C&WT 155 during winter. Bill Shapotkin says, “I believe this photo is Hillgrove/LaGrange — the short-lived terminal located east of LaGrange Rd after (sewer work(?)) cut the line back from Brainard Ave. View looks east.”
Although not commonly thought of as an interurban, a 1943 Rand McNally Street Guide of Chicago identified it as such:
Perhaps this is because it ran between several different suburbs. But the C&WT also had some extensive sections of private right-of-way, especially along its busiest line, which ran between Cicero and LaGrange and, from 1934 to 1948, provided direct service to the Brookfield Zoo.
The word “interurban” has largely fallen out of favor today, but it was thrown around rather loosely in the 1940s and 50s. When the Chicago Transit Authority cut back the Douglas Park line from Oak Park Avenue to 54th Avenue in 1952, the replacement service was referred to as an “interurban bus,” presumably meaning that it was not going to be allowed to make local stops.
The Chicago Transit Authority took a serious look at buying the West Towns in the late 1940s but ultimately decided against it, after determining it was not worth the necessary investment. The West Towns charged some of the highest streetcar fares in the entire country and seemed to be a financial basket case for much of its history.
Yet somehow it managed to hang on and remained independent and privately owned until the late 1980s, far longer than most of its contemporaries. The service filled a real need and still does today.
The CTA did manage to stick its toe into suburban bus waters after abandoning the Westchester branch of the “L” in December 1951. But even then, the route 17 “interurban” bus relied on the facilities of the West Towns to operate. So to some extent the CTA was actually paying the C&WT for the privilege of competing against it.
CTA service continued on route 17 for 60 years, by which time PACE had a competing route 317 of its own. CTA finally gave up on it as of December 16, 2012.
Anyone who rode a Chicago Surface Lines streetcar back in the day had to change to the West Towns at the the city limits, if they wanted to continue into the western suburbs. There were several places where this happened, and a few (Cermak and Kenton, Lake and Austin) are shown in our photographs.
About 10 years ago, the Central Electric Railfans’ Association published The Chicago & West Towns Railways by James J. Buckley, and edited by Richard W. Aaron, as Bulletin 138. This is by far the best and most comprehensive book on the C&WT. You can purchase this directly from CERA.*
There was an earlier, and much slimmer volume on C&WT written by Robert W. Gibson, Bulletin 3 of the Electric Railway Historical Society. This has been out of print for many years, but is now available in digital form as part of the Complete ERHS Collection, again available from CERA.*
Antone who is interested in delving into the history of this fascinating street railway would do well to check these out.
The closest thing you can experience today to the thrill of riding a West Towns streetcar would be to take a trip out to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, where you can ride car 141, the sole survivor of the fleet, which has been beautifully restored back to operating condition.
Finally, two of our photos show the old Park Theatre, located at 5962 W. Lake Street in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Cinema Treasures has a page devoted to this theatre, and just about every other in the country, whether currently in operation, closed, or demolished.
PS- We thank our readers for helping us establish a new record during July, with 13,271 page views.
Rockhill Trolley Museum, Three Generation Celebration
Saturday, August 22, 2015 – New Start Time 10:00am to 4:30pm
Help us welcome the return of trolleys from three different generations.
Come witness the dedication of Johnstown Traction Company 311, fresh from its restoration, Philadelphia PCC car 2743 car, body restoration and new paint work, and San Diego LRV car 1019, in its official welcoming to Pennsylvania – the first LRV preserved and operated at a museum in the Eastern United States.
For more information e-mail Bill Monaghan, RTY-1267@Comcast.net
*Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with Central Electric Railfans’ Association.
The Chicago & West Towns also had some private right-of-way in the western suburbs. Car 160 is shown near LaGrange in December 1945.
According to Don’s Rail Photos, C&WT sweeper 9 was “9 was built by McGuire-Cummings in 1928. It was sold to Sand Springs Ry in 1948.” This picture may have been taken at the Harlem and Cermak car barn.
