A Window to the World of Streetcars

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Ask Geoffrey: A Look Back at Chicago’s Streetcar Era

Andy Warhol once said that in the future, everyone will be “famous for 15 minutes.” Last night’s “Ask Geoffery” segment on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight news magazine program only lasted about 8 minutes, but I found it pretty memorable nonetheless.

After all, the segment was entirely devoted to Chicago streetcars, and a book I co-authored (Chicago Streetcar Pictorial: The PCC Car Era, 1936-1958, published by Central Electric Railfans’ Association as their 146th Bulletin) was prominently featured. At one point WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer held the book aloft and talked about all the great pictures that are in there, not only of Chicago streetcars, but the places they ran through.

If you want to know what Chicago really looked like back in the 1940s and 1950s, this book is a good place to start.

If you’re reading this message, there’s a chance you already have your copy of B-146. But if not, I think it is an excellent book and urge you to purchase one directly from CERA or their dealers.* Of course, as one of the authors, I am a bit prejudiced.

If that was my only connection to last night’s broadcast, I would be chuffed. However, while I played no part in the creation of this segment, my fingerprints were also there on other parts of it.

Some of the other pictures featured were things I posted to The Trolley Dodger, or to the CERA Members’ Blog. In particular, a few pictures were used from our post West Towns Streetcars in Color (February 10, 2015). Also in the West Towns segment of this piece, were several photos that I took in 2014 at the dedication of C&WT car 141 at the Illinois Railway Museum. These originally appeared in the post IRM Dedicates Chicago & West Towns Car 141 (CERA Members Blog, June 2, 2014). Those weren’t the only such photos that were used.

None of this should be too surprising. Whoever researched this piece likely did some Google searches, and this is what came up. When researching things myself, I frequently find my own posts coming up to the top of Internet searches on a variety of subjects. There were, of course, many other sources that WTTW used, including video of the last Chicago streetcar on June 21, 1958, posted by the Chicago Transit Authority.

My favorite picture from last night, that I was not connected with, is reproduced above. It shows Chicago streetcars and buses at Navy Pier, during the time when it was the temporary home of the University of Illinois.

It has always been my intention for create an accessible archive of information about transit history that people will find useful.  Last month, we had more than 12,000 page views on this blog, even though there were only three new posts.  So, a lot of people are actually looking at the older posts, which is quite gratifying.

As a short history lesson, the Chicago Tonight segment was excellent, but I do have a couple of minor caveats. They mentioned how streetcar ridership declined in the 1920s, leading to the development of the PCC car. However, streetcar ridership in Chicago actually went up in the ’20s, leading to use of trailers.

In this episode, the demise of Chicago streetcars was put on the shoulders of Walter J. McCarter, CTA’s first general manager, and dated to 1947. However, some streetcar lines were bussed before this (some as early as 1941) and the beginnings of their demise can be traced back even further than that.

The Surface Lines introduced several new routes on Chicago’s northwest side in 1930 using trolley buses, and within a short period of a few years, CSL had become a leading exponent of this form of transit. While it was stated at the time that eventually, CSL would convert these lines to streetcar as ridership increased, none were so changed.

In 1937, the City of Chicago produced a so-called “Green Book” plan for comprehensive transit improvements.** According to this plan, the City expected to replace half of Chicago’s streetcars with buses, and possibly all of them if bus technology would prove itself.

The leading author of this plan, Philip Harrington, later became the first chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, and undoubtedly carried over these views to the CTA. While I am sure that Walter J. McCarter was an ardent foe of streetcars, a 1947 Chicago Tribune article indicated he was hired because of his success in “rubberizing” the Cleveland streetcar system.

Of course, there is no way to get into these sorts of nuances of history in an 8 minute segment.

You can read more about last night’s Ask Geoffrey segment here. You can also watch the video of the 8 minute segment there. The entire hour-long program can also be seen here.

Interestingly, last night they used a photo I took of Frank Sirinek piloting Chicago & West Towns car 141.  CERA B-146 also has a photo of Mr. Sirinek in it that I took, this time a picture from the 1980s showing him at the helm of CTA 4391, the last surviving postwar Chicago streetcar.

-David Sadowski

This photo of streetcars and buses at Navy Pier, which dates to the early CTA era, appeared on Chicago Tonight. It was sourced from the Internet. According to Andre Kristopans, the date this photo could have been taken is either April, May, or June 1951 (see Comments section).

This photo of streetcars and buses at Navy Pier, which dates to the early CTA era, appeared on Chicago Tonight. It was sourced from the Internet. According to Andre Kristopans, the date this photo could have been taken is either April, May, or June 1951 (see Comments section).

A CSL trolley coach, from a 1935 brochure.  This image, originally posted here, appeared in the Chicago Tonight segment.

A CSL trolley coach, from a 1935 brochure. This image, originally posted here, appeared in the Chicago Tonight segment.

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*Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with Central Electric Railfans’ Association.

