The CTA, the CA&E, and “Political Influence”

CA&E 453 in a winter scene on the old Met “L” main line. Here, we are looking east from Halsted. (Truman Hefner Photo)

Always on the lookout for new sources of information about electric railway history, I recently stumbled on one in an unlikely place- a book about politics.

Political Influence by Edward C. Banfield, originally published in 1961 by the Free Press of Glencoe, “examines the structures and dynamics of influence in determining who actually makes the decisions on vital issues in a large metropolitan area.”  The book takes an in-depth look at how political influence was applied in the Chicagoland area during the 1950s.

In his introduction to the 2003 edition, James Q. Wilson writes:

Banfield wanted to know how concrete issues were really decided, and so he studied six major controversies in Chicago and drew his conclusions about influence from his detailed account of who did what for (or to) whom.

Civic disputes in Chicago, he concluded, did not result from struggles for votes, competing ideologies, or the work of a shadowy power elite; they rose instead from the maintenance and enhancement needs of large organizations.  One organization (say, a hospital) wanted something, another organization (say, a rival hospital) opposed it.  The resulting conflict had to be managed by an outside authority if it were to be settled at all, and in Chicago, politicians did most of the managing.  But that management was hardly dictatorial.  Though Chicago politics was organized around a powerful political machine, the machine did not simply impose its will.  Instead, the mayor let every interest get its say, postponed decisions until some common ground could be found, and then nudged the contestants in the right direction.

Banfield devotes chapter 4 (pages 91-125) to the Chicago Transit Authority and attempts to convince the state legislature to subsidize it circa 1956-57.  According the the author, these efforts were intertwined with trying to save the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban.

The CA&E lost both riders and money due to construction of the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway, starting in 1953.  The project was expected to take five years, and CTA service in the expressway median opened on June 22, 1958.  But by 1956, the railroad’s management wanted out, and the choices were either to sell or abandon service and liquidate.

At the time, the only public agency that could have operated “The Great Third Rail” was the Chicago Transit Authority, itself only about a decade old.  Formed by combining the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines, the CTA had started out with high hopes that an aggressive program of modernization would yield cost savings that would eventually make it possible to lower fares for their so-called “OWNERiders.”

Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way.  The new CTA bus routes in outlying areas lost money, and over its first decade, ridership declined by nearly 50%.  There were various reasons for the decline, including the rise in automobile ownership, fewer people working on Saturdays, the effects of several fare increases, and service reductions.

Unlike the New York transit system, which received a government subsidy of $100m per year during the 1950s, Chicago got none, and had to sink or swim out of the farebox.

CTA fares had increased gradually, but this also brought ridership losses.  The main way CTA saved money was through reductions in personnel, mainly by replacing two-man streetcars with buses.  But the last of the old red cars ran on May 30, 1954, and the governing Chicago Transit Board did not expect to see any additional savings from the elimination of PCC streetcars.

Banfield noted:

The heads of CTA’s operating divisions reported to a general manager, who in turn reported to Gunlock.  Gunlock and the general manager (Walter J. McCarter) together prepared the agenda for board meetings.  Although the board played an active role in the determination of general policy, it was Gunlock and the manager who ran the organization.

CTA Chairman Virgil E. Gunlock realized that government subsidies were needed, or CTA would risk going into an irreversible decline.  His opinions are summarized in Chicago’s Mass Transportation Dilemma, a presentation he gave to the Illinois Road Builders Association at the Palmer House in December 1957.

The CTA rapid transit system had contracted about 25% by the mid-1950s, and wanted to extend service through the medians of the planned Northwest (Kennedy) and South (Dan Ryan) expressways.  Shortly after Mayor Richard J. Daley took office in 1955, he asked Gunlock to prepare a “wish list” of potential new projects, so they could be prioritized, in the hope that new ways could be found to pay for them.

Chicago’s four major daily newspapers were in favor of subsidies, and so were most civic leaders.  But the CTA was not universally liked by the public, especially by those who used it, which tended to undermine prospects for government aid, since opinions were divided.

It was into this mix that CA&E threw in the towel and offered to put the entire railroad up for sale.

Daley and Gunlock hoped to use this to their advantage.  If the CTA could take over CA&E service, it was thought, this could win over crucial suburban support, resulting in government funding that could help transit in both the city and suburbs.

As we now know, things did not work out this way.

Mayor Daley had a good working relationship with Republican Governor William Stratton.  They tried to help each other out politically by supporting each others projects in their respective “spheres of influence.”

However, while Stratton supported state funding to purchase the CA&E (reported price: $6m), and was willing to exempt the CTA from paying certain taxes and fees, he backed off on additional tax revenues for CTA once it became clear that DuPage and Kane County officials did not support it.

So while Daley, Gunlock, Stratton and even County Board President Dan Ryan Jr. were all on friendly terms in their discussions on this issue, and generally agreed on what to do, in the political climate of 1957, nothing could be done.

Banfield cites four main reasons for this failure to act in time to save the “Roarin’ Elgin,” which I will list in brief:

1. The “country towns”– that part of Cook County which lay outside of Chicago proper– opposed being taxed to support a transportation system which did not serve them directly.

2. Organized highway users were another important class of opponents.  They had been trying for years to establish the principle that gasoline tax receipts should never be used for other than highway purposes.

3. The commuters of Kane and DuPage counites, although favoring measures to keep CA&E running, were very much opposed to paying a tax for that purpose.  Politicians from those counties met with Governor Stratton one evening in the Executive Mansion to tell him that their constituents “just won’t sit still for a tax increase of any kind.”  The state, they said, would be responsible for any suspension of passenger service and, therefore, it should provide any subsidy that might be needed.

