follow-up post, showing what traces of the old line are still visible here.)
It’s always interesting to speculate on what “might have been,” especially in the case of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin, whose trains ran from 1902 to 1957 in Chicago’s western suburbs. What could have been saved? What should have been saved? And, what can we learn today?
As you may know, ultimately nothing was saved, except the portion between DesPlaines Avenue and Laramie, which was taken over by the CTA in the early 1950s. That operates today as the outer portion of the Chicago Transit Authority‘s Forest Park branch of the Blue Line.
Speculation usually centers on whether the entire railroad could have been saved, bought by the State of Illinois, or at least, the portion to Wheaton. But in general, this section, the most viable part of the interurban, ran parallel to the Chicago & North Western‘s West Line, which continues to operate today under the aegis of Metra.
The State of Illinois made an offer to buy CA&E in 1956, and then backed out of the deal for various reasons. The only public entity that could have operated any portion of the railroad would have been the CTA, and yet their operating area was limited to most of Cook County.
Still, the CTA did some engineering studies.* In the short run, the idea was to put third rail shoes on some of the remaining PCC streetcars, and run a shuttle service between Forest Park and Wheaton. Just as with the CA&E operations between 1953-57, this would not have been a “one-seat ride” to the Loop. (Some say these studies were made to demonstrate the impracticality of CTA actually doing it.)
In the long run, CTA would have ordered more new rapid transit cars, high speed versions of the single car units 1-50 that were built in 1960. These type of cars would also have been used if the CTA had been able to take over larger portions of the North Shore Line than the five miles that became the Skokie Swift (today’s Yellow Line) in 1964.
In retrospect, the opening of the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway would have depressed ridership, so there is no way of knowing if such a CTA shuttle service would have been successful. But there was no way to pay for it, in the political context of the time, and therefore these plans were unrealized. But, if it had happened, most likely such a service would today be a treasured part of Chicagoland’s transit infrastructure.
But if we go back a little further in time, incredibly, there was rapid transit service operated by the CTA that ran to Mannheim and 22nd Street as late as 1951. This was the 5.6 mile long Westchester branch, a victim of budget cuts and expressway construction.
The Westchester branch was part of an ambitious mid-1920s Insull plan to create a high-speed CA&E bypass, similar to the North Shore Line’s Skokie Valley Route. However, there was less of a need for it, and by the time the Depression hit and Samuel Insull‘s empire collapsed, only 2.2 miles of it had been built off the CA&E main line, and local service was being provided by the Chicago Rapid Transit Company.
The Depression also put a stop to the pace of housing development in Bellwood and Westchester, as it had in Niles Center, where the CRT ran local service in a similar fashion. The “build it, and they will come” strategy was not unusual at the time, and had been successfully followed some years earlier when rapid transit service was extended to the Ravenswood neighborhood.
With the CRT in receivership, things remained “status quo” until the creation of the Chicago Transit Authority, which took over operations on October 1, 1947. In these heady early days, it was thought that modernization would reaped quick benefits, and there were efforts by the CTA to improve service to outlying areas, with the creation of extension bus lines and express buses.
Within a few years, however, there was nothing but red ink, and without taxing authority, the cash-strapped CTA had no choice but to cut unprofitable services wherever possible. The lightly-used Westchester branch was an obvious target for elimination, since CTA was a tenant, paying rent to the CA&E, who owned the tracks.
From CTA’s point of view, they saved money by eliminating rapid transit service west of DesPlaines Avenue, and tried to retain whatever ridership was there with replacement bus service, creating the #17 route, which continued to run for decades (and has now been completely replaced by parallel Pace suburban bus service, the #317).
Expressway construction was also a factor. The CA&E and CTA shared each other’s tracks, and compensated each other in turn. By the early 1950’s, these payments totaled about $250,000 per year and largely cancelled each other out. But a 2.5 mile section of the CTA’s Garfield Park/Met “L” would need to be relocated for five years, since it ran smack dab in the middle of where the Congress expressway would be built.
After nearly 50 years of joint operation on Chicago’s west side, coordinating the plethora of daily CTA and CA&E trains was difficult at best, and required near split-second timing. Schedules were complicated and there were various passing sidings, where expresses would be routed ahead of locals.
The CTA (and the City of Chicago’s) original idea for relocating Garfield service was for a wooden “L” structure along Van Buren Street. Presumably this grade separated service would have been fine with the CA&E, but the local alderman objected, and rather than face a lawsuit, which would have delayed the project, the City Council turned to Plan B– grade level rapid transit service, bisected by several cross streets.
This was originally promoted as a “street railway” service, which may be how they justified not using crossing gates. At first, it was thought that overhead wire could be used, but the Met cars did not have trolley poles, and this would have involved shifting around a lot of equipment. So, ultimately, the Van Buren Street temporary trackage used third rail without any more crossing protection than stop lights.
In 1951, CA&E management decided that this plan was unworkable for them, and would cause too many problems for efficient and safe operation. In a letter to their shareholders, CA&E proposed elimination of rail service on the interurban (presumably, freight service would continue), to be replaced by buses that would take riders from the western suburbs to the CTA Lake Street and Douglas Park “L”s.
