Never Too Late

Former Chicago Surface Lines mail car 6, built in 1891, as it looked on May 25, 1958. This car is now at the Fox River Trolley Museum, where it was recently vandalized. You can see a black-and-white photo of this car, taken at the same time as this one, in our previous post Throwback Thursday (January 7, 2016). To see a picture of West Chicago Street Railway car 4, also taken the same day, there's one in our post Chicago Streetcars In Color (February 22, 2015).

Former Chicago Surface Lines mail car 6, built in 1891, as it looked on May 25, 1958. This car is now at the Fox River Trolley Museum, where it was recently vandalized. You can see a black-and-white photo of this car, taken at the same time as this one, in our previous post Throwback Thursday (January 7, 2016). To see a picture of West Chicago Street Railway car 4, also taken the same day, there’s one in our post Chicago Streetcars In Color (February 22, 2015).

Recent news reports that eight historic railcars at the Fox River Trolley Museum were vandalized to the tune of perhaps as much as $150,000 brought back some memories.

Back in 1961, when I was six years old, my family took a Sunday drive out to the Chicago Aurora & Elgin’s Wheaton Yards to take one last look at their fleet. We had read in the news that efforts to save the CA&E had failed, and that the entire line was being abandoned forever.

I never did get to ride the CA&E, which stopped running passenger service in 1957. But I did at least get to see the railcars on their home turf in Wheaton. I distinctly recall being gratified that they did not appear to be vandalized. I did not see any broken windows.

Not all of these cars were saved, but some did make it off the property and several lived to run again in museum service in various parts of the country. (We ran some pictures of the “hospital train” in our post Trolley Dodger Mailbag, 1-29-2016.)

That anything at all got saved was, in my humble opinion, a miracle. Now it is true that in the waning days of traction, there were fans who “liberated” various bits and pieces of trolleys that were destined for the scrap heap. Their goal was to preserve history, not desecrate it. In some cases, these original parts have since been put back onto historic equipment, or are now in the collections of railroad museums. At least they were saved for future generations.

Railroad museums across the country depend on small groups of dedicated volunteers. Occasionally, entire museum operations have either failed or have been obliged to relocate. The sad situation faced by the Indiana Transportation Museum, which was recently evicted from its home in Noblesville, is but the latest example.

Let’s take a closer look at Aurora, Elgin & Fox River car 304. This fine specimen of a 1920s interurban car, which returned to run on the small surviving portion of its home rails at the Fox River Trolley Museum, was damaged by the two young vandals. It is not just a piece of equipment that was injured. This was a senseless attack on the history of an entire region.

While this blog is not affiliated with the Fox River Trolley Museum, we wholeheartedly support their efforts, and historic preservation. Insurance, unfortunately, will only cover a small portion of the cost of replacing all the broken glass and other damage. The bulk of funds will have to come from private donations.

The museum has begun a fundraising campaign, which must be successful. I realize many of us are angry about this senseless destruction, but let’s turn our anger into something constructive.

We are but the current caretakers of precious artifacts of the past. If we fail to preserve them, it will be a loss to all who come after us. We can all lament that a couple of young kids did a tremendous amount of harm here, but it’s never too late for the rest of us to do the right thing, right now.

-David Sadowski

The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains

We recently acquired the original artwork for this January 17, 1938 Toonerville Trolley comic panel by the great Fontaine Fox (1884-1964).

We recently acquired the original artwork for this January 17, 1938 Toonerville Trolley comic panel by the great Fontaine Fox (1884-1964).

In a time when trolley lines criss-crossed this country, and were a part of everyday life for Americans, there was even a railfan comic strip. Or, better put, a comic strip by a railfan, Fontaine Fox.

His “Toonerville Trolley” comic ran in newspapers from 1913 until he retired in 1955. Over time, he even grew to resemble the “Skipper,” his own creation. Fox even answered his voluminous fan mail using letterhead he had printed up for the Toonerville Electric Railway Company.

Here is what the Filson (Kentucky) Historical Society has to say about Fontaine Fox:

Fontaine Talbot Fox III, creator of the famous Toonerville Trolley, was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. He started his career as a reporter for the Louisville Herald, but soon abandoned this course to pursue his true passion of drawing cartoons. During a visit to the small town of Pelham, New York, Fox received inspiration for what would become one of the nation’s most beloved comics. While in Pelham, he rode on the local trolley car, where the conductor’s unhurried manner and penchant for gossiping with his passengers gave Fox the idea for his own comic strip. By 1915, the resulting comic series, Toonerville Folks, had come to the attention of the Wheeler Syndicate and was soon published in newspapers across the nation.

The Filson’s collections contain a number of items documenting the life and career of this celebrated cartoonist, including photographs of Fox and his family, as well as some of his correspondence and several scrapbooks with clippings of his cartoons. Notable among Fox’s papers are a collection of twenty-one original pen and ink cartoons from his beloved Toonerville Folks. Set in the fictional town of Toonerville, the single-paneled cartoon featured a rickety trolley car and a glimpse into suburban life in the early twentieth century. Fox created a cast of characters that charmed a nation: the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang, the Powerful Katrinka, Mickey (Himself) McGuire (the town bully), Aunt Eppie Hogg (the fattest woman in three counties), and of course the Skipper, who piloted the beloved trolley car. Toonerville Folks ran in hundreds of newspapers nationwide for over forty years, until Fox’s retirement in 1955. His comics would become an inspiration for a future generation of cartoonists.

Actually, it was a single panel cartoon six days a week. On Sunday, it was in color, in multiple panels. The strip had various names, including The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains and Toonerville Folks. Eventually, the adventures of the “Skipper” and his rickety trolley car only took up a part of the action, as Fox developed a variety of memorable characters for Toonerville.

Blake A. Bell
writes an excellent blog called Historic Pelham, and has written extensively about Fox, the Toonerville Trolley, and its connection to the area.

While the phrase “Toonerville Trolley” eventually became synonymous with any rural streetcar or interurban running on poorly maintained track, Pelham, NY, its inspiration, is actually a suburb, located 14 miles from Midtown Manhattan in Westchester County. It is near the city of New Rochelle, made famous as the home of Rob and Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966).

The Toonerville Trolley ran in over 200 daily newspapers in its heyday, and was popular enough to inspire numerous motion pictures. The first series, circa 1920-21, was silent and produced by the Betzwood Studios in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (more on that in our book review section). You can watch one of those films here.

Next, a young Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) later starred in 78 short films based on the Toonerville character Mickey McGuire, made between 1927 and 1934. This was Mickey Rooney’s first big break in show business. He even attempted, unsuccessfully, to legally change his name to Mickey McGuire.

There were also some Toonerville Trolley animated shorts, made in 1936 by Van Beuren Studios, which can be seen on Youtube. Here is one example:

By the late 1930s, trolley lines were starting to disappear from the American scene. On July 31, 1937 the Pelham Manor “H” trolley line ran its last. Fontaine Fox used the popularity of his comic strip to turn this into a major event.

From Historical Treasures of Westchester County:

On July 31, 1937, the H-Line Trolley that inspired Fontaine Fox was shut down for good – replaced by a bus line. That day the Village of Pelham Manor hosted a celebration attended by about 8,000 people for the last run of the “Toonerville Trolley”.

This “pass,” signed by Fontaine Fox who attended the event, entitled the bearer to ride the trolley car during its last trip. That trip took hours to travel only a couple of miles due to the crowds and the antics of local residents dressed as various characters from the “Toonerville Folks” comic strip.

The Hagerstown & Frederick interurban, which we have featured in a variety of posts, is an example of a country interurban that was frequently called a “Toonerville Trolley.” Its last passenger interurban ran on February 20, 1954.

Perhaps inspired by this, around this time Fontaine Fox bowed to the inevitable, and “retired” the trolley from his strip, replacing it with a bus. But such was the popularity of the old contraption that I believe he brought it back, prior to the strip’s demise in 1955 with Fox’s retirement. He donated some of his original artwork to a trolley museum.

