Photos are a wonderful aid to memory. As always, if you can help identify locations, or have interesting facts or reminiscences to add, don’t hesitate to drop us a line. You can leave comments on this post, or write us directly at:
FYI there will be additional Surface Lines photos coming up in the near future, so watch this space.
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American Streetcar R.P.O.s: 1893-1929
Mainline Railway Post Offices were in use in the United States from 1862 to 1978 (with the final year being operated by boat instead of on rails), but for a much briefer era, cable cars and streetcars were also used for mail handling in the following 15 cities*:
New Bedford, Massachusetts
New York City
Rochester, New York
*As noted by some of our readers, this list does not include interurban RPOs.
Our latest E-book American Streetcar R.P.O.s collects 12 books on this subject (over 1000 pages in all) onto a DVD data disc that can be read on any computer using Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is free software. All have been out of print for decades and are hard to find. In addition, there is an introductory essay by David Sadowski.
The rolling stock, routes, operations, and cancellation markings of the various American street railway post office systems are covered in detail. The era of the streetcar R.P.O. was relatively brief, covering 1893 to 1929, but it represented an improvement in mail handling over what came before, and it moved a lot of mail. In many places, it was possible to deposit a letter into a mail slot on a streetcar or cable car and have it delivered across town within a short number of hours.
These operations present a very interesting history, but are not well-known to railfans. We feel they deserve greater scrutiny, and therefore we are donating $1 from each sale of this item to the Mobile Post Office Society, in support of their efforts.
# of Discs – 1 Price: $19.95
CTA 3381, now in CTA green, near the south end of route 4 – Cottage Grove, circa 1952. We can tell that this car has been converted to one man because of the sign that says, “Enter at Front.” (Earl Clark Photo)
CTA 3182 and 660 at Cottage Grove and 115th circa 1951. (Earl Clark Photo)
In this 1945 view, CSL 6191 has just turned from Pine onto Lake, heading east on route 16. Looks like the trolley has come off the wire. (Stephen D, Maguire Photo)
Westbound CTA 1758 is turning from Lake onto Pine in this March 1953 view. This is where Lake switched over to the other side of the Chicago & North Western embankment. The streetcar would continue on to Austin Boulevard, the city limits. That looks like a 1952 Kaiser at left.
The Pine Avenue viaduct today, looking north.
The Pine Avenue viaduct looking south. I assume the tracks have not really shifted location, and this is an optical illusion based on the fact that the Google Street View camera was in motion when it took this picture. In other words, it was the camera that shifted its position, not the tracks.
CTA 3153 and 1772 at Lake and Austin, the west end of route 16, on May 15, 1954, same day as the famous “Farewell to Red Cars” fantrip run by Central Electric Railfans’ Association.
CTA 818 by the Park Theatre at Lake and Austin on August 13, 1948. I don’t believe the movie theatre stayed open much later than this. (John F. Bromley Collection)
This old photo was identified as Chicago, but we’d like to know what our readers think.
Chicago Surface Lines work cars P8, P251, P9 and S55 on the scrap line at South Shops, May 12, 1943.
CSL supply car S201. (Earl Clark Photo)
CTA 144 at, I believe, the east end of the 63rd Street line on 64th just west of Stony Island. The Charles J. Klees Golf Shop opened in 1910 across the street from the Jackson Park Golf Course and is still in business today at 10436 S. Western Avenue. Car 144 is preserved in operating condition at the Illinois Railway Museum. (Roy W. Bruce Photo)
West Chicago Street Railway sprinklers.
CSL 5660 on through route 9 – Ashland in 1941. Paraphrasing Don’s Rail Photos, 5660 was built by Kuhlman Car Co in June 1907 (order) #350 for the Chicago & Southern Traction Company. It was purchased and rebuilt as Chicago City Ry 5660 in 1912 and became CSL 5660 in 1914. (Stephen D. Maguire Photo)
CSL 2753 in 1946. (Stephen D. Maguire Photo)
CSL 2776 at Wabash and Wacker in the 1940s. (George Snyder Photo)
CTA 3333 on route 5 in the summer of 1949. (R. O. Johnstone Photo)
CTA Sedan (aka “Peter Witt”) 6310 appears to have been converted to one-man in this view circa 1952 view at South Shops. However, it may not have been used in service this way before being scrapped. (Roy W. Bruce Photo)
CTA 114 heading east on 63rd street, just about to go under the Jackson Park branch of the “L”. M. E. adds, “At the right side of the picture in the foreground are two vertical posts that supported the structure that went south across 63rd St. to the lower 63rd St. yard. Therefore this picture was taken just about underneath that structure.” (Roy W. Bruce Photo)
314 E. 63rd Street today. In the previous photo, the photographer appears to have been standing under the ramp going down to the CTA’s 63rd Street Lower Yard. The ramp has been rebuilt since the earlier picture was taken. The broken lines in the ramp are due to the movement of the camera while this Google Street View picture was being taken.