The Governor expressed surprise.  He had supposed that continuing CA&E service was a matter of great importance to Kane and DuPage counties.  If it were so important, he said, surely the local people would be willing to contribute one cent a gallon toward it.

CTA supporters had hoped that Kane and DuPage counties’ interest in CA&E would lead them to support a plan for the general improvement of CTA.  It was clear now that this was not the case and that, in fact, if it cost them a few dollars, the western suburbs would not support even that part of the plan which would serve only them.

Some observers believed that the Governor had interested himself in CTA only because he wanted to help the CA&E commuters.  If this was so, his interest would probably now cease since it was apparent that the commuters were not really vitally concerned.

4. Many weekly newspapers in the more than eighty communities into which Chicago was divided opposed any kind of subsidy for CTA.

As a result, these legislative efforts failed.  As a result, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin was allowed to “temporarily” suspend passenger service at midday on July 3, 1957, stranding thousands of riders downtown, without a way to get home.

This served the short-term purposes of the railroad, the state, and the county, since it allowed quick removal of the CA&E tracks in the vicinity of the DesPlaines river, which was necessary for construction of a vital link in the Congress expressway connecting the city and suburban sections.

Within a short period of weeks, Cook County gave CA&E a check for $1.2m just for this short section of right-of-way between DesPlaines and First Avenues.  Most probably, this amount was inflated to account for the $700k in losses from 1953 to 1957 that CA&E wanted to be reimbursed for.

Legislative efforts resumed in 1959, and again it seemed that CA&E was close to being saved.  The railroad had been kept largely intact, and freight service continued.  CTA anticipated a takeover, and even went so far as to put in a new track connection at the DesPlaines avenue terminal, where CA&E trains would exchange passengers with Congress “A” trains.  You can see pictures of that unused connection here.

The 1961 CTA Annual Report includes an aerial view of the DesPlaines yard, and the completed track connection to what could have been a restored CA&E service is clearly visible– but never used.  With the final abandonment of the railroad in 1961, all this was scrapped and removed, except for a short stretch of right-of-way that now serves CTA as a “tail track” for storing “L” cars.

All reminders of “what might have been.”

Mr. Banfield sums things up on page 271:

In the Transit Authority case, the Mayor, the Governor and the President of the County Board acted as agents of the affected interests in arranging the compromise; they did not try to impose a solution of their own upon these interests, and when the Governor found out that the compromise was not popular with his suburban supporters, he immediately dropped it.

In other words, even these notables could not muster enough “political influence” to save the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin.  Much of the CA&E right-of-way west of Maywood has been preserved as the Illinois Prairie Path.

Fortunately, the lessons learned from its demise helped pave the way for saving the transit system we have today, which would not be possible without your tax dollars and mine.

-David Sadowski

PS- You will also find a very thorough and informative discussion of how McCormick Place came to be in this book.  I recommend it.

Brand-new "flat door" cars 6003-6004 are shown to good advantage at the North Water Terminal in 1950. (Clark Equipment Co. Photo)

Brand-new “flat door” cars 6003-6004 are shown to good advantage at the North Water Terminal in 1950. (Clark Equipment Co. Photo)

In this view, from the 1961 CTA annual Report, we see the western end of the DesPlaines terminal, and the relocated, never used CA&E tracks behind it.

In this view, from the 1961 CTA annual Report, we see the western end of the DesPlaines terminal, and the relocated, never used CA&E tracks behind it.

Looking west from Halsted, CA&E 458 heads up a four car train of postwar units.

Looking west from Halsted, CA&E 458 heads up a four car train of postwar units.

CA&E 318 at Glen Oak on a fantrip. According to Don's Rail Photos, "318 was built by Jewett Car Co in 1914. It had steel sheating and was modernized in 1944. It was sold to Wisconsin Electric Raiway Historical Society in 1962. It was wrecked in transit and the parts were sold to IRM to restore 321."

CA&E 318 at Glen Oak on a fantrip. According to Don’s Rail Photos, “318 was built by Jewett Car Co in 1914. It had steel sheating and was modernized in 1944. It was sold to Wisconsin Electric Raiway Historical Society in 1962. It was wrecked in transit and the parts were sold to IRM to restore 321.”

141 at Batavia Junction. CA&E purchased this car from the North Shore Line in 1946. According to Don's Rail Photos, "141 was built by American Car Co in March 1910, #844, as Chicago &Milwaukee Electric 141. It was rebuilt in 1914 and retired in 1954.

141 at Batavia Junction. CA&E purchased this car from the North Shore Line in 1946. According to Don’s Rail Photos, “141 was built by American Car Co in March 1910, #844, as Chicago &Milwaukee Electric 141. It was rebuilt in 1914 and retired in 1954.”

CA&E 418 in Batavia on March 15, 1952.

CA&E 418 in Batavia on March 15, 1952.

CA&E 318 near Whaton on a Central Electric Railfans' Association fantrip, October 24, 1940.

CA&E 318 near Whaton on a Central Electric Railfans’ Association fantrip, October 24, 1940.

CA&E 425 at Glen Oak on a September 2, 1940 CERA fantrip.

CA&E 425 at Glen Oak on a September 2, 1940 CERA fantrip.

A pass from an early CERA fantrip.

A pass from an early CERA fantrip.

CA&E 460 in Elgin on May 14, 1953. This car is preserved in operating condition at the Illinois Railway Museum.