As a tribute to Fontaine Fox, here we present an entire month’s worth of daily Toonerville panels, from June 1927. You will note that only some of the dailies include the trolley and Skipper (who, apparently, was based on real-life Pelham operator James (“Old Jim”) Bailey, who lived in the Bronx). Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974) made his historic non-stop flight from New YHork to Paris on May 20-21, 1927 and “Lindbergh mania” is reflected in many of the strips shown here, suggesting that Fox was working on some of these panels not long before they appeared in newspapers.

Fontaine Fox in retirement:

Book Reviews



Montgomery County Trolleys
by Mike Szilagyi, with a Foreword by Andrew W. Maginnis
Arcadia Publishing, 2018

We recently received a copy of Montogomery County Trolleys from the author, as we had provided a couple of images he used in the book. Otherwise, chances are we might not have seen this fine addition to Arcadia’s Images of Rail series, which we are also involved with (see below for information on Building Chicago’s Subways, and our Online Store for copies of Chicago Trolleys).

Author Mike Szilagyi was no stranger to us, as we had corresponded concerning a different book project he was involved with as mapmaker. This was eventually published as Riding the Bell: Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell Route by Ron Ruddell, Bulletin 147 of the Central Electric Railfans’ Association (2015).

Naturally, the maps Mr. Szilagyi made for this new book are excellent. But the entire thing is well done, from the scope the author set out to cover, the organization of the chapters, picture selection, text, and captions.

Here is a capsule description:

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was once served by 140 miles of trolley lines. In the first half of the 20th century, a wide array of trolley cars rolled over Montgomery County’s rails, from quaint open streetcars rumbling through borough streets to sleek 80-mile-an-hour trolleys sailing across open fields in Upper Gwynedd and Hatfield Townships. The cars had zero emissions, and some lines were powered by renewable hydroelectric power. Taking the trolley was a convenient, affordable option for those travelling and commuting in Montgomery County, nearby Philadelphia, and points beyond. Freight was also carried on board trolleys, with prompt parcel delivery service. Fortunately, many years ago, dedicated trolley fans had the foresight to aim their cameras at these unique vehicles, providing rare glimpses not just of the trolleys but also of Montgomery County’s rapidly changing landscapes.

Mike Szilagyi’s interest in trolleys was sparked at a young age by the sight of big green streamliners gliding down Old York Road near his grandmother’s house in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia. Today, Szilagyi lives and works in Montgomery County, where he plans and designs bicycle paths and serves on the North Wales Historic Commission.

This volume’s foreword was written by noted transit historian and longtime Montgomery County resident Andrew W. Maginnis.

In addition to detailed captions for each photograph, the book offers a brief history of transportation in Montgomery County, placing the trolley era in its historical context. The timeline of travel may be very generally summed up as:

dirt roads – canals – railroads – trolleys – motor vehicles

Rather than each mode supplanting the previous, there were varying degrees of overlap between them. That said, the use of animals for motive power was there from the beginning, only fading as motor vehicles gained prominence in the 1910s and 1920s. The bicycle came on the scene in a big way in the 1890s, never really completely disappeared, and is today enjoying widespread resurgence.

By concentrating on Montgomery County, the author is able to provide tremendous variety, as he was therefore able to include the Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell interurban, the Philadelphia & Western High-Speed Line to Norristown, numerous small-town trolleys, and even a bit of Philadelphia streetcars (Route 6 went into the county). Although very little of this remains, back in the day I did manage to ride Bullets and Strafford cars on the Norristown line (which still operates, with more modern equipment) as well as PCCs on SEPTA’s Route 6, which was replaced by buses in January 1986, subjects covered in this book.

Montgomery County Trolleys is dedicated to the memory of the late Harry Foesig (1897-2003) whose long life spanned parts of three centuries. He was co-author, along with Dr. Harold E. Cox, of Trolleys of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (1968). This was an obvious inspiration for this new volume, which can be thought of as a kind of “spiritual descendant” of that earlier tome. That book also included some excellent maps, rendered by Foesig.

Anyone who has an interest in the subject, and the rich heritage of Keystone-state traction, would do well to pick up copies of each. While the earlier book is long out of print, you should have little difficulty in finding a used copy at a reasonable price. Mine only cost about $10, which is perhaps about half what you should expect to pay for Montgomery County Trolleys.

Interestingly, longtime railfan Andrew W. Maginnis contributed to both books, 50 years apart. Perhaps the 50-year anniversary was also a factor that motivated the author to put this new collection together, just as I was inspired by some anniversaries to do my new book (see below).

-David Sadowski

Pre-Order Our New Book Building Chicago’s Subways

There are three subway anniversaries this year in Chicago:
60 years since the West Side Subway opened (June 22, 1958)
75 years since the State Street Subway opened (October 17, 1943)
80 years since subway construction started (December 17, 1938)

To commemorate these anniversaries, we have written a new book, Building Chicago’s Subways.

While the elevated Chicago Loop is justly famous as a symbol of the city, the fascinating history of its subways is less well known. The City of Chicago broke ground on what would become the “Initial System of Subways” during the Great Depression and finished 20 years later. This gigantic construction project, a part of the New Deal, would overcome many obstacles while tunneling through Chicago’s soft blue clay, under congested downtown streets, and even beneath the mighty Chicago River. Chicago’s first rapid transit subway opened in 1943 after decades of wrangling over routes, financing, and logistics. It grew to encompass the State Street, Dearborn-Milwaukee, and West Side Subways, with the latter modernizing the old Garfield Park “L” into the median of Chicago’s first expressway. Take a trip underground and see how Chicago’s “I Will” spirit overcame challenges and persevered to help with the successful building of the subways that move millions. Building Chicago’s subways was national news and a matter of considerable civic pride–making it a “Second City” no more!

Bibliographic information:

Title Building Chicago’s Subways
Images of America
Author David Sadowski
Edition illustrated
Publisher Arcadia Publishing (SC), 2018
ISBN 1467129380, 9781467129381
Length 128 pages

Chapter Titles:
01. The River Tunnels
02. The Freight Tunnels
03. Make No Little Plans
04. The State Street Subway
05. The Dearborn-Milwaukee Subway
06. Displaced
07. Death of an Interurban
08. The Last Street Railway
09. Subways and Superhighways
10. Subways Since 1960

Building Chicago’s Subways will be published on October 1, 2018. Order your copy today, and it will be shipped on or about that date. All copies purchased through The Trolley Dodger will be signed by the author.

The price of $23.99 includes shipping within the United States.

For Shipping to US Addresses:

For Shipping to Canada:

For Shipping Elsewhere:

Help Support The Trolley Dodger

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This is our 215th post, and we are gradually creating a body of work and an online resource for the benefit of all railfans, everywhere. To date, we have received over 422,000 page views, for which we are very grateful.

You can help us continue our original transit research by checking out the fine products in our Online Store.

As we have said before, “If you buy here, we will be here.”

We thank you for your support.

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In order to continue giving you the kinds of historic railroad images that you have come to expect from The Trolley Dodger, we need your help and support. It costs money to maintain this website, and to do the sort of historic research that is our specialty.

Your financial contributions help make this web site better, and are greatly appreciated.

More Chicago PCC Photos – Part Eight

On June 19, 1953, CTA Pullman-built PCC 4337 is at the Halsted and 79th loop, south end of route 8. But the car is signed for route 42, Halsted-Downtown, which was a variant on the line. CTA bus 2581 is at left. Soon, the Pullmans would begin disappearing from this route as they were sent off to St. Louis Car Company for scrapping in the "PCC Conversion Program." There are very few photos of PCCs on route 42, making this one a rarity.