CSL 2530 in Hegewisch on March 16, 1943. Note the South Shore Line station at rear. (Gordon Lloyd Photo)
Don’s Rail Photos says CSL 2595 was “built by St Louis Car Co in 1901.” The 2501-2625 cars are known as Robertson rebuilds. 2595 is shown on the Riverdale line on November 11, 1939.
C&WT 138 at Cermak and Kenton in the 1940s. Here riders could transfer to the Chicago Surface Lines route 21 streetcar at right. (Joe L. Diaz Photo)
C&WT 155 on private right-of-way west of the Brookfield Zoo on April 11, 1948, on the CERA “day after abandonment” fantrip. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT at 52nd and 36th on February 28, 1938. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT 119 on August 19, 1947. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT 138 at the Brookfield Zoo on July 22, 1938, on the busy LaGrange line. The zoo first opened in 1934. Within a year or two, all West Towns streetcars would be repainted blue. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT 15 on DesPlaines Avenue on April 11, 1948. The occasion was a Central Electric Railfans’ Association fantrip, held the day after West Towns streetcar service came to an end. Note one of the distinctive C&WT shelters at rear. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT line car 15 at Harlem and Cermak on August 19, 1947. (John F. Bromley Collection)
C&WT snow sweeper 9. According to Don’s Rail Photos, “9 was built by McGuire-Cummings in 1928. It was sold to Sand Springs (Oklahoma) Railway in 1948.”
C&WT 126, with bus substitution notice, on April 4, 1948. (Photo by Mathews)
C&WT 155 during winter. Bill Shapotkin says, “I believe this photo is Hillgrove/LaGrange — the short-lived terminal located east of LaGrange Rd after (sewer work(?)) cut the line back from Brainard Ave. View looks east.”
Although not commonly thought of as an interurban, a 1943 Rand McNally Street Guide of Chicago identified it as such:
Perhaps this is because it ran between several different suburbs. But the C&WT also had some extensive sections of private right-of-way, especially along its busiest line, which ran between Cicero and LaGrange and, from 1934 to 1948, provided direct service to the Brookfield Zoo.
The word “interurban” has largely fallen out of favor today, but it was thrown around rather loosely in the 1940s and 50s. When the Chicago Transit Authority cut back the Douglas Park line from Oak Park Avenue to 54th Avenue in 1952, the replacement service was referred to as an “interurban bus,” presumably meaning that it was not going to be allowed to make local stops.
The Chicago Transit Authority took a serious look at buying the West Towns in the late 1940s but ultimately decided against it, after determining it was not worth the necessary investment. The West Towns charged some of the highest streetcar fares in the entire country and seemed to be a financial basket case for much of its history.
Yet somehow it managed to hang on and remained independent and privately owned until the late 1980s, far longer than most of its contemporaries. The service filled a real need and still does today.
The CTA did manage to stick its toe into suburban bus waters after abandoning the Westchester branch of the “L” in December 1951. But even then, the route 17 “interurban” bus relied on the facilities of the West Towns to operate. So to some extent the CTA was actually paying the C&WT for the privilege of competing against it.
CTA service continued on route 17 for 60 years, by which time PACE had a competing route 317 of its own. CTA finally gave up on it as of December 16, 2012.
Anyone who rode a Chicago Surface Lines streetcar back in the day had to change to the West Towns at the the city limits, if they wanted to continue into the western suburbs. There were several places where this happened, and a few (Cermak and Kenton, Lake and Austin) are shown in our photographs.
About 10 years ago, the Central Electric Railfans’ Association published The Chicago & West Towns Railways by James J. Buckley, and edited by Richard W. Aaron, as Bulletin 138. This is by far the best and most comprehensive book on the C&WT. You can purchase this directly from CERA.*
There was an earlier, and much slimmer volume on C&WT written by Robert W. Gibson, Bulletin 3 of the Electric Railway Historical Society. This has been out of print for many years, but is now available in digital form as part of the Complete ERHS Collection, again available from CERA.*
Antone who is interested in delving into the history of this fascinating street railway would do well to check these out.
The closest thing you can experience today to the thrill of riding a West Towns streetcar would be to take a trip out to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, where you can ride car 141, the sole survivor of the fleet, which has been beautifully restored back to operating condition.
Finally, two of our photos show the old Park Theatre, located at 5962 W. Lake Street in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Cinema Treasures has a page devoted to this theatre, and just about every other in the country, whether currently in operation, closed, or demolished.
PS- We thank our readers for helping us establish a new record during July, with 13,271 page views.
Rockhill Trolley Museum, Three Generation Celebration
Saturday, August 22, 2015 – New Start Time 10:00am to 4:30pm
Help us welcome the return of trolleys from three different generations.
