Historic Chicago Buses

CTA Marmon-Harrington trolley bus 9620 at the Cicero/24th terminal on July 3, 1967. (Stephen M. Scalzo Photo)

CTA Marmon-Harrington trolley bus 9620 at the Cicero/24th terminal on July 3, 1967. (Stephen M. Scalzo Photo)

While our main interest is in electric transit (streetcars, light rail, rapid transit and interurbans), from time to time we get requests to show bus pictures. We don’t have many, but we figure it’s time to make good on our promise to show what we do have.

Buses have been an important part of Chicago’s transit scene since the 1920s, when the Chicago Motor Coach Company began using them.

Whether you call them trolley buses, trolley coaches, or trackless trolleys, rubber-tired buses with overhead wires were used in Chicago from 1930 to 1973 and were very popular. I have fond memories of riding them as a kid, since I lived near Grand, Fullerton, North Avenue and several other such northwest side routes.

Despite an internal CTA study that showed trolley buses were very profitable in the early 1950s, the agency gradually phased them out between 1959 and 1973. (You can read more about trolley buses here.)

They remain in use in half a dozen North American cities to this day.

It is not widely known, but the Illinois Railway Museum has an operating trolley bus line and actually has six Chicago trolley buses in its collection, in addition to some from other cities.

In our recent E-book Chicago’s PCC Streetcars: The Rest of the Story, available in our Online Store, we discuss how Chicago transitioned to an all-bus surface fleet.

From 1930 to 1947, the Chicago Surface Lines believed in “Balanced Transit,” where streetcars were best for the heaviest routes, trolley buses for the medium sized ones, and gas buses for the lightest routes. The 1937 “Green Book” study commissioned by the City of Chicago, following national trends, envisioned replacing about half of the streetcar system with buses. However, the report, mainly written by Philip Harrington, who became the first head of the Chicago Transit Board, governing body of the CTA, also said that in the future, it might be advantageous to replace all the streetcars with buses.

If not for World War II, Chicago might have undergone a more orderly transition to buses over a longer period of time. But the delays caused by wartime shortages and the Great Depression meant that much of CSL’s rolling stock was quite old by the end of the war.

There was a pent-up need for change, and it should therefore be no surprise that as soon as CTA was created in 1945, they pressed CSL and the bankruptcy courts that controlled it to order large numbers of buses in addition to the 600 PCCs that were purchased for the busiest lines. (You can view the original CSL/CTA delivery records for those 600 streetcars further on in this post.)

Although CTA did not take direct control until October 1, 1947, they felt they had been given a mandate to make transit improvements immediately. Therefore, they “stage managed” equipment orders and actually dictated on what routes the new equipment was used on.

During this period, many CSL routes received extensions to areas of the city that had been developed since the last streetcar lines were built. Express bus routes were also started.

Transit unification in Chicago finally became complete when the CTA purchased the assets of the Chicago Motor Coach Company, effective October 1, 1952. CMC was a privately owned bus operator whose routes mainly ran on Chicago’s boulevards and parks. By 1952, they had a fleet of about 600 buses.

The Motor Coach was profitable, while CTA during this period was losing money. CTA felt that CMC was skimming the profitable “cream” off the city’s surface routes, and they wanted desperately to buy them out.

As it happens, the CTA had to pay at least $1m more for Motor Coach than they had wanted to, since they were, after all, a profitable enterprise that was owned by a national company that did not really want to sell.

The CTA applied some “hardball” tactics in the run-up to the sale. They tried to stop accepting transfers from CMC buses, and since there was a fare differential, began collecting the difference between the lower CMC fare and the higher CTA fares when riders did transfer.

In addition, they began competing directly against CMC on the Austin Boulevard route. There was more of this to come, and CMC saw the handwriting on the wall and sold out. After all, they had never actually been operating under a franchise from the City of Chicago, while the CTA, the courts determined, had few constraints on what they could do.

Mayor Martin H. Kennelly made public statements that opposed the sale, although there is some evidence that he was in favor of it privately.

Immediately upon taking over Motor Coach, the CTA raised the fares on those routes so that they matched the CTA’s higher rate.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was right at the time that the CTA announced their so-called “PCC Conversion Program,” whereby 570 of the 600 Postwar cars were eventually scrapped, and some of the parts recycled for use in new rapid transit cars.