On June 19, 1953, CTA Pullman-built PCC 4337 is at the Halsted and 79th loop, south end of route 8. But the car is signed for route 42, Halsted-Downtown, which was a variant on the line. CTA bus 2581 is at left. Soon, the Pullmans would begin disappearing from this route as they were sent off to St. Louis Car Company for scrapping in the “PCC Conversion Program.” There are very few photos of PCCs on route 42, making this one a rarity.

Also, in the early photo, all buses and cars went around the block via 79th and Emerald, and exited westbound. Later there was a large section added in the back, behind the buildings you see, so buses could enter directly off Halsted, loop around, and come back out onto Halsted."

The bus loop at Halsted and 79th as it appears today. Andre Kristopans: “Regarding 79th/Halsted loop, the driveway is actually just as wide in both photos. It is an optical illusion because where once there were three lanes, now there are only two, wider, lanes, and a single, wide, platform.
Also, in the early photo, all buses and cars went around the block via 79th and Emerald, and exited westbound. Later there was a large section added in the back, behind the buildings you see, so buses could enter directly off Halsted, loop around, and come back out onto Halsted.”

Here we have another bevy of Chicago PCC streetcar photos for your enjoyment. To see previous installments in this series, just use the search window at the top of this page.

As always, if you have interesting tidbits of information to add to what we have written here, don’t hesitate to add your comments or drop us a line to:

thetrolleydodger@gmail.com

-David Sadowski

PS- These photos are also being added to our E-book collection Chicago’s PCC Streetcars: The Rest of the Story, available in our Online Store.

If you are interested in PCC trucks, the motors that make these things go, there is an interesting article you can read about them, written by Bill Becwar, who is one of our readers. It explains how trucks from actual Chicago streetcars came to power ones used now In Kenosha, by way of scrapped 6000-series “L” cars.


Help Support The Trolley Dodger

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This is our 135th post, and we are gradually creating a body of work and an online resource for the benefit of all railfans, everywhere. To date, we have received over 151,000 page views, for which we are very grateful.

You can help us continue our original transit research by checking out the fine products in our Online Store.

As we have said before, “If you buy here, we will be here.”

We thank you for your support.


Now Updated with 46 Pages of New Material:

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Lifting the Lid in the Loop, 1915
The Chicago Freight Tunnels, 1928
Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations, 1913

The Chicago Tunnel Company (1906-1959) operated an elaborate network of 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge track in 7.5-by-6-foot (2.3 m × 1.8 m) tunnels running under the streets throughout the central business district including and surrounding the Loop, delivering freight, parcels, and coal, and disposed of ash and excavation debris.

Our E-book collection includes two short books issued by the Tunnel Company, detailing their operations. Lifting the Lid in the Loop is 46 pages long, has many great illustrations, and was published in 1915. To this we add a different 32-page illustrated book from 1928.

The third volume in this collection, Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations (60 pages) was published in 1913 to help facilitate the through-routing of the South Side and Northwestern elevated lines. As Britton I. Budd wrote in the introduction, “This book of instructions is issued for the purpose of familiarizing the employees of the South Side Elevated Railroad with the character, service, track arrangement, and general features of the system of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, and to familiarize the employees of the Northwestern elevated Railroad with the same details of the South Side Elevated Railroad, before through-routed operation of cars is begun.”

Now The Trolley Dodger is making all three of these long-out-of-print works available once again on a single DVD data disc. Includes a Tribute to the late bookseller Owen Davies, who reprinted the “L” book in 1967, a 1966 Chicago Tribune profile of Davies, and reproductions of several Davies flyers. 177 pages in all.

This collection is a tremendous value, since an original copy of Lifting the Lid in the Loop alone recently sold for over $200 on eBay.

# of Discs – 1
Price: $14.95


It's November 14, 1948, and CTA PCC 4341 and its follower are on Southport at Clark Street, the north end of the #9 Ashland route-- a very unusual place for PCCs to be. That's Graceland cemetery on the east side of Clark. Andre Kristopans writes, "The Clark PCC’s parked on Southport are Cubs extras. Would have come down from Devon (note CLARK-LAWRENCE sign), and would be put away on normally-unused track on Southport. When game would let out, they would be backed back out onto Clark, and sent south." Which all sounds very plausible except for the date of the photograph. But as Andre pointed out in a later note, on November 14, 1948 the Chicago Bears played the Green Bay Packers, and that game took place in Wrigley Field. So these PCCs are being held back until the end of the game. The Bears won that day, 7-6.

It’s November 14, 1948, and CTA PCC 4341 and its follower are on Southport at Clark Street, the north end of the #9 Ashland route– a very unusual place for PCCs to be. That’s Graceland cemetery on the east side of Clark. Andre Kristopans writes, “The Clark PCC’s parked on Southport are Cubs extras. Would have come down from Devon (note CLARK-LAWRENCE sign), and would be put away on normally-unused track on Southport. When game would let out, they would be backed back out onto Clark, and sent south.” Which all sounds very plausible except for the date of the photograph. But as Andre pointed out in a later note, on November 14, 1948 the Chicago Bears played the Green Bay Packers, and that game took place in Wrigley Field. So these PCCs are being held back until the end of the game. The Bears won that day, 7-6.

Clark and Southport today.

Clark and Southport today.

Someone's just gotten off CTA PCC 4246 via the middle door on October 8, 1948. The car is heading southbound on route 36 - Broadway-State and is just north of Lake Street in this Mervin E. Borgnis photo. Borgnis wrote a number of different railfan books, and at one time worked as a motorman for the Lehigh Valley Transit Company in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Jim Huffman writes: "It does not look like State St, to me it looks like Wabash. The Broadway-State route used Wabash as a detour until the State St bridge was constructed. The new bridge was Dedicated on 5/28/1949, which precludes it being on State."

Someone’s just gotten off CTA PCC 4246 via the middle door on October 8, 1948. The car is heading southbound on route 36 – Broadway-State and is just north of Lake Street in this Mervin E. Borgnis photo. Borgnis wrote a number of different railfan books, and at one time worked as a motorman for the Lehigh Valley Transit Company in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Jim Huffman writes: “It does not look like State St, to me it looks like Wabash. The Broadway-State route used Wabash as a detour until the State St bridge was constructed. The new bridge was Dedicated on 5/28/1949, which precludes it being on State.”

Wabash and Lake today. We are looking north.

Wabash and Lake today. We are looking north.

CTA PCCS 4372 and 7261 are at 81st and Halsted, the south end of the busy Clark-Wentworth line.

CTA PCCS 4372 and 7261 are at 81st and Halsted, the south end of the busy Clark-Wentworth line.

CTA pre-war PCC 4007 speeds east on private right-of-way near the Narragansett terminal of the 63rd Street line. (Joe L. Diaz Photo)

CTA pre-war PCC 4007 speeds east on private right-of-way near the Narragansett terminal of the 63rd Street line. (Joe L. Diaz Photo)

CSL pre-war PCC 7002 is in the Madison-Austin loop, at the west end of busy route 20, circa 1945-46 in "tiger stripes" livery.

CSL pre-war PCC 7002 is in the Madison-Austin loop, at the west end of busy route 20, circa 1945-46 in “tiger stripes” livery.

In this posed press photo, probably taken in late 1936, two well-dressed models show how easy it is to get on the new "streamliners." This may be car 7002. (Chicago Architectural Photographing Company)

In this posed press photo, probably taken in late 1936, two well-dressed models show how easy it is to get on the new “streamliners.” This may be car 7002. (Chicago Architectural Photographing Company)

CSL PCC 4062, the first postwar car delivered, heads west on Madison just east of Laramie, probably in the fall of 1946. (Joe L. Diaz Photo)

CSL PCC 4062, the first postwar car delivered, heads west on Madison just east of Laramie, probably in the fall of 1946. (Joe L. Diaz Photo)

5146 W. Madison today.

5146 W. Madison today.

CTA 4010 and 4035 lay over at the expansive loop at 63rd Place and Narragansett in December 1952.

CTA 4010 and 4035 lay over at the expansive loop at 63rd Place and Narragansett in December 1952.