Come witness the dedication of Johnstown Traction Company 311, fresh from its restoration, Philadelphia PCC car 2743 car, body restoration and new paint work, and San Diego LRV car 1019, in its official welcoming to Pennsylvania – the first LRV preserved and operated at a museum in the Eastern United States.
For more information e-mail Bill Monaghan, RTY-1267@Comcast.net
*Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with Central Electric Railfans’ Association.
The Chicago & West Towns also had some private right-of-way in the western suburbs. Car 160 is shown near LaGrange in December 1945.
According to Don’s Rail Photos, C&WT sweeper 9 was “9 was built by McGuire-Cummings in 1928. It was sold to Sand Springs Ry in 1948.” This picture may have been taken at the Harlem and Cermak car barn.
Chicago & West Towns 102 is shown at Cermak and Kenton in October 1935, with a Chicago Surface Lines route 21 car at rear. Within a few years, C&WT streetcars were repainted into the more familiar blue. Bill Shapotkin adds, “By the way, what bus is that depicted at left in this photo at Cermak/Kenton? Presume it is a West Towns bus (in the “sun burst” paint job) — but if so, what route is it working? If not a West Towns’ bus, then whose might it be and what route is it working?”
Car 127, signed for Maywood, is turning onto Madison Street. Bill Shapotkin says, “I believe thIs is a pull-out for the Madison line. Car is turning from S/B Harlem into W/B Madison. View looks north. Believe this is first time I’ve ever seen a pic looking N/B on Harlem before. Have seen pix looking east on Madison and west on Madison, but never north on Harlem. The reason tracks to right (operating in Madison, x/o Harlem) curve is due to jog in Madison St at this point — which does not make the location obvious.”
Harlem and Madison today. Forest Park is on the left, and Oak Park on the right. Madison does take a slight jog here. A pull-out in the previous picture makes sense as it would have come from the C&WT car barn on Lake Street just east of Ridgeland (torn down in the 1980s and replaced with a Dominick’s Finer Foods).
This picture of C&WT 159 may have been taken on Harlem Avenue between Cermak and 26th.
It’s April 3, 1948, and the end of C&WT streetcar service will soon be at hand. This photo may be at Cermak and Kenton. There was a fantrip on the LaGrange line the day after service ended, something which occasionally happened on other properties. (Gordon E. Lloyd Photo)
This would appear to be the corner of Harlem and Cermak. C&WT cars 160 and 157, going to the Brookfield Zoo and LaGrange, would have turned south here for a half mile before heading west on 26th Street. After streetcar service ended in 1948, and until the early 1970s, you could usually find a Good Humor man parked in what had been the trolley median just south of this location.
Harlem and Cermak today. From the 1950s through the 1970s, there was a Peter Pan family restaurant where the McDonald’s is today.
C&WT 116, 115, and 158 are lined up at Cermak and Kenton, the eastern end of the LaGrange line. A CSL streetcar is at rear. This is the border between Cicero and Chicago.
CSL 1583 is parked in front of the old Park Theatre, which was located at 5962 W. Lake Street in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Chicago & West Towns car 145 is in the background in Oak Park, on the other side of Austin Boulevard. The Park opened in 1913 and continued in operation until the 1950s. When this picture was taken, they were showing a double feature of Trade Winds and Shall We Dance, which came out in the late 1930s, but this picture seems to have been taken some years later from the looks of the autos. (Stephen D. Maguire Photo) Bill Shapotkin adds, “Shows car #1583 working Through-route 16 (Lake-State – displaying the (according the Al Lind’s CHICAGO SURFACE LINES (Pages 272-276)) rush-hour only operation 119th/Morgan).”
Another view of a Lake Street car at the west end of the line, at Lake and Austin, in September 1939. Car 1579 is parked in front of the Park Theatre, this time showing a double feature of Four’s a Crowd and Stronger Than Desire. Meanwhile, it looks the the motorman and conductor are taking a break at curbside. The Park is still advertising that it shows “Talkies,” which became popular in 1927, and the sign that says “Refrigeration” means that the theatre was already air-conditioned. The streetcar is working through-route 16 and is signed for State-79th.
5962 W. Lake Street as it appears today.
C&WT 103 at the east end of the Lake Street line at Austin Boulevard in 1938, waiting to meet a Chicago Surface Lines car on the other side of the street.
The Park Theatre appears shuttered in this early 1950s view of CTA 6183 at the west end of the Lake route at Austin Boulevard. Eventually, the building itself would be torn down.
C&WT 140, still in the old paint scheme, on February 23, 1939.
C&WT 165 on February 23, 1939. This car has already been repainted into the familiar blue and white colors.
C&WT 104 at the Harlem and Cermak car barn on April 3, 1948, less than two before the end of streetcar service. One of the replacement buses is at right. (C. Edward Hedstrom Photo)
C&WT line car 15, with its famous bent pole. The defect was apparently accidental, but it was certainly distinctive.