Chicago & West Towns 102 is shown at Cermak and Kenton in October 1935, with a Chicago Surface Lines route 21 car at rear. Within a few years, C&WT streetcars were repainted into the more familiar blue. Bill Shapotkin adds, “By the way, what bus is that depicted at left in this photo at Cermak/Kenton? Presume it is a West Towns bus (in the “sun burst” paint job) — but if so, what route is it working? If not a West Towns’ bus, then whose might it be and what route is it working?”
Car 127, signed for Maywood, is turning onto Madison Street. Bill Shapotkin says, “I believe thIs is a pull-out for the Madison line. Car is turning from S/B Harlem into W/B Madison. View looks north. Believe this is first time I’ve ever seen a pic looking N/B on Harlem before. Have seen pix looking east on Madison and west on Madison, but never north on Harlem. The reason tracks to right (operating in Madison, x/o Harlem) curve is due to jog in Madison St at this point — which does not make the location obvious.”
Harlem and Madison today. Forest Park is on the left, and Oak Park on the right. Madison does take a slight jog here. A pull-out in the previous picture makes sense as it would have come from the C&WT car barn on Lake Street just east of Ridgeland (torn down in the 1980s and replaced with a Dominick’s Finer Foods).
This picture of C&WT 159 may have been taken on Harlem Avenue between Cermak and 26th.
It’s April 3, 1948, and the end of C&WT streetcar service will soon be at hand. This photo may be at Cermak and Kenton. There was a fantrip on the LaGrange line the day after service ended, something which occasionally happened on other properties. (Gordon E. Lloyd Photo)
This would appear to be the corner of Harlem and Cermak. C&WT cars 160 and 157, going to the Brookfield Zoo and LaGrange, would have turned south here for a half mile before heading west on 26th Street. After streetcar service ended in 1948, and until the early 1970s, you could usually find a Good Humor man parked in what had been the trolley median just south of this location.
Harlem and Cermak today. From the 1950s through the 1970s, there was a Peter Pan family restaurant where the McDonald’s is today.
C&WT 116, 115, and 158 are lined up at Cermak and Kenton, the eastern end of the LaGrange line. A CSL streetcar is at rear. This is the border between Cicero and Chicago.
CSL 1583 is parked in front of the old Park Theatre, which was located at 5962 W. Lake Street in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Chicago & West Towns car 145 is in the background in Oak Park, on the other side of Austin Boulevard. The Park opened in 1913 and continued in operation until the 1950s. When this picture was taken, they were showing a double feature of Trade Winds and Shall We Dance, which came out in the late 1930s, but this picture seems to have been taken some years later from the looks of the autos. (Stephen D. Maguire Photo) Bill Shapotkin adds, “Shows car #1583 working Through-route 16 (Lake-State – displaying the (according the Al Lind’s CHICAGO SURFACE LINES (Pages 272-276)) rush-hour only operation 119th/Morgan).”
Another view of a Lake Street car at the west end of the line, at Lake and Austin, in September 1939. Car 1579 is parked in front of the Park Theatre, this time showing a double feature of Four’s a Crowd and Stronger Than Desire. Meanwhile, it looks the the motorman and conductor are taking a break at curbside. The Park is still advertising that it shows “Talkies,” which became popular in 1927, and the sign that says “Refrigeration” means that the theatre was already air-conditioned. The streetcar is working through-route 16 and is signed for State-79th.
5962 W. Lake Street as it appears today.
C&WT 103 at the east end of the Lake Street line at Austin Boulevard in 1938, waiting to meet a Chicago Surface Lines car on the other side of the street.
The Park Theatre appears shuttered in this early 1950s view of CTA 6183 at the west end of the Lake route at Austin Boulevard. Eventually, the building itself would be torn down.
C&WT 140, still in the old paint scheme, on February 23, 1939.
C&WT 165 on February 23, 1939. This car has already been repainted into the familiar blue and white colors.
C&WT 104 at the Harlem and Cermak car barn on April 3, 1948, less than two before the end of streetcar service. One of the replacement buses is at right. (C. Edward Hedstrom Photo)
C&WT line car 15, with its famous bent pole. The defect was apparently accidental, but it was certainly distinctive.