CTA 4029 lays over on 64th Street near Stony Island on March 10, 1952. This was the east end of route 63.

CTA 4029 lays over on 64th Street near Stony Island on March 10, 1952. This was the east end of route 63.

Dave Carlson asks:

Great pics, as always. What was that interesting building on the left side of the photo at 63rd and Stony? Is it still there?

63rd and Stony Island was once the eastern terminus of the Jackson Park branch of the South Side “L”, so it was an important transfer point to other places. Greyhound had a terminal there, and there were various other retail businesses.

However, now the Jackson Park “L” has been cut back to Cottage Grove and, in a reversal of sorts, part of the abandonment involved a local group who argued that removing the “L” would actually stimulate economic growth. Usually, it’s the opposite.

The first cutback of this branch involved the bridge over the Illinois Central, which was not as well built as some others. It was declared unsafe and the first cutback was supposed to be just west of the IC, where there was to be a transfer point with what is now the Metra Electric.

Some work was done on this station, using federal money, but ultimately it was never used as the line was cut back even further. Not sure whether CTA had to pay back the government for this.

So, no, the large retail building in the picture, which took up a square block, is gone. Besides the Greyhound station there was a golf shop (still in business, but elsewhere) and I think a bowling alley among other things.  A YMCA now occupies the site.

64th and Stony Island today. Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, is east of here. The "L", which once ran here, has been cut back to Cottage Grove. If anything is still here, it's probably the tracks under the pavement.

64th and Stony Island today. Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, is east of here. The “L”, which once ran here, has been cut back to Cottage Grove. If anything is still here, it’s probably the tracks under the pavement.

It's winter, and CTA 7272 heads south. The local movie theater is showing The King and I, a musical starring Yul Brynner that was first released in June 1956. This picture probably dates to the winter of 1956-57, and there is a 1957 Plymouth visible at rear. One of our readers notes: "The movie theater was the CALO THEATER at Clark and Balmoral. It is now occupied by a thrift store called The Brown Elephant. Photo was probably taken in December 1956 because of the Christmas decorations hanging on the line poles. Car is heading south on Clark." You can read more about the Calo Theater here.

It’s winter, and CTA 7272 heads south. The local movie theater is showing The King and I, a musical starring Yul Brynner that was first released in June 1956. This picture probably dates to the winter of 1956-57, and there is a 1957 Plymouth visible at rear. One of our readers notes: “The movie theater was the CALO THEATER at Clark and Balmoral. It is now occupied by a thrift store called The Brown Elephant. Photo was probably taken in December 1956 because of the Christmas decorations hanging on the line poles. Car is heading south on Clark.” You can read more about the Calo Theater here.

Clark and Balmoral today. We are looking north.

Clark and Balmoral today. We are looking north.

CTA PCC 7174 heads south on route 36 at Broadway amd Wilson, with a three-car train of wooden "L" cars up above, probably in Evanston Express service. This historic Uptown "L" station also served the North Shore Line.

CTA PCC 7174 heads south on route 36 at Broadway amd Wilson, with a three-car train of wooden “L” cars up above, probably in Evanston Express service. This historic Uptown “L” station also served the North Shore Line.

Broadway and Wilson today. The CTA station is being completely rebuilt, at substantial cost. To read more about architect Arthur U. Gerber, who designed the original rapid transit station and many others, go here.

Broadway and Wilson today. The CTA station is being completely rebuilt, at substantial cost. To read more about architect Arthur U. Gerber, who designed the original rapid transit station and many others, go here.

CTA prewar PCC 4021, last survivor of its type, in dead storage at South Shops in the late 1950s. This car is now preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum.

CTA prewar PCC 4021, last survivor of its type, in dead storage at South Shops in the late 1950s. This car is now preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum.

We are looking north on Clark and Devon in 1957, and a southbound route 22 - Clark-Wentworth car heads our way. It's difficult to make out the car number, but this may be 4390.

We are looking north on Clark and Devon in 1957, and a southbound route 22 – Clark-Wentworth car heads our way. It’s difficult to make out the car number, but this may be 4390.

Clark and Devon today, looking north.

Clark and Devon today, looking north.

CTA 7165 at Broadway and Devon, circa 1956-57. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7165 at Broadway and Devon, circa 1956-57. (Jay Viena Photo)

Broadway and Devon today. We are facing south.

Broadway and Devon today. We are facing south.

CTA 7169 at Clark and Schubert. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7169 at Clark and Schubert. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7142 is on a flatcar in August 1958, ready to be pulled by locomotive L-201 to an interchange for its trip to St. Louis for scrapping and parts recycling for rapid transit cars. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7142 is on a flatcar in August 1958, ready to be pulled by locomotive L-201 to an interchange for its trip to St. Louis for scrapping and parts recycling for rapid transit cars. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7189 at the Clark-Howard loop, circa 1956-57, northern terminus of busy route 22. (Jay Viena Photo)

CTA 7189 at the Clark-Howard loop, circa 1956-57, northern terminus of busy route 22. (Jay Viena Photo)

In this fantrip photo, which I believe is from December 1955, PCC 7236 follows red Pullman 225, which has been temporarily renumbered as 144 just for the day, thanks to the Illini Railroad Club. To read more about this fantrip, go here. This location may be on Irving Park just west of Sheridan Road.

In this fantrip photo, which I believe is from December 1955, PCC 7236 follows red Pullman 225, which has been temporarily renumbered as 144 just for the day, thanks to the Illini Railroad Club. To read more about this fantrip, go here. This location may be on Irving Park just west of Sheridan Road.

The St. Petersburg Tram Collection is now producing a very handsome model of the 1934 Chicago Surface Lines experimental pre-PCC car 4001.

The St. Petersburg Tram Collection is now producing a very handsome model of the 1934 Chicago Surface Lines experimental pre-PCC car 4001.

CTA 4377, a product of the St. Louis Car Company, is southbound on Clark Street at Harrison in June 1958. (Joe Testagrose Collection)

CTA 4377, a product of the St. Louis Car Company, is southbound on Clark Street at Harrison in June 1958. (Joe Testagrose Collection)

Andre Kristopans comments on this 1930s photo: "Look carefully at the shot of 7003 – it is a posed picture. Probably everybody is a CSL engineering department employee. Several things of note: 1) That is not trolley bus overhead. It is two positive wires side by side. Look at the street carefully. That is gauntlet track. Most carbarns had a gauntlet track so there would be fewer switches in the normal running rail. Besides, the TB wire on Pulaski existed as far as Maypole, then turned east into the shops in 1936. 2) Behind is a southbound Kedzie car. 3) Street is way too narrow to be anywhere on Madison. Conclusion – this is on Kedzie in front of Kedzie carhouse, and indeed 7003 is on the yard lead, loading up “dignitaries” for an inspection trip."

Andre Kristopans comments on this 1930s photo: “Look carefully at the shot of 7003 – it is a posed picture. Probably everybody is a CSL engineering department employee. Several things of note:
1) That is not trolley bus overhead. It is two positive wires side by side. Look at the street carefully. That is gauntlet track. Most carbarns had a gauntlet track so there would be fewer switches in the normal running rail. Besides, the TB wire on Pulaski existed as far as Maypole, then turned east into the shops in 1936.
2) Behind is a southbound Kedzie car.
3) Street is way too narrow to be anywhere on Madison.
Conclusion – this is on Kedzie in front of Kedzie carhouse, and indeed 7003 is on the yard lead, loading up “dignitaries” for an inspection trip.”

About the above picture, Bill Shapotkin writes:

This pic of a W/B Madison St car is unidentified. Believe view may be WB at Pulaski (note trolley bus wire overhead). Would this have been for pull-outs on Pulaski (from West Shops?). Do not see a corresponding trackless wire for E/B Madison.

Any such shared wire, between trolley buses and streetcars, does not seem to be noted on the track maps in my possession.  Perhaps one of our readers will know more, thanks.