CA&E 460 in Elgin on May 14, 1953. This car is preserved in operating condition at the Illinois Railway Museum.

The Westchester Branch – What Remains

The IC underpass, looking south.

The IC underpass, looking south.

Following up on our previous post CTA’s Westchester Branch – What Might Have Been, we decided to scout out the old right-of-way, more than 63 years since the last trains ran, to see what we could find.  Fortunately, there are many traces of the old line that are still visible.

For your consideration, we present some modern-day shots of the same locations where “L” trains once ran, both along the CA&E main line and the Westchester branch.  If you ever decide to go exploring, to see these areas for yourself, we hope our efforts will give you a bit of a “leg up” on the work.

Interestingly, one entire half-block where the Harrison station once was, remained vacant land as late as 2011.  This has now been developed, and we have some “before and after” pictures for comparison.

Since there are so few streets that cross the former Westchester right-of-way south of I290, it would appear that some housing was built adjacent to the line even before abandonment in December 1951. The line still being in use would provide a logical reason for keeping new grade crossings to a minimum.

If the CTA Blue Line is ever extended west to Mannheim Road, it would cross the old Westchester right-of-way very close to this spot.  If a station is built there, that would be even more ironic.  Someday you may be able to take a CTA rapid transit train to much the same location that you could in 1951, but not since.

-David Sadowski

You might think that the CA&E followed a straight path to the DesPlaines terminal, but such was not the case. Heading east from First Avenue, where the Illinois Prairie Path ends now, it actually headed southeast before turning east and crossing the DesPlaines River where I290 does today, then connecting with the terminal from the south.

You might think that the CA&E followed a straight path to the DesPlaines terminal, but such was not the case. Heading east from First Avenue, where the Illinois Prairie Path ends now, it actually headed southeast before turning east and crossing the DesPlaines River where I290 does today, then connecting with the terminal from the south.

Approximately the same view as image 194 in our last post (showing a Westchester car heading west, crossing First Avenue). The old Refiner's Pride gas station has long since been replaced by an oil change shop.

Approximately the same view as image 194 in our last post (showing a Westchester car heading west, crossing First Avenue). The old Refiner’s Pride gas station has long since been replaced by an oil change shop.

Looking southeast from First Avenue. The CA&E tracks headed through this area, before turning east to cross the DesPlaines River. There were also some storage tracks in this area, now occupied by Commonwealth Edison.

Looking southeast from First Avenue. The CA&E tracks headed through this area, before turning east to cross the DesPlaines River. There were also some storage tracks in this area, now occupied by Commonwealth Edison.

Looking east from First Avenue. The CA&E right-of-way veered off here to the right, while the Chicago Great Western freight line went straight ahead. Some years ago, a new bridge was built where the CGW crossed the DesPlaines River, for pedestrian and bike traffic.

Looking east from First Avenue. The CA&E right-of-way veered off here to the right, while the Chicago Great Western freight line went straight ahead. Some years ago, a new bridge was built where the CGW crossed the DesPlaines River, for pedestrian and bike traffic.

The Illinois Prairie Path begins at First Avenue in Maywood. We are looking west.

The Illinois Prairie Path begins at First Avenue in Maywood. We are looking west.

We are looking east from 6th Avenue in Maywood, about the same view as seen in image 181 in our previous post (showing the CA&E 5th Avenue station).

We are looking east from 6th Avenue in Maywood, about the same view as seen in image 181 in our previous post (showing the CA&E 5th Avenue station).

The old CA&E right-of-way looking west from 6th Avenue in Maywood.

The old CA&E right-of-way looking west from 6th Avenue in Maywood.

The old CA&E main line, looking west from Madison and 19th.

The old CA&E main line, looking west from Madison and 19th.

Looking east from 25h near Madison, where a former CA&E station was located.

Looking east from 25h near Madison, where a former CA&E station was located.

Looking west from Madison and 25th. Some of the same high tension lines are visible in image 196 in our previous post.

Looking west from Madison and 25th. Some of the same high tension lines are visible in image 196 in our previous post.

The Illinois Prairie Path, at right, follows the right-of-way of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban.

The Illinois Prairie Path, at right, follows the right-of-way of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban.

Where the CA&E main line once crossed under the Indiana Harbor Belt RR. Since the railroad was scrapped in 1962, some concrete walls have been erected.

Where the CA&E main line once crossed under the Indiana Harbor Belt RR. Since the railroad was scrapped in 1962, some concrete walls have been erected.

The Westchester line branched off from the CA&E main line near the top of the picture, then curved to the south to fololow a path between Marshall and Bellwood Avenues. This was approximately the location of Mark Drive, which is designated as a street for a short stretch, but is mostly an alley. From Jackson it headed south, and there was a station at Harrison just west of Bellwood Avenue.

The Westchester line branched off from the CA&E main line near the top of the picture, then curved to the south to fololow a path between Marshall and Bellwood Avenues. This was approximately the location of Mark Drive, which is designated as a street for a short stretch, but is mostly an alley. From Jackson it headed south, and there was a station at Harrison just west of Bellwood Avenue.

An exception to the rule that you can follow the right-of-way via the telephone poles. These connect with the ones that follow the Westchester line, but the tracks were actually a bit west of this location on Madison Street (as can be seen in some of our other photos that show the actual location).

An exception to the rule that you can follow the right-of-way via the telephone poles. These connect with the ones that follow the Westchester line, but the tracks were actually a bit west of this location on Madison Street (as can be seen in some of our other photos that show the actual location).

This house can also seen in image 199 in our previous post, in a photo showing a Westchester car crossing Madison Street.