One of our readers writes, “the 141 crossing the IHB tracks at Oak Street in LaGrange Park. The car is headed westbound, the train is southbound, possibly entering the sidings that are just south of Oak. The Trolley turned south and paralleled the IHB down to the CB&Q tracks where it turned west along Hillgrove. The home under construction in the background is the second or third house north of Oak on the west side of Beach. “
The Chicago & West Towns, while not an extremely large streetcar operator, played an important role in the development of many of Chicago’s western suburbs in the first half of the 20th century. You can see a map of the West Towns car lines here, and a list of important dates in its operations here.
We have written about the Chicago & West Towns Railways before on the CERA Members Blog (see these posts here and here) but nearly all those photos were in black-and-white. Since streetcar service was abandoned in April 1948, color pictures are scarce.
Color film was expensive in 1948, and most fans did not have a 35mm camera to shoot it with. So we can be thankful for those railfans who did have the wherewithal to shoot Kodachrome slides, which give us an idea of what life was like in an earlier and simpler time.
Today we offer you rarely seen color pictures of West Towns streetcars. Even better, several of them show car 141, the sole survivor of the fleet. You can read about how this car was preserved and lovingly restored here. The Electric Railway Historical Society bought the car body in 1959, after it had been used as a storage shed, and donated it to the Illinois Railway Museum in 1973. You can ride that car at the museum.
While we are not sure of all the exact locations in these images, most of them seem to be on the line that ran between LaGrange and Cicero. Perhaps our keen-eyed readers can help identify some of these areas.
In a few cases, we have presented “then and now” photos, so you can see that while a lot has changed in the nearly 70 years that trolleys have been gone, but there are still a few things that remain from the old days.
When the Chicago Transit Authority was just getting started, they looked into the possibility of purchasing the West Towns, and I believe they entered into negotiations, but it never happened. The West Towns completed its conversion to buses in 1948 and remained a private operator until 1981. These services are operated today as part of the Pace suburban bus system.
The corner of Lincoln and Beach as it looks today in LaGrange Park. Lincoln ends in a cul-de-sac near the railroad tracks at rear. We are not far from where image 471 was taken.
Chicago & West Towns Railways car 112 heads south at Harlem and Cermak on August 17, 1947.
If the building at right is a car barn, this may be Harlem and Cermak. If so, car 112 would be turning east onto Cermak.
This may show the 111 heading west, preparing to cross First Avenue to reach the Brookfield Zoo.
The 159 may be on on the LaGrange line, heading east towards Cermak and Kenton.
The 111 at the Brookfield Zoo parking lot.
The 141 somewhere along the route between LaGrange and Cermak Road.
The corner of Lincoln and Blanchan in Brookfield as it looks today. This is the approximate location of image 466.
The apartment building at 9436 Lincoln in Brookfield. It can be seen in image 466 to the right of the West Towns streetcar.
This house is visible in image 466. Our approximate location is 3528 Cleveland in Brookfield.
The 141 at Cermak and Kenton, the border between Cicero and Chicago. Here riders could change to the Chicago Surface Lines route 21 streetcar for points east. In the background, we see the Western Electric plant.
Car 128 near Cermak and Kenton.
Cermak and Kenton as it looks today.
The 141 may be heading east, crossing the Illinois Central near 26th and Harlem. The streetcar briefly diverted from the roadway to make this crossing.
This shows where the West Towns crossed the Illinois Central near 26th and Harlem.
Car 128 in zoo service, heading south on DesPlaines at 31st.
DesPlaines and 31st as it looks today, looking north. The West Towns streetcar ran where the grassy median is today, and continued a few blocks further south, before turning west to cross the DesPlaines River and First Avenue before reaching the Brookfield Zoo.
This may be Harlem and Cermak, looking north, with the car barn to the left.
This photo may show a southbound car on Harlem Avenue between 22nd and 26th.
The 141 heading west, crossing Salt Creek.
An aerial view showing where the West Towns crossed the DesPlaines River (just north of Park Place).