Stan Nettis adds:

The picture of the pre war PCC is not at Pulaski. It is probably at Cicero as I don’t recognize any of those buildings at Pulaski.

Looks like Andre Kristopans has hit upon the answer (see the revised photo caption above).

CTA rapid transit cars 6199-6200, also known as "flat door" PCCs, were the final pair built with all-new parts before the wholesale recycling of Chicago's PCC streetcar fleet began. (St. Louis Car Company Photo)

CTA rapid transit cars 6199-6200, also known as “flat door” PCCs, were the final pair built with all-new parts before the wholesale recycling of Chicago’s PCC streetcar fleet began. (St. Louis Car Company Photo)

A St. Louis Car Company photo of CTA 4381. But you can't exactly call this a "builder's photo," since this car was sent to St. Louis in October 1952 to see if it would be feasible to convert streetcars into "L" cars. As it turned out, there were too many differences, in floor height for example. Thus it was decided to simply scrap the cars and reuse as many of the parts as possible, or, in some cases, resell them, as SLCC did with some of the backup controllers, which went to St. Louis Public Service.

A St. Louis Car Company photo of CTA 4381. But you can’t exactly call this a “builder’s photo,” since this car was sent to St. Louis in October 1952 to see if it would be feasible to convert streetcars into “L” cars. As it turned out, there were too many differences, in floor height for example. Thus it was decided to simply scrap the cars and reuse as many of the parts as possible, or, in some cases, resell them, as SLCC did with some of the backup controllers, which went to St. Louis Public Service.

Another shot of CTA 4381 at the St. Louis Car Company plant. This car was not officially retired by CTA until April 15, 1953. Another car was sent to Pullman for similar experiments.

Another shot of CTA 4381 at the St. Louis Car Company plant. This car was not officially retired by CTA until April 15, 1953. Another car was sent to Pullman for similar experiments.

CTA PCC 4094 near downtown. George Foelschow: "Car 4094 is making the turn from northbound Dearborn Street into Kinzie Street. When Clark and Dearborn were made one-way, northbound cars on Dearborn used the former southbound track. I have heard that after both Broadway and Clark were abandoned and only Wentworth remained, CTA briefly considered turning cars on Randolph Street, but the two river crossings persisted until the end."

CTA PCC 4094 near downtown. George Foelschow: “Car 4094 is making the turn from northbound Dearborn Street into Kinzie Street. When Clark and Dearborn were made one-way, northbound cars on Dearborn used the former southbound track. I have heard that after both Broadway and Clark were abandoned and only Wentworth remained, CTA briefly considered turning cars on Randolph Street, but the two river crossings persisted until the end.”

Dearborn and Kinzie today. We are looking south.

Dearborn and Kinzie today. We are looking south.

It's hard to make out the location of this Pullman-built postwar PCC. One of our readers writes: "I believe that this photo was taken on Dearborn Street just north of Adams. The building in the background on the far left looks like the Marquette Building. The front destination sign reads 42 and the side sign reads Halsted-Archer-Clark."

It’s hard to make out the location of this Pullman-built postwar PCC. One of our readers writes: “I believe that this photo was taken on Dearborn Street just north of Adams. The building in the background on the far left looks like the Marquette Building. The front destination sign reads 42 and the side sign reads Halsted-Archer-Clark.”

PCCs and buses share State Street in December 1954. The former State-Lake theater is now used by ABC station WLS-TV to tape live performances.

PCCs and buses share State Street in December 1954. The former State-Lake theater is now used by ABC station WLS-TV to tape live performances.

Lifting the Lid in the Loop

This 44-page brochure, issued by the Chicago Tunnel Co. in 1915, later provided some of the cover art for Bruce Moffat's book Forty Feet Below.

This 44-page brochure, issued by the Chicago Tunnel Co. in 1915, later provided some of the cover art for Bruce Moffat’s book Forty Feet Below.

For more than half a century, the Chicago Tunnel Company operated an extensive network of underground electric freight lines in Chicago’s business district. While their operations were crucial to Chicago’s Loop for much of the 20th century, they are still not widely known or appreciated, since they took place almost entirely out of sight to the average person.

By the 1890s, Chicago’s bustling downtown streets were crowded and congested by horse-drawn carts and wagons, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and cable cars. Eventually, much of this traffic was moved to underground tunnels that connected with the sub-basements of many buildings. Some Loop buildings had three levels of basements.

What eventually became 60 miles of tunnels was first authorized as a means of running telephone lines underground in 1899. Tunneling began surreptitiously, with workers digging through Chicago’s blue clay by hand using long knives. Within a few years, the tunnel’s main focus changed to moving freight, including merchandise, coal, and the resulting ashes.

You can read an early description of their operations here.

From photos, we can see that in some respects the tunnel operation was a very dirty affair. Since it hauled a lot of ashes, that should not be too much of a surprise.

One photo shows the sub-basement of the old Mandel Brothers department store, which was part of the rich history of retailing here. Chicago-style department stores eventually spread all over the world, as shown in the British-American television series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven. The real Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. (1858-1947) was Marshall Field‘s right-hand man before he went to London and opened a similar store there in 1909.*

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

This retail enterprise, which would become one of Chicago’s leading department stores, was founded in 1855 by Bavarian immigrants Solomon Mandel and his uncle Simon Klein. Their first store was located on Clark Street. In 1865, after Solomon’s brothers Leon and Emanuel joined the firm, its name became Mandel Bros. Purchasing in New York and Paris and selling in Chicago, the enterprise grew. By the 1880s, its new store on the corner of State and Madison Streets employed about 800 people. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the workforce had grown to over 3,000 people. Rebuilt in 1912 and renovated in 1948, the State Street store continued to operate into the 1970s, when the company folded amid State Street’s demise as a major retail center.

This description fails to mention that Mandel Brothers sold out to competitor Weiboldt’s in 1960. Their stores were converted to Wieboldt’s, which continued in operation until 1986.

Mandel Brothers was also notable as one of the very first American retailers to oppose Adolph Hitler in 1934:

Mandel Bros. Joins Boycott of Nazi Goods
CHICAGO (Apr. 4)

Mandel Brothers, largest Jewish-owned department store outside of New York City, has discontinued the buying of German goods owing to “customer resistance,” Leon Mandel, general manager of the store, announced today.

Mandel Brothers store is one of the six largest in the Chicago Loop district and the announcement created a sensation in retail circles.

“Mandel Brothers store announced today that owing to customer resistance to German goods, the firm has discontinued all purchases of German merchandise,” the statement issued by the concern read. “During the past six months Mandel Brothers placed no orders for merchandise in Germany. In line with the Mandel Brothers policy, every effort has been and is being made to develop successfully and feature American sources of supply of such merchandise.”

Decline and Fall

While never very profitable, the tunnel system managed to survive the Great Depression. But soon enough, forces converged that put it into an irreversible decline.

Chicago had been planning rapid transit and streetcar subways from the earliest days of the “L” in the 1890s. The franchises granted to the freight tunnel system allowed the City to displace them if and when such subways were built.

Work on Chicago’s “Initial System of Subways” began on both State and Dearborn in December 1938, and while many of the tunnels in the system were cut off as a result, in the short run, the system probably benefited as it was used to haul out the clay from excavation– some of which was done, like the freight tunnels themselves, by workers armed with long knives.

The final blow to the tunnel company came in the 1950s, when Chicago homes, apartments and businesses shifted away from using coal for heating and replaced it with cleaner oil and natural gas. It’s hard to imagine now, but Chicago’s neighborhoods were once littered with various coal yards, and you can still see coal chutes on some older apartment buildings.

With the demise of coal, the Chicago Tunnel Company’s operations sputtered to a close in the late 1950s, including bankruptcy in 1956 and outright dissolution in 1959.

After the Fall

Chicago’s freight tunnels have largely remained under downtown streets and have had a very interesting and active “afterlife” following their 1959 abandonment. Here’s where the tunnel system has intersected with my own life.