This house can also seen in image 199 in our previous post, in a photo showing a Westchester car crossing Madison Street.

The Westchester line crossed Madison at approximately this spot, where the house in the middle of the picture is now located. From here, the track curved off to run to the west of Bellwood Avenue.

The Westchester line crossed Madison at approximately this spot, where the house in the middle of the picture is now located. From here, the track curved off to run to the west of Bellwood Avenue.

Looking southeast at the old Westchester right-of-way, at Monroe between Bellwood and Marshall Avenues.

Looking southeast at the old Westchester right-of-way, at Monroe between Bellwood and Marshall Avenues.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Along Mark Drive in Bellwood.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Part of the old Westchester right of way has been turned into "Park Place," which appears to be a new street.

Part of the old Westchester right of way has been turned into “Park Place,” which appears to be a new street.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Looking north from Van Buren.

Bellwood Estates.

Bellwood Estates.

Bellwood Estates, as seen from the corner of Bellwood Avenue and Harrison, just north of I290. This development was not here in 2011.

Bellwood Estates, as seen from the corner of Bellwood Avenue and Harrison, just north of I290. This development was not here in 2011.

Bellwood Estates.

Bellwood Estates.

Looking south from Van Buren. The new Bellwood Estates development is at left.

Looking south from Van Buren. The new Bellwood Estates development is at left.

Looking north from Van Buren, the approximate right-of-way of the Westchester branch is now called Park Place.

Looking north from Van Buren, the approximate right-of-way of the Westchester branch is now called Park Place.

Looking south at the old Westchester right-of-way from Van Buren in 2011. The tracks followed the alignment of the telephone poles. This area has been built up since then.

Looking south at the old Westchester right-of-way from Van Buren in 2011. The tracks followed the alignment of the telephone poles. This area has been built up since then.

This 2011 view of the then-empty half block at Harrison and Bellwood, looking much as it had 60 years earlier.

This 2011 view of the then-empty half block at Harrison and Bellwood, looking much as it had 60 years earlier.

Undeveloped land near the old Harrison station, as it appeared in 2011 prior to the construction of Bellwood Estates.

Undeveloped land near the old Harrison station, as it appeared in 2011 prior to the construction of Bellwood Estates.

Bellwood and Harrison in 2011, before the construction of Bellwood Estates.

Bellwood and Harrison in 2011, before the construction of Bellwood Estates.

After crossing where I290 is today, the Westchester branch headed south and ran alongside the eastern edge of what is now Gladstone Park. The line went under the Illinois Central tracks and there was a station at Roosevelt Road, along with a couple of storage tracks.

After crossing where I290 is today, the Westchester branch headed south and ran alongside the eastern edge of what is now Gladstone Park. The line went under the Illinois Central tracks and there was a station at Roosevelt Road, along with a couple of storage tracks.

The right-of-way looking north from Kitchner Street in Westchester, just south of I290.

The right-of-way looking north from Kitchner Street in Westchester, just south of I290.

Grace Central Church on Kitchner Street in Westchester, some of the construction that has built up in the area since 1951.

Grace Central Church on Kitchner Street in Westchester, some of the construction that has built up in the area since 1951.

Looking south from Kitchner Street.

Looking south from Kitchner Street.

Looking south from Kitchner Street.

Looking south from Kitchner Street.

In places, it is only possible to follow the path of the old right-of-way via telephone poles.

In places, it is only possible to follow the path of the old right-of-way via telephone poles.

Looking south from Kitchner Street in Westchester.

Looking south from Kitchner Street in Westchester.

Looking north from the IC underpass.

Looking north from the IC underpass.

A dirt road passes under the partly filled-in Illinois Central underpass. We are looking south.

A dirt road passes under the partly filled-in Illinois Central underpass. We are looking south.

The Illinois Central underpass, as viewed from the south.

The Illinois Central underpass, as viewed from the south.

The partially filled-in underpass that once took Westchester trains under the Illinois Central.

The partially filled-in underpass that once took Westchester trains under the Illinois Central.

Here, the line continued to run south between Balmoral Avenue and Westchester Boulevard.

Here, the line continued to run south between Balmoral Avenue and Westchester Boulevard.

Finally, heading south past the station at Canterbury, the line curved to the southwest, following the general alignment of Balmoral Avenue until ending just short of Mannheim and 22nd. Insull planned for eventual extension west from this point to what we now call Oakbrook.

Finally, heading south past the station at Canterbury, the line curved to the southwest, following the general alignment of Balmoral Avenue until ending just short of Mannheim and 22nd. Insull planned for eventual extension west from this point to what we now call Oakbrook.

The #317 Pace bus stops at the exact location of the former Westchester rapid transit station at Canterbury.

The #317 Pace bus stops at the exact location of the former Westchester rapid transit station at Canterbury.

Looking north from Canterbury.

Looking north from Canterbury.

The right-of-way looking south from Canterbury.

The right-of-way looking south from Canterbury.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Near Mannheim and 22nd Street.

The Westchester right-of-way near Mannheim and 22nd Street, looking north.

The Westchester right-of-way near Mannheim and 22nd Street, looking north.

A bank now occupies the end of the Westchester line at Mannheim and 22nd Street.

A bank now occupies the end of the Westchester line at Mannheim and 22nd Street.

Bill Shapotkin writes:
It is interesting to see that the idea of looking at the r-o-w (such as the Westchester ‘L’) is not just my own personnel domain anymore. We can still learn a lot about the past by reviewing the remains of the present. (I especially like the before/after photos of the same house on Madison St in Bellwood (shown below).)