CTA, for their part, anticipating that CA&E would soon become a bus operator only, began planning for a bus-to-rail transfer point between CA&E and CTA. At first, it was thought this would take place at Central Avenue, a point just west of where CTA’s own rails ended. But by 1953, this transfer point was moved west to DesPlaines Avenue in Forest Park.
Meanwhile, existing bus operators in the western suburbs had successfully blocked CA&E’s plans to substitute bus service for rail. Therefore, they had no real alternative to cutting back rail service to DesPlaines Avenue. This is how service was operated from September 1953 to July 1957. By then, CA&E ridership had been decimated, adn the railroad successfully petitioned to “temporarily” abandon rail service.
The abandonment actually helped facilitate expressway construction near the DesPlaines River, since no temporary service would need to be built. The railroad, in a sense, was still “made whole,” since by 1959 new rails were put in place for a connection to the CTA DesPlaines terminal. These are plainly visible in an aerial view in the 1961 CTA Annual Report, but they were never used, and the CA&E did not resume regular passenger service, and was liquidated in 1961. Attempts to save the interurban were too little, too late, and the suburbs that would have benefited from continuing service refused to contribute with tax revenue.
Between 1948 and 1957, the CTA eliminated about 25% of the rapid transit system it had inherited from CRT. This was mainly by slashing lightly-used branch lines (Stockyards, Kenwood, Humboldt Park, Normal Park, Niles Center, and Westchester). At one point, the CTA even proposed turning over the Evanston branch to the North Shore Line, but this did not happen.
By 1964, it seems the CTA had changed its mind about branch lines, for in April of that year, the phenomenally successful Skokie Swift service began running between Dempster and Howard, over five miles of former CNS&M right-of-way. By this time, some federal funding was available through a pilot program. CTA had to buy half of the Swift trackage anyway, just to access Skokie Shops.
Here, the CTA used fast, frequent service and a large park-and-ride lot to attract riders. And although it scarcely seems possible that the Westchester branch could have been saved in 1951, it would really fill a need today.
Imagine a west side corollary to the Skokie Swift.
By the early 50s, Bellwood and Westchester were prime areas for the postwar housing boom. This is especially true since these areas would soon have access to an important new highway. Growth in Westchester was being held back, however, since the same developer that had owned much of the property since the 1920s wanted to build all the housing themselves, thereby limiting construction somewhat.
After the CTA abandoned the Westchester branch, the CA&E liquidated the property, and the proceeds were distributed to the shareholders, instead of being reinvested in the money-losing railroad. This was the first of CA&E’s large-scale liquidations, where various portions of the railroad were sold to benefit the stockholders.
Getting back to what “might have been,” imagine how well the CTA would be doing today, if it had built a large park-and-ride lot at Mannheim and 22nd Street in the 1950s and kept the Westchester branch. As the area boomed in the mid-1950s, this service would have had tremendous potential.
And while this did not come to pass, the need persists, and something like a replacement for the Westchester branch may still be in CTA’s future. The Illinois Department of Transportation is working on plans for expanding and improving I-290 in the western suburbs, as the Chicago Tribune reported on February 27, 2013:
State transportation officials presented a narrowed list of four proposals that they say will improve travel on the Eisenhower Expressway, all of which include adding a lane to the highway and also extending the CTA Blue Line.
The four proposals, all of which include widening the highway between Austin Boulevard and Mannheim Road, extending the Blue Line to Mannheim and express bus service extending westward from Mannheim, were presented to a community task force. They will be further evaluated by state transportation officials as they study ways to make Interstate Highway 290 more efficient, said a manager of the project, Peter Harmet, bureau chief of programming for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
So, what “might have been,” may still be yet. We shall see.
PS- Christopher J. Lemm writes:
After reading your January 2015 story on the CTA Westchester Branch, the picture of the train crossing Madison street in Bellwood brought back some great memories. I grew up in that house, my grandfather was Clarence Lemm, track foreman for the Aurora and Elgin Railroad, he died in 1936. My father followed in grandpa’s footsteps, he worked at CTA 43 years, he started as a clerk and retired as the head of insurance and pensions. When my brother and I were very young my dad would take us for rides on the Aurora and Elgin, he used grandpa’s Sunset Lines employee pin and we all road free of charge. Thank you for some great memories!
According to transit historian Art Peterson:
CTA prepared studies for operation of both the CA&E (from Wheaton to Desplaines Av.) and for the North Shore from the Loop to Waukegan. The CA&E study was based on use of the pre-War PCCs; for the North Shore it would have been higher-performance rapid transit PCC cars and an A/B service pattern up the Skokie Valley. Both went no place, for lack of suitable funding sources. CTA was prepared to accommodate CA&E in the Congress-Dearborn-Milwaukee subway (the west side connection to that opened on June 22, 1958, by which time CA&E was freight only.)
Some knowledgeable sources reported that CTA retained a section of the Humboldt Park Branch after the “L” shuttle service quit running in the E50s, to use as a CA&E turnback/layup facility. Humboldt Park was the “L” line that ran parallel and to the north of North Avenue, joining the Milwaukee Avenue “L” line at the North/Damen station.