In the late 1970s, I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Grant Park. This massive building opened in 1921 and was a customer of the Chicago Tunnel Company, although the connection was made via an elevator, since the depths of the various tunnels were not the same. The Field Museum building itself was built on landfill and rests on top of wooden pilings.

While nearly all the tunnel company’s locomotives and freight cars were scrapped upon abandonment, one train remained marooned in the Field Museum sub-sub-basement, cut off from the rest of the system. Norman P. Radtke, manager of the physical plant, took me down there in the late 1970s to have a look at the locomotive and its ash cars. It seemed at the time that they would remain there forever.

However, here serendipity played a part. In the early 1980s, FMNH president Willard L. (Sandy) Boyd was helping to plan the museum’s participation in a 1992 Chicago World’s Fair. He lamented to me how the Field Museum was separated from the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium by the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive.

I made an offhand suggestion that there was plenty of room on the other side of the museum to relocate the northbound lanes. I left the museum’s employ in 1983, and as we now know there was no Chicago World’s Fair in 1992. However, due in large part to the efforts of Sandy Boyd, the idea of shifting half of LSD took hold.

The northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were relocated to the east side of Field Museum and the new alignment opened in the late 1990s. As Mr. Boyd has remarked, even though there was no world’s fair, Chicago got its intended legacy anyway, in the form of an unbroken lakefront Museum Campus.

Ironically, work on the relocation project created a unique opportunity to remove the Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive and ash cars from their prison. This involved a tremendous effort put forth by volunteers at the Illinois Railway Museum, which you can read about here. These cars were saved and are now preserved at IRM, where they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Tunnel operations have been well documented by historian Bruce Moffat in two books, Forty Feet Below: The Story of Chicago’s Freight Tunnels (1982) and The Chicago Tunnel Story (2002, Bulletin 135 of the Central Electric Railfans’ Association)

In the Spring of 1992, I attended a private slide presentation Bruce gave about the Chicago freight tunnels at a friend’s house. Little did any of us know that less than a week later, the long-forgotten system would suddenly be thrust into the headlines.

On April 13, 1992, what some have called the Great Chicago Flood began, as a contractor inadvertently disturbed the clay surrounding one of the freight tunnels near the Chicago River by the Kinzie Street Bridge. The leak, which was not taken seriously at first, eventually turned into a breach, and eventually hundreds of millions of gallons of water flowed into the tunnel system, and into the sub-basements of many Chicago buildings. Even Chicago’s downtown subways were affected.

Instantly, Bruce Moffat had a well-deserved “15 minutes of fame,” to paraphrase Any Warhol. As the only recognized expert on the tunnel system, Bruce was all over the media in the days following the flood. The great majority of people had no idea such a thing existed, and Bruce was practically the only person who understood it and explain it.

The flood had a negative economic impact on the Chicago area that extended beyond downtown. I was involved in a Lincoln Park photo lab at the time, and our business suffered as a result. Thinking about this period has brought back a flood of memories.

I had an idea for a humorous radio ad to promote our business that would have played off the flood. The press had reported that City inspectors had taken pictures of the area where water was leaking into the tunnel, but instead of sending them to a one hour photo lab, they dropped them off at a store where it took a week to get the film back.

In my radio ad, two city workers would be looking at the tunnel leak, and you would have heard the sound of dripping water. One would have said that he was going to take the film to a place where he would get it back in a week, while the other would have suggested taking it to our lab, where you could get it developed and printed in as little as 30 minutes.

Before they could do so, however, the wall of the tunnel would have burst and both people would have been engulfed by the sound of water rushing in. Then, at the end, the narrator would have used this as a cautionary tale, telling people to bring their film to us “before it’s too late.”

Unfortunately, the radio station refused to make this spot, telling me that the administration of Richard M. Daley would not like it. The Great Chicago Flood, it turns out, was no laughing matter.

Now, Chicago’s old system of freight tunnels continues to benefit the downtown, with various communications cables running through them. On September 1, 2000, Central Electric Railfans’ Association hosted a rare inspection tour of parts of the underground tunnel system. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be repeated any time soon, in the wake of post-9/11 security concerns. The old tunnel system, a vital part of Chicago’s infrastructure even in the 21st century, is now closed off from public access.

-David Sadowski

*There is another Chicago-London connection. The underground freight tunnels here helped inspire the London Post Office Railway, which operated from 1927 to 2003.

PS- This information has been added to one of our E-books, which reproduces a 1928 book put out by the Chicago Tunnel Company:


Now Updated with 46 Pages of New Material:

DVD01Cover

Lifting the Lid in the Loop, 1915
The Chicago Freight Tunnels, 1928
Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations, 1913

The Chicago Tunnel Company (1906-1959) operated an elaborate network of 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge track in 7.5-by-6-foot (2.3 m × 1.8 m) tunnels running under the streets throughout the central business district including and surrounding the Loop, delivering freight, parcels, and coal, and disposed of ash and excavation debris.

Our E-book collection includes two short books issued by the Tunnel Company, detailing their operations. Lifting the Lid in the Loop is 46 pages long, has many great illustrations, and was published in 1915. To this we add a different 32-page illustrated book from 1928.

The third volume in this collection, Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations (60 pages) was published in 1913 to help facilitate the through-routing of the South Side and Northwestern elevated lines. As Britton I. Budd wrote in the introduction, “This book of instructions is issued for the purpose of familiarizing the employees of the South Side Elevated Railroad with the character, service, track arrangement, and general features of the system of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, and to familiarize the employees of the Northwestern elevated Railroad with the same details of the South Side Elevated Railroad, before through-routed operation of cars is begun.”

Now The Trolley Dodger is making all three of these long-out-of-print works available once again on a single DVD data disc. Includes a Tribute to the late bookseller Owen Davies, who reprinted the “L” book in 1967, a 1966 Chicago Tribune profile of Davies, and reproductions of several Davies flyers. 177 pages in all.

This collection is a tremendous value, since an original copy of Lifting the Lid in the Loop alone recently sold for over $200 on eBay.

# of Discs – 1
Price: $14.95


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This junction of three different freight tunnel lines reminds me a bit of Marshfield on the old Metropolitan "L", where three lines came together.

This junction of three different freight tunnel lines reminds me a bit of Marshfield on the old Metropolitan “L”, where three lines came together.

A 1913 Baldwin builder's photo of locomotive 534, which had 28" wheels, two 25 hp motors, and weighed 14,000 lbs.

A 1913 Baldwin builder’s photo of locomotive 534, which had 28″ wheels, two 25 hp motors, and weighed 14,000 lbs.

Warehouse operations.

Warehouse operations.

In this November 17, 1904 view, we see a four-way intersection with 56 lb. rail, a three-way switch, telephone cable, trolley wire, and a permanent lighting system.

In this November 17, 1904 view, we see a four-way intersection with 56 lb. rail, a three-way switch, telephone cable, trolley wire, and a permanent lighting system.

A train curving around a four-way intersection.

A train curving around a four-way intersection.

A builder's photo of freight loco 207, renumbered to 501 before delivery, built by Baldwin-Westinghouse in 1907. Weight: 5 1/2 tons.

A builder’s photo of freight loco 207, renumbered to 501 before delivery, built by Baldwin-Westinghouse in 1907. Weight: 5 1/2 tons.

Trains at an intersection.

Trains at an intersection.

Cars being shifted on warehouse tracks.

Cars being shifted on warehouse tracks.

Until the 1950s, coal was widely used for heating in Chicago.

Until the 1950s, coal was widely used for heating in Chicago.

Loading and unloading freight in the Murdock Company sub-basement.

Loading and unloading freight in the Murdock Company sub-basement.

A Chicago Tunnel Company steam locomotive and cars at the lakefront, creating landfill.

A Chicago Tunnel Company steam locomotive and cars at the lakefront, creating landfill.