At this point, the CTA had achieved a virtual monopoly on surface transit in Chicago, and no longer had to try and compete with the Motor Coach Company. Interestingly, CTA did not purchase the Motor Coach name, which is why it is now in use by a private operator.

-David Sadowski

PS- For more Chicago trolley bus pictures, check out Tom’s Trolleybus Pix.

CSL trolley buses at a storage yard at Central and Lexington. The Garfield Park “L” is at left.

CSL 6511 and other TDH 4506's in Garfield Park.

CSL 6511 and other TDH 4506’s in Garfield Park.

CSL 623 at the North and Cicero garage.

CSL 623 at the North and Cicero garage.

CSL 3405 at Archer and Rockwell.

CSL 3405 at Archer and Rockwell.

From the St. Petersburg Tram Collection web site:

The largest group of coaches ordered by CSL from a single builder was 3400-series White 798 buses, 297 units at total. First 40 were delivered in 1944-45 (allocated to CSL by Office of Defence Transportation). In 1946-1948 257 coaches of 3441-3697 series arrived, last 100 were ordered by Chicago Transit Authority and had some improvements, such as marker lights on the roof, brigher interiors with improved lighting. Coaches 3496-3697 were automatic transmission-equipped. The post-war Whites arrived in then new Mercury green and Croydon cream livery and the fleet was centralized at Archer for turns on the new 62X Archer Express service, CSL first limited-stop bus line, which made its debut on October 21, 1946 between the Loop and Midway Airport.

Trolley bus 395 on route 78 - Montrose.

Trolley bus 395 on route 78 – Montrose.

CSL 516, signed for route 57 - Laramie.

CSL 516, signed for route 57 – Laramie.

Chicago Motor Coach Company 63 on Michigan Avenue, in front of the Fine Arts building.

Chicago Motor Coach Company 63 on Michigan Avenue, in front of the Fine Arts building.

Chicago Motor Coach Company double decker bus 162.

Chicago Motor Coach Company double decker bus 162.

The cover illustration from a Surface Lines brochure printed in August 1947.

The cover illustration from a Surface Lines brochure printed in August 1947.

Postwar Chicago PCC Delivery Dates

Thanks to the generosity of Andre Kristopans, we now have copies of the original CSL/CTA records that give exact delivery dates for all 600 Postwar Chicago PCC streetcars. This information has been added to Chicago’s PCC Streetcars: The Rest of the Story:









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Chicago Motor Coach's routes as of 1943.

Chicago Motor Coach’s routes as of 1943.

7 thoughts on “Historic Chicago Buses

  1. I remember, CA 1940, CMC buses running in Palmer Square. These were much older vehicles than those shown in this article, with motors out front, similar to trucks of the time. Also, there were small CSL buses running on Kimball, which had manual shifts.

    • This was Chicago Motor Coach route 30-Sacramento, by the 1930’s rush only, from Logan Square via Kedzie-Palmer-Sacramento-west drive in Humboldt Park-Sacramento-thru Douglas park-Marshall-24th-California to 26th. Went out in the big ODT-ordered purge in 1942

  2. The City has been removing the last vestiges of the trolley bus/streetcar system with the installation of new LED street lights, and taking out alternate poles on each side of the streets. This has been happening on Elston, for example, around the Forest Glen bus yard. Of course, putting trolley buses back on Chicago streets would be pretty much impossible with all the signal mast arms in place, for which I take some of the blame (retired CDOT traffic engineer).

    Maybe that Spanish system, that had automatic supercharging stations, might be given a try, some day.

  3. The 1943 CMC map had some additional routes added in aprox 1946, #56 LaSalle St & #4 Jeffrey that completed their routes. Otherwise, this map stayed mostly intact to the end. Most became CTA routes, some still in existence.

    • It also shows a route that was gone in 1942 – from Michigan via Garfield-South park-south drive in Washington Park-Midway to Stony Island – old route 7.

      Also a historical note about why CMC routes can be very hard to describe – park drives did not get names until 1945. Before then, it was basically a description like in the 7 route – “south drive in Washington Park”.

  4. Looking for info on CSL line car 5250 Halsed street route at or about 1929-31? Grandfather was a conductor on that car.

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