Chicago’s Public Transit Train: A Brief History of the “L”

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We’ve all used it. We all know what its about. Riding the “L” is as Chicago as eating a Vienna Beef hot dog while watching the Cubs play at Wrigley Field. Whether you simply ride it to visit friends, or as a means to get to work every single day, the train has as powerful a place in the heart of the city as it does for those that ride it. However, not many know the complex history of one of the oldest and most widespread public transportation systems in the country.

The very first “L” ride happened on June 6th, 1892 when 30 people rode the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad from 39th Street to the Congress St. Terminal. By the next year, when the World Columbian Exposition hit Chicago, service was extended to 63rd street and Jackson Park. By 1895, trains ran on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which provided service all the way to Logan Square. Problems arose when the elevated train was not able to enter the city’s financial district due to a state law. Fortunately, railroad tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes bought out most of the necessary areas for a downtown expansion due to his ownership of the streetcar system. Once the turn of the century rolled around, the elevated railway had expanded to the North Side and covered the majority of the urban sprawl.

In the