Collecting mail at the Post Office station.

Collecting mail at the Post Office station.

A 1906 Baldwin builder's photo of freight loco 173.

A 1906 Baldwin builder’s photo of freight loco 173.

Merchandise rack car 5000, built by Bettendorf Car Co.

Merchandise rack car 5000, built by Bettendorf Car Co.

An ash car train in the Marshall Field & Co. boiler room on February 16, 1915.

An ash car train in the Marshall Field & Co. boiler room on February 16, 1915.

Coal delivery at the Mandel Brothers department store building.

Coal delivery at the Mandel Brothers department store building.

The entrance to Mandel Brothers department store at State and Madison in downtown Chicago. They were bought out by Wieboldt's in 1960. Wieboldt's went out of business in 1986 but the building is still standing.

The entrance to Mandel Brothers department store at State and Madison in downtown Chicago. They were bought out by Wieboldt’s in 1960. Wieboldt’s went out of business in 1986 but the building is still standing.

Tracks and train cars in Chicago freight tunnel. (Bain News Service photo, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Tracks and train cars in Chicago freight tunnel. (Bain News Service photo, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

A 1915 map of the very extensive Chicago freight tunnel system.

A 1915 map of the very extensive Chicago freight tunnel system.

Not all was sweetness and light in Chicago's freight tunnels, as this press account of a 1937 sit-down strike indicates.

Not all was sweetness and light in Chicago’s freight tunnels, as this press account of a 1937 sit-down strike indicates.

Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive 508 at the Illinois Railway Museum in 2008. (John McCluskey Photo)

Chicago Tunnel Company locomotive 508 at the Illinois Railway Museum in 2008. (John McCluskey Photo)

chitunnel10

chitunnel9

Owen Davies 1966 Interview

Owen Davies exhibiting collection of railroad buttons and metal passes in his quaint store at 1214 N. LaSalle St.

Owen Davies exhibiting collection of railroad buttons and metal passes in his quaint store at 1214 N. LaSalle St.

Following up on our previous post about legendary Chicago publisher and bookseller Owen Davies (May 13), here is an interview that appeared in the December 26, 1966 Chicago Tribune:

Rail Buff Makes Hobby Pay Off

Need a Silver Pass? He Has a Few

By Sheila Wolfe

Owen Davies said it matter-of-factly. Some people read railroad timetables like others read Playboy magazine.

That’s what the man said.

Davies himself admits to being hooked. If he scans one page of tables in the Official Guide to the Railways of the United States and Canada, he cannot stop.

Something like trying to eat one potato chip.

“I can spend several hours poring over the guide, so engrossed I am unable to put it down,” he said.

Railroad time tables are only one of Davies’ weaknesses. Actually, he is just as partial, if not more so, to railroad passes– the kind which the old railroad barons used to hand out, with a flourish, to each other.

One gaudy fellow, the owner of several railroads in Colorado, issued his passes on paper, buckskin, and silver. Davies once had a fancy solid silver one made out to Jay Gould.

Davies paid $100 for it “just because I wanted it.” But a week later he sold it for $125 to a fellow who never owned a railroad but wrote about and rode them a lot– the late Lucius Bebee.

The transaction, tho hardly anticipated by Davies, was really what the business of railroad time tables, passes, and other Davies collections is all about. It’s business. And then again, it’s genuine, deep down, sheer unadulterated pleasure.

Some Are Too Prized

You can feel that when you walk into the chock-full “casual” (his own description) Owen Davies Bookstore, 1214 N. LaSalle st. Some items are too prized ever to be sold– such as a personal collection of Colorado annual passes, 1880s to 1920s.

But some that are for sale are not likely to move either, Davies has surmised. He is not sure of the exact count, tho it is obvious he has several thousand passes from 600 to 700 railroads.

“I have been fascinated by them,” Davies related. “I’ll never get my money back. I bought too many. I’m just greedy.”

It’s the same way with books. The little shop is divided into three sections. The cluttered first room contains 3,000 books about ships and the sea. The crowded middle room houses 1,500 to 2,000 books about airplanes and 700 to 800 about automobiles, and the jammed third room has about 5,000 railroad books and pamphlets, 15,000 time tables, and the passes.

Likened to “Disease”

“Buying books is a disease, like alcohol or dope,” Davies reflected. “You may take the pledge, but you never really shake it.”

So Davies, admittedly addicted, strays sometimes from his field of transportation. That is why he has, upstairs, a “department of utter chaos,” a room full of books totally unrelated to his business specialty but acquired in spite of that.

Davies, 56, figures he has been a bookseller longer than most others in the city. He opened his first shop when he was 18. That was after he had quit school to work for his widowed mother in her gift shop and rental library.

“I persuaded her to sell her Insull stock and give me $3,000,” Davies recalled. “I didn’t have the experience or the books but I took over a shop at 1352 N. Clark st.

Had Courage of Youth

“What does an 18-year-old know? I had nerve. I was fearless. I wouldn’t have the courage today.”

Books, Davies said, were “just something I gravitated to.” He had always been a reader. So where else would you expect him to meet his wife, Dorothy, but in the public library? Married in 1931, they have twin sons, Jordan and Bevan, 25.

Davies did not begin his pursuit of transportation until the late 1930s, when he had a store at 346 N. Clark st. He bought a “big bunch” of time tables, pre-1900, and shortly afterward, “another bunch” of Pacific railroad pamphlets, around 1860.

From then on, customers kept asking and Davies kept providing railroad material. When he went into war factory work in 1944, he sold his entire stock of 30,000 volumes, but kept all the railroad books. That provided the nucleus for the future.

Has Only One Fear

Now, he says, his stock is unique in Chicago and can be matched by only one other bookstore in the United States (in Carson City, Nev.).

Davies does not concern himself much with the reasons why so many people are devoted to railroad lore.

“It’s not complex,” he said. “There are so many simple things.”

Editor’s Note: This makes a “baker’s dozen” of posts this month. We are grateful to have received over 12,000 page views in June, a new record for us. Trolley Dodger Press has made one of the public domain books that Davies reprinted available once again on a DVD data disc that you can read on any computer with Adobe Acrobat Reader installed. It’s paired with another vintage book put out by the old Chicago Tunnel Company, and also includes a tribute to Owen Davies. You will find that in our online store.

Owen Davies, Bookseller Extraordinaire

Owen Davies in 1951.

Owen Davies in 1951.

A typical Owen Davies Bookseller advertisement, from the February 1, 1970 Chicago Tribune.

A typical Owen Davies Bookseller advertisement, from the February 1, 1970 Chicago Tribune.

Ask any Chicago-area railfan “of a certain age” about the late Owen Davies and his bookstore, and you are bound to hear tales of a marvelous cave-like place, packed from floor to ceiling with books and railroadiana of all conceivable types.  Owen Davies himself (real name David Owen Davies) lived from 1910 to 1968, although in one form or another, his shop continued on for another 25 years.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I don’t think my dad ever met a book store that he did not like, and in my childhood years, he took me to all sorts as he rummaged around looking for postcards, old newspapers, books, magazines, and what-not.  It’s very possible I went in the Owen Davies shop at 1214 N. LaSalle, which was located in what some have described as a “ramshackle” old townhouse (however, one now valued at $1.6m).  I am quite certain I visited it after it later moved to Oak Park.

There was a time when the Chicago area was simply littered with used book stores.  Before there was such a thing as the World Wide Web, if you wanted to buy a book, and it was out of print, chances are the only way to find it was to make the rounds of as many shops as you could find, scouring multitudes of shelves, getting your fingers dirty.  If you were lucky enough to find what you were looking for, you had to pay what the shop keeper was asking.  Nowadays, you can find just about any book you want in seconds via the Internet, and can choose between multiple sellers and their various prices.  We have it easy today in that respect.