**The Green Book plan is discussed in detail in my E-book Chicago’s PCC Streetcars: The Rest of the Story, available from our Online Store.


Recent Correspondence

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Regarding some “mystery” photographs in recent posts, Chuck Bencik from San Diego, life member of San Diego Electric Railway Association, writes:

These cars are definitely from Lucerne Valley, PA, as the caption below, and extract from material about Nanticoke history seem to prove. Also, as a 23 year resident of Chicago, (1938 to 1961), during which streetcars in Chicago operated, I can assure you that Chicago Surface Lines never had letters for their route designations, like “N”, and the colors of their livery following World War II were not the same as the one photograph which is in color says to me. Also, the 13th and 14th photos from the top are not Chicago Surface Lines streetcars.

These rails of the WB Traction Company survived the war and were in use when the last trolley car rolled into Nanticoke in 1950.” [Source: http://www.nanticokehistoryonline.org/site2/stories/2013/March/WWII.html ]

These rails of the WB Traction Company survived the war and were in use when the last trolley car rolled into Nanticoke in 1950.” [Source: http://www.nanticokehistoryonline.org/site2/stories/2013/March/WWII.html ]

“The Wilkes-Barre & Wyoming Valley Traction Company (W-B&WVT) was more fortunate than most properties. The fact that Luzerne County’s population was widely scattered in mine patches and supporting villages meant that there was a regular source of residential and business traffic along most of its lines. The main amusement park was Sans Souci, roughly midway on the line from Wilkes-Barre to Nanticoke.” [Source: http://harveyslake.org/text/story_lakeline_02.html ]

Following photo is from Dave’s New Rail pix, Wilkes Barre Railway:

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Nope; not Chicago’s. Has no numbers, and the railroad crossing sign uses a font style that was never seen on the grade crossing signs of Chicago, during the streetcar era. Similarly for the photo below. Nice Brill cars; but their livery is a dark color for window frames and doors, and something lighter in color for the large areas of flat sheet metal, like the dashers. The next photo after that, the streetcar crossing a street bascule bridge which seems to be only partly closed/opened? Not a Chicago streetcar photo, either.

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Thanks for writing. There were actually several other people who correctly identified the Wilkes-Barre trolleys in our post Spring Cleaning (May 16, 2016), and you can find their thoughts in the Comments section.

The additional two photos from The “Other” Penn Central (May 29, 2016) have already been identified as the Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago. Although this was an Indiana operation, some of these cars actually did operate into Chicago, offering through service to 63rd and Stony Island in conjunction with the South Chicago City Railway. The HW&EC frequently leased streetcars from Chicago.

I apologize for the lo-res images (we will soon have better versions of these) but the cars actually did have numbers on the front, just not very visible here. Not sure if that is due to these pictures possibly having been taken with Orthochromiatic film, or if there simply wasn’t sufficient contrast in black-and-white to make them out.

Apparently for most of their life these cars were painted green, and in fact locals knew it as the “Green Line,” but from 1932-40, their final years, they were painted yellow as they were operated by the Chicago and Calumet District Transit Company.

That these cars would so closely resemble those of the Chicago Surface Lines should not be a surprise, as this operator was jointly owned at one time by one of the CSL constituent companies and there was some shuffling of equipment.

The story of the Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago Railway was told in Electric Railway Historical Society Bulletin #8 by James J. Buckley, published in 1953. This, and the other 48 ERHS publications, are contained in The Complete ERHS Collection, an E-book I edited for Central Electric Railfans’ Association, available through them and their dealers.

Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks.

-David Sadowski


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4 thoughts on “A Window to the World of Streetcars

  1. I worked a very short time in the early eighties for the West Towns bus company at 219 west lake street in Oak Park, when the property was sold to Dominick’s, they took the archives, photos albums and other significant items and threw them into dumpsters, management said that anyone caught removing these items would be fired, a bus serviceman found a wonderful photo album with hundreds of pictures of rolling stock.

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    • What a shame that such valuable history was simply destroyed. I have heard similar stories about what happened when the CTA took over from CSL. Fortunately there were a few intrepid individuals who saved some things from the dumpsters over the years. Bob Heinlein comes to mind.

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  2. A couple of comments about the Navy pier photo. Note there is no trolleybus overhead. There was a short period between when the Grand streetcars came off and the trolley buses started when the route was run with propane buses (April 2nd to December 1951). Since there is a 15-Canal/Wacker bus there, which were extended to Navy Pier also in April, along with a 28-Stony island car, which quit running downtown 7/1/51, this narrows it down to April, May or June 1951. Note too that the buses are sitting along the streetcar tracks, as they were apparently at the time looping around by crossing the tracks on Streeter (west), Ohio, Streeter (east) and Grand. The trolley buses were routed into the “short loop”, basically where the infamous Quonset hut later sat, and the Navy Pier bus terminal that the C&NW track ran thru was built sometime in the late 50’s.

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    • Great detective work, thanks! I figured the date might be 1951 since buses in the background are painted in the darker green CTA color scheme that was used on streetcars starting that year.

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