Kudos to you, Dave.
A few thoughts concerning the Westchester ‘L’ as it relates to the present-day: Some time ago, a fellow wrote (in a thread to this group) how the Westchester ‘L’ is missed (by the present-day residents) today. Not so — but just how are the residents of the area served today?
PACE #317 (successor to CTA #17) http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/317sched.pdf operates hourly (thirty minute rush) betw Des Plaines Ave and Balmoral/Canterbury. Service does NOT begin until later in the morning and does NOT run late into the evening. That said, on Weekdays/Saturday, PACE #303/310 http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/303sched.pdf and http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/310sched.pdf provide twenty-minute service as far west of 19th Ave — AND there are those two late-night trips (what would otherwise be pull-in trips) that cover the route west along Madison St.
It appears that whatever REAL traffic potential along the route of the ‘L’ is along Madison St — NOT in Bellwood or Westchester.
That said, PACE #301 http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/301sched.pdf  now provides frequent (thirty minute or better) along Roosevelt Rd on Weekdays/Saturday and forty-five minute service on Sunday. Of course, this also provides service along a route one mile south of Madison St and provides better west-end destinations (Hillside Mall (at least what is left of it), Oakbrook and (on weekdays), points along Roosevelt as far west as Wheaton. Wow! I can recall when this was a weekday-only route (on a sixty-minute headway) betw Des Plaines Ave and Hillside — and did not operate after 7:00 PM.
Further south, PACE #322 http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/322sched.pdf operates on a thirty-minute headway (Weekdays and Saturday) and hourly on Sunday (Sunday being the only real hours-restrictive  portion of the operation. Like the #301, there are good west-end destinations (Oakbrook and Yorktown).
Sadly, the north-south service of PACE #330 http://www.pacebus.com/pdf/schedules/330sched.pdf has not lived up to (what I believe is) its full potential. If the route served the Midway ‘L’ (instead of Archer/Neva) on its south end and actually served Metra’s MILWW line on a full-time basis (i.e.: served the Franklin Park (instead of the Mannheim) station), it would have a lot more of a following — and the corresponding service levels that the other routes now serving the area now have.
I believe many of us (and I include myself to a certain degree) have rose-colored glasses on when we look at some of the long-gone rail transit services. It appears to me that the present-day routes actually serve the are better — providing service to where people actually live and/or where they want to travel, which sadly the ‘L’ would not be able to do.
Slowly but surely (heavy on the slowly, light on the surely), I am documenting the Westchester ‘L’ and its present-day bus replacement services. Good Lord willing, this documentation will be completed later this year. When completed, the program will be offered to any interested group (such as CERA or OSA) for public viewing.

 

CTA’s Westchester Branch – What Might Have Been

The "Westchester-Maywood" route, from a 1948 CTA map.

The “Westchester-Maywood” route, from a 1948 CTA map.

This 1943 map shows where the Westchester branch ran.

This 1943 map shows where the Westchester branch ran.

Today’s photo essay features pictures of the former Chicago Rapid Transit/Chicago Transit Authority Westchester branch, which ran from 1926 to 1951. You can find an excellent track map here.  (You can also read our follow-up post, showing what traces of the old line are still visible here.)

It’s always interesting to speculate on what “might have been,” especially in the case of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin, whose trains ran from 1902 to 1957 in Chicago’s western suburbs. What could have been saved? What should have been saved?  And, what can we learn today?

As you may know, ultimately nothing was saved, except the portion between DesPlaines Avenue and Laramie, which was taken over by the CTA in the early 1950s. That operates today as the outer portion of the Chicago Transit Authority‘s Forest Park branch of the Blue Line.

Speculation usually centers on whether the entire railroad could have been saved, bought by the State of Illinois, or at least, the portion to Wheaton. But in general, this section, the most viable part of the interurban, ran parallel to the Chicago & North Western‘s West Line, which continues to operate today under the aegis of Metra.

The State of Illinois made an offer to buy CA&E in 1956, and then backed out of the deal for various reasons. The only public entity that could have operated any portion of the railroad would have been the CTA, and yet their operating area was limited to most of Cook County.

Still, the CTA did some engineering studies.* In the short run, the idea was to put third rail shoes on some of the remaining PCC streetcars, and run a shuttle service between Forest Park and Wheaton. Just as with the CA&E operations between 1953-57, this would not have been a “one-seat ride” to the Loop.  (Some say these studies were made to demonstrate the impracticality of CTA actually doing it.)

In the long run, CTA would have ordered more new rapid transit cars, high speed versions of the single car units 1-50 that were built in 1960. These type of cars would also have been used if the CTA had been able to take over larger portions of the North Shore Line than the five miles that became the Skokie Swift (today’s Yellow Line) in 1964.

In retrospect, the opening of the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway would have depressed ridership, so there is no way of knowing if such a CTA shuttle service would have been successful. But there was no way to pay for it, in the political context of the time, and therefore these plans were unrealized. But, if it had happened, most likely such a service would today be a treasured part of Chicagoland’s transit infrastructure.

But if we go back a little further in time, incredibly, there was rapid transit service operated by the CTA that ran to Mannheim and 22nd Street as late as 1951. This was the 5.6 mile long Westchester branch, a victim of budget cuts and expressway construction.

The Westchester branch was part of an ambitious mid-1920s Insull plan to create a high-speed CA&E bypass, similar to the North Shore Line’s Skokie Valley Route. However, there was less of a need for it, and by the time the Depression hit and Samuel Insull‘s empire collapsed, only 2.2 miles of it had been built off the CA&E main line, and local service was being provided by the Chicago Rapid Transit Company.

The Depression also put a stop to the pace of housing development in Bellwood and Westchester, as it had in Niles Center, where the CRT ran local service in a similar fashion. The “build it, and they will come” strategy was not unusual at the time, and had been successfully followed some years earlier when rapid transit service was extended to the Ravenswood neighborhood.

With the CRT in receivership, things remained “status quo” until the creation of the Chicago Transit Authority, which took over operations on October 1, 1947. In these heady early days, it was thought that modernization would reaped quick benefits, and there were efforts by the CTA to improve service to outlying areas, with the creation of extension bus lines and express buses.

Within a few years, however, there was nothing but red ink, and without taxing authority, the cash-strapped CTA had no choice but to cut unprofitable services wherever possible. The lightly-used Westchester branch was an obvious target for elimination, since CTA was a tenant, paying rent to the CA&E, who owned the tracks.

From CTA’s point of view, they saved money by eliminating rapid transit service west of DesPlaines Avenue, and tried to retain whatever ridership was there with replacement bus service, creating the #17 route, which continued to run for decades (and has now been completely replaced by parallel Pace suburban bus service, the #317).

Expressway construction was also a factor. The CA&E and CTA shared each other’s tracks, and compensated each other in turn. By the early 1950’s, these payments totaled about $250,000 per year and largely cancelled each other out. But a 2.5 mile section of the CTA’s Garfield Park/Met “L” would need to be relocated for five years, since it ran smack dab in the middle of where the Congress expressway would be built.

After nearly 50 years of joint operation on Chicago’s west side, coordinating the plethora of daily CTA and CA&E trains was difficult at best, and required near split-second timing. Schedules were complicated and there were various passing sidings, where expresses would be routed ahead of locals.

The CTA (and the City of Chicago’s) original idea for relocating Garfield service was for a wooden “L” structure along Van Buren Street. Presumably this grade separated service would have been fine with the CA&E, but the local alderman objected, and rather than face a lawsuit, which would have delayed the project, the City Council turned to Plan B– grade level rapid transit service, bisected by several cross streets.

This was originally promoted as a “street railway” service, which may be how they justified not using crossing gates. At first, it was thought that overhead wire could be used, but the Met cars did not have trolley poles, and this would have involved shifting around a lot of equipment. So, ultimately, the Van Buren Street temporary trackage used third rail without any more crossing protection than stop lights.

In 1951, CA&E management decided that this plan was unworkable for them, and would cause too many problems for efficient and safe operation. In a letter to their shareholders, CA&E proposed elimination of rail service on the interurban (presumably, freight service would continue), to be replaced by buses that would take riders from the western suburbs to the CTA Lake Street and Douglas Park “L”s.

CTA, for their part, anticipating that CA&E would soon become a bus operator only, began planning for a bus-to-rail transfer point between CA&E and CTA. At first, it was thought this would take place at Central Avenue, a point just west of where CTA’s own rails ended. But by 1953, this transfer point was moved west to DesPlaines Avenue in Forest Park.

Meanwhile, existing bus operators in the western suburbs had successfully blocked CA&E’s plans to substitute bus service for rail. Therefore, they had no real alternative to cutting back rail service to DesPlaines Avenue. This is how service was operated from September 1953 to July 1957. By then, CA&E ridership had been decimated, adn the railroad successfully petitioned to “temporarily” abandon rail service.

The abandonment actually helped facilitate expressway construction near the DesPlaines River, since no temporary service would need to be built. The railroad, in a sense, was still “made whole,” since by 1959 new rails were put in place for a connection to the CTA DesPlaines terminal. These are plainly visible in an aerial view in the 1961 CTA Annual Report, but they were never used, and the CA&E did not resume regular passenger service, and was liquidated in 1961. Attempts to save the interurban were too little, too late, and the suburbs that would have benefited from continuing service refused to contribute with tax revenue.

Between 1948 and 1957, the CTA eliminated about 25% of the rapid transit system it had inherited from CRT. This was mainly by slashing lightly-used branch lines (Stockyards, Kenwood, Humboldt Park, Normal Park, Niles Center, and Westchester). At one point, the CTA even proposed turning over the Evanston branch to the North Shore Line, but this did not happen.

By 1964, it seems the CTA had changed its mind about branch lines, for in April of that year, the phenomenally successful Skokie Swift service began running between Dempster and Howard, over five miles of former CNS&M right-of-way. By this time, some federal funding was available through a pilot program. CTA had to buy half of the Swift trackage anyway, just to access Skokie Shops.

Here, the CTA used fast, frequent service and a large park-and-ride lot to attract riders. And although it scarcely seems possible that the Westchester branch could have been saved in 1951, it would really fill a need today.

Imagine a west side corollary to the Skokie Swift.

By the early 50s, Bellwood and Westchester were prime areas for the postwar housing boom. This is especially true since these areas would soon have access to an important new highway. Growth in Westchester was being held back, however, since the same developer that had owned much of the property since the 1920s wanted to build all the housing themselves, thereby limiting construction somewhat.

After the CTA abandoned the Westchester branch, the CA&E liquidated the property, and the proceeds were distributed to the shareholders, instead of being reinvested in the money-losing railroad. This was the first of CA&E’s large-scale liquidations, where various portions of the railroad were sold to benefit the stockholders.

Getting back to what “might have been,” imagine how well the CTA would be doing today, if it had built a large park-and-ride lot at Mannheim and 22nd Street in the 1950s and kept the Westchester branch. As the area boomed in the mid-1950s, this service would have had tremendous potential.

And while this did not come to pass, the need persists, and something like a replacement for the Westchester branch may still be in CTA’s future. The Illinois Department of Transportation is working on plans for expanding and improving I-290 in the western suburbs, as the Chicago Tribune reported on February 27, 2013:

State transportation officials presented a narrowed list of four proposals that they say will improve travel on the Eisenhower Expressway, all of which include adding a lane to the highway and also extending the CTA Blue Line.

The four proposals, all of which include widening the highway between Austin Boulevard and Mannheim Road, extending the Blue Line to Mannheim and express bus service extending westward from Mannheim, were presented to a community task force. They will be further evaluated by state transportation officials as they study ways to make Interstate Highway 290 more efficient, said a manager of the project, Peter Harmet, bureau chief of programming for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

So, what “might have been,” may still be yet. We shall see.

-David Sadowski

PS- Christopher J. Lemm writes:

After reading your January 2015 story on the CTA Westchester Branch, the picture of the train crossing Madison street in Bellwood brought back some great memories. I grew up in that house, my grandfather was Clarence Lemm, track foreman for the Aurora and Elgin Railroad, he died in 1936. My father followed in grandpa’s footsteps, he worked at CTA 43 years, he started as a clerk and retired as the head of insurance and pensions. When my brother and I were very young my dad would take us for rides on the Aurora and Elgin, he used grandpa’s Sunset Lines employee pin and we all road free of charge. Thank you for some great memories!

According to transit historian Art Peterson:

CTA prepared studies for operation of both the CA&E (from Wheaton to Desplaines Av.) and for the North Shore from the Loop to Waukegan.  The CA&E study was based on use of the pre-War PCCs; for the North Shore it would have been higher-performance rapid transit PCC cars and an A/B service pattern up the Skokie Valley.  Both went no place, for lack of suitable funding sources.  CTA was prepared to accommodate CA&E in the Congress-Dearborn-Milwaukee subway (the west side connection to that opened on June 22, 1958, by which time CA&E was freight only.)

Some knowledgeable sources reported that CTA retained a section of the Humboldt Park Branch after the “L” shuttle service quit running in the E50s, to use as a CA&E turnback/layup facility.  Humboldt Park was the “L” line that ran parallel and to the north of North Avenue, joining the Milwaukee Avenue “L” line at the North/Damen station.

I believe we are looking east near Central Avenue, where the line curved around the south end of Columbus Park. This is approximately where the CTA Blue Line goes through the Lotus Tunnel. A small portion of Columbus Park soon gave way to the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway.

I believe we are looking east near Central Avenue, where the line curved around the south end of Columbus Park. This is approximately where the CTA Blue Line goes through the Lotus Tunnel. A small portion of Columbus Park soon gave way to the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway.

An eastbound single car near Central Avenue, at the south end of Columbus Park, now the site of the Eisenhower expressway.

An eastbound single car near Central Avenue, at the south end of Columbus Park, now the site of the Eisenhower expressway.

The passing tracks in this photo are a clue that we are near the Gunderson Avenue station in Oak Park. The Forest Park gas tank is at rear, so we are looking west.

The passing tracks in this photo are a clue that we are near the Gunderson Avenue station in Oak Park. The Forest Park gas tank is at rear, so we are looking west.

Looking west where the rapid transit crossed the B&OCT. Behind the car, the freight line branched off in two directions, to the CGW and Soo Line.

Looking west where the rapid transit crossed the B&OCT. Behind the car, the freight line branched off in two directions, to the CGW and Soo Line.

A pair of Met cars crosses the B&OCT heading east. This has since been grade separated. The gas tank in the background was a Forest Park landmark for many years.

A pair of Met cars crosses the B&OCT heading east. This has since been grade separated. The gas tank in the background was a Forest Park landmark for many years.

Here the the same crossing, but now we are looking east. This is now where I-290 runs through.

Here the the same crossing, but now we are looking east. This is now where I-290 runs through.

CTA 6051-6052 at the DesPlaines Avenue terminal in the 1950s. The Acme Feeds (7715 W. Van Buren) towers at are at the background. Among other things, they sold a product called Acme Worm Bouncer. After being abandoned for many years, the towers caught fire in 1980 and were demolished.

CTA 6051-6052 at the DesPlaines Avenue terminal in the 1950s. The Acme Feeds (7715 W. Van Buren) towers at are at the background. Among other things, they sold a product called Acme Worm Bouncer. After being abandoned for many years, the towers caught fire in 1980 and were demolished.

This is one of my favorite shots. An eastbound single car passes cemeteries in Forest Park, having just crossed over the DesPlaines River. This is the approximate location of the Eisenhower expressway today. The train is curving towards the DesPlaines Avenue station. The iconic gas tank was removed many years ago.

This is one of my favorite shots. An eastbound single car passes cemeteries in Forest Park, having just crossed over the DesPlaines River. This is the approximate location of the Eisenhower expressway today. The train is curving towards the DesPlaines Avenue station. The iconic gas tank was removed many years ago.

An eastbound Westchester car passes by Concordia Cemetery at right, having just crossed the DesPlaines River. This is where the Eisenhower expressway runs today.

An eastbound Westchester car passes by Concordia Cemetery at right, having just crossed the DesPlaines River. This is where the Eisenhower expressway runs today.

This picture presents somewhat of a mystery. Car 2311, signed for Westchester, is identified as being in Maywood on July 21, 1934, with a 4000-series car behind it. There were some storage tracks east of First Avenue, but I am not sure whether CRT used these. Or perhaps these cars are near DesPlaines Avenue.

This picture presents somewhat of a mystery. Car 2311, signed for Westchester, is identified as being in Maywood on July 21, 1934, with a 4000-series car behind it. There were some storage tracks east of First Avenue, but I am not sure whether CRT used these. Or perhaps these cars are near DesPlaines Avenue.

Here, we are just east of First Avenue, with an eastbound train approaching. You can just make out the sign on the Refiner's Pride gas station behind the car. We are looking northwest. Commonwealth Edison occupies this site today.

Here, we are just east of First Avenue, with an eastbound train approaching. You can just make out the sign on the Refiner’s Pride gas station behind the car. We are looking northwest. Commonwealth Edison occupies this site today.

A westbound Westchester car crosses First Avenue in Maywood. East of here (right), the line ran at an angle before crossing the DesPlaines River. This is where the Illinois Prairie Path starts today. The "Refiner's Pride" gas station at left was part of a chain run by "Montana Charlie" Reid, who also owned a restaurant in Villa Park. An oil change business now occupies the site of the former gas station. Reid also owned Montana Charlie's Flea Market in Bolingbrook, along historic Route 66, which is still in operation.

A westbound Westchester car crosses First Avenue in Maywood. East of here (right), the line ran at an angle before crossing the DesPlaines River. This is where the Illinois Prairie Path starts today. The “Refiner’s Pride” gas station at left was part of a chain run by “Montana Charlie” Reid, who also owned a restaurant in Villa Park.  An oil change business now occupies the site of the former gas station. Reid also owned Montana Charlie’s Flea Market in Bolingbrook, along historic Route 66, which is still in operation.

On December 7, 1958, CA&E wood cars 319 and 320 operated the last passenger train on that venerable railroad as a charter. Here, we are at Fifth Avenue station looking east. After the CTA abandoned the Westchester branch, this station was repainted in CA&E colors, and the interurban took over all service here from 1951-57.

On December 7, 1958, CA&E wood cars 319 and 320 operated the last passenger train on that venerable railroad as a charter. Here, we are at Fifth Avenue station looking east. After the CTA abandoned the Westchester branch, this station was repainted in CA&E colors, and the interurban took over all service here from 1951-57.

While I'm not sure of the exact location, we are looking to the northwest along that portion of the CA&E main line, where it ran parallel to the CGW through Bellwood and Maywood.

While I’m not sure of the exact location, we are looking to the northwest along that portion of the CA&E main line, where it ran parallel to the CGW through Bellwood and Maywood.

We are looking west, with the IHB crossing in the background. 25th Avenue would be behind us, and Madison Street is to our left. Here, the CA&E ran parallel to the CGW. The Illinois Prairie Path runs here now.

We are looking west, with the IHB crossing in the background. 25th Avenue would be behind us, and Madison Street is to our left. Here, the CA&E ran parallel to the CGW. The Illinois Prairie Path runs here now.

A westbound Westchester car passing under the Indiana Harbor Belt. The two lines were grade separated in 1930-31. This is now the site of the Illinois Prairie Path.

A westbound Westchester car passing under the Indiana Harbor Belt. The two lines were grade separated in 1930-31. This is now the site of the Illinois Prairie Path.

A southbound Westchester train crosses Madison Street in Bellwood, where Marshall Avenue begins today. The house at right is still standing. The Bellwood station was just north of here, near where the line merged back into the CA&E main line. We are just west of Bellwood Avenue.

A southbound Westchester train crosses Madison Street in Bellwood, where Marshall Avenue begins today. The house at right is still standing. The Bellwood station was just north of here, near where the line merged back into the CA&E main line. We are just west of Bellwood Avenue.

A northbound train at Harrison Street, with new postwar housing in the background. In the foreground, sidewalks that were already about 20 years old go past an empty lot.

A northbound train at Harrison Street, with new postwar housing in the background. In the foreground, sidewalks that were already about 20 years old go past an empty lot.

Westchester car 2814 heading south at Harrison. A small child in blue jeans waits for the train to pass.

Westchester car 2814 heading south at Harrison. A small child in blue jeans waits for the train to pass.

A southbound single car passes storage tracks just north of Roosevelt Road, which was the original terminal before the line was extended in 1930.

A southbound single car passes storage tracks just north of Roosevelt Road, which was the original terminal before the line was extended in 1930.

A single Westchester car passes under the Illinois Central near the Roosevelt Road station.

A single Westchester car passes under the Illinois Central near the Roosevelt Road station.

A two car train passes under the Illinois Central near the Roosevelt Road station.

A two car train passes under the Illinois Central near the Roosevelt Road station.

Here we see the south end of the Roosevelt Road station.

Here we see the south end of the Roosevelt Road station.

A single car at the Roosevelt Road station.

A single car at the Roosevelt Road station.

Here, we are just south of Roosevelt Road, at the beginning of double track.

Here, we are just south of Roosevelt Road, at the beginning of double track.

We are just south of the Roosevelt Road station looking north. From here to Mannheim and 22nd, it was single track.

We are just south of the Roosevelt Road station looking north. From here to Mannheim and 22nd, it was single track.

The Chicago & West Towns Railways also had some private right-of-way in the western suburbs. Car 160 is shown near LaGrange in December 1945.

The Chicago & West Towns Railways also had some private right-of-way in the western suburbs. Car 160 is shown near LaGrange in December 1945.

PS- You can read more about Acme Worm Bouncer here.  You can also see some additional pictures of the Westchester branch here.