How did David O. Davies become Owen Davies?  Well, there is an intriguing literary allusion.  In the novel Beatrice by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), first published in 1890, there is a character named Owen Davies, who is described as having one of the best libraries in Wales, and “gave orders to a London bookseller to forward him every new book of importance that appeared in certain classes of literature.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But it’s possible that David Davies decided that Owen Davies was a more appropriate name for a bookseller, and one who would practically corner the market in railroad books.  (Another possibility, of course, is he simply did not like the first name he was given, and adopted his middle name instead, like James Paul McCartney and many other people.)

The Chicago Tribune’s Will Leonard profiled Owen Davies in his Tower Ticker column on August 10, 1951:

Half Minutes With Handy Merchants:  Do you need a Chicago street car transfer good for a ride only on March 9, 1908?  Or an 1892 timetable for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad?  Or an annual pass good for all trains on the long abandoned Nevada County Narrow Gauge?  Or a share of stock in the defunct Waterville & Wiscasset?  Or a copy of Bradshaw’s European railway guide for 1886?  The man to see is Owen Davies, a bookseller who caters almost exclusively to the demented desires of that quaint and colorful character, the rail fan.

Davies’ shop occupies the parlor and dining room of the house at 1214 N. LaSalle st., which back in the ’90s was the home of Henry L. Regensburg, grocer and society figure.  Today the walls are lined with volumes narrating the history of the iron horse, the corporate complications of individual lines, the biographies of the Goulds and Fisks and Vanderbilts and lesser leaders.  For decoration there are ancient travel posters, photos of vanished interurban lines zipping thru rights-of-way long since buried in woods, obsolete maps, handsomely engraved and utterly worthless stock certificates.

Did we say utterly worthless?  This litter is prized by the precisians who comprise Davies’ mailing list.  A transfer issued by a conductor on a Chicago cable car 45 or 50 years ago is worth 10 cents.  The going price for annual passes is about a dollar, the Davies recently sold an 1858 pass good on the Galena & Chicago Union, predecessor of the Chicago & Northwestern, for $5.  Timetables of the ’20s are worth a dollar or more; those of the ’80s and ’90s may range as high as $7.50 or $10.  Next time you clean out the attic, take a second look at anything even remotely suggesting a former association with a railroad.  Davies can find somebody to buy it.

He rides the trains himself, sheds a tear whenever a propane bus nudges another trolley line into oblivion, takes his kids on rail fan trips around belt lines in the Chicago area, and tries to convince them the horseless carriage isn’t really here to stay.  Every month Davies gets out a catalog filled with warm nostalgia over the halcyon era of lines that have known better days, cold statistics about the rolling stock of railways on every continent, and prices no one but a collector of railroadiana would believe.

Once Davies published a volume himself.  It bore the descriptive tho not dashing title: “Interurban Cars Operating in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan During the Year 1906.”  It contained floor plans, side elevations and tables of dimensions of 22 cars whose trolleys used to hum along the Ft. Wayne, Van Wert & Lima, the Scioto Valley, the Dayton, Covington and Piqua, and the Cincinnati, Milford and Loveland.  Rail fans who have yet to shave bought almost as many copies as did Ohioans and Hoosiers who were voting in 1906.

Davies was 41 years old when this profile appeared, but he had been in the book business for many years.  How did he amass such a great collection at such a young age?  It appears he grew up in it.

David Owen Davies was Chicago born and bred, although his parents were immigrants who spoke German.  They divorced, and his mother Gisella (1875-1957) appears to have started the business that eventually became the used book store.  In 1919, there is a record that she ran a stationary store in Chicago, and the 1930 census indicates they were running a bookstore together.  Owen and Dorothy were married in 1931 and she too became active in the business.

Davies was drafted into the military in 1944, and ran a sale to liquidate some of his inventory at that time.  His shop was then located at 346 N. Clark.  Perhaps he set up shop at 1214 N. LaSalle after the war.

Where did he get his stock?  Anywhere and everywhere, I would imagine.  Advertising helped.  Davies ran regular ads in newspapers and magazines looking for this type of material.  I am sure that, over time, his reputation was large, and people came to him when they had things to sell.

In this pre-Internet era, the catalogs Davies sent out monthly extended the range of his work both nationally, and most likely, internationally.  He also published perhaps half a dozen books himself.  Some were reprints of public domain material, and some were original.

As Fred W. Frailey wrote in 1997:

The bookstore was located in a townhouse on North LaSalle Street in Chicago. I first visited it within a week of moving to Chicago in 1966 and came to know Owen and Dorothy Davies well. The selection of new and old books, public and employee timetables and odds and ends was beyond belief. Occasionally I persuaded Owen to take me to ANOTHER townhouse on North Clark Street that housed his overflow stock and I would frantically search for things to buy while Owen patiently waited.

He was a fine, gentle man and there is nobody I knew then I’d rather have given my money to. I last spoke with Owen about 1970 (Editor’s note: 1968), at a meeting of timetable collectors in downtown Chicago. A day later he was dead of a heart attack. Dorothy Davies still ran the store when I moved to Washington DC in 1974. Five or six years ago I called the store at its Oak Park locale and Doug Wornom, an employee of Owen and later of Dorothy, answered and I recall that Doug said he ran the place.

In my long life I’ve never found the equal of that store for the kind of thing I enjoy–timetables, operations information, little odds and ends. It was within walking distance of the newspaper I worked at in Chicago and a week didn’t go by that I didn’t climb those steps, knowing that if I opened enough boxes I would surely find something I simply had to call my own. The closest I’ve ever found to it is a place on lower Broadway in New York City that is open by appointment only, it seems. As soon as I send this note onward I will remember its name. . .

Alan Follett adds:

Owen Davies died of a heart attack while he and his wife Dorothy were driving home from the first annual convention of the National Association of Timetable Collectors, which was held at the Essex Inn at 11th and Michigan.

After Owen’s death, Douglas C. Wornom was brought in as manager, and for some years ran the business, first at the LaSalle Street townhouse, and later from a location in Oak Park.  I’m not clear on whether he ever actually acquired an ownership interest in the bookstore.

After Owen Davies’ death in 1968, his wife continued to run the shop until about 1980, when it was moved to 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park.  The store was bought by author Thomas R. Bullard (1944-93), co-author of CERA Bulletin #137, Faster Than the Limiteds (along with William Shapotkin).  Dorothy Davies died in 1989 at the age of 79.

With Bullard’s untimely passing, the store closed, and its remaining stock, already much smaller than at the Chicago location, was dispersed.  The Owen Davies book store is gone more than 20 years now, but it certainly has not been forgotten.

The legacy of Owen Davies lives on in the hearts and minds of all railfans and all lovers of books and used book stores, everywhere.  We salute him.

-David Sadowski

PS- As an example of the dedication of Davies, his employees, and successors, here is a letter written by longtime Oak Park railfan Charles Stats after Bullard died in 1993.

Here also are some additional reminiscences of Owen Davies and his store on the Classic Trains magazine web site.

In 1967, Owen Davies reprinted a short book called Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations, first published in 1913. In tribute to Owen Davies, we have digitized this, along with a 1928 publication of the Chicago Tunnel Company. Both are available on DVD data disc in our online store.

The townhouse at 1214 N. LaSalle as it looks today.

The townhouse at 1214 N. LaSalle as it looks today.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

1944 advertisement circular.

An Owen Davies flyer for one of his publications, 1963.

An Owen Davies flyer for one of his publications, 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

An Owen Davies catalog circa 1963.

Owen Davies published this reprint in 1967, a year before his untimely death at the age of 58.

Owen Davies published this reprint in 1967, a year before his untimely death at the age of 58.

The Index to the 1913 book Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations.

The Index to the 1913 book Chicago Elevated Railroads Consolidation of Operations.

The building at 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park as it looks today. This was the home of the Owen Davies, Bookseller shop from 1980 to 1993.

The building at 200 W. Harrison in Oak Park as it looks today. This was the home of the Owen Davies, Bookseller shop from 1980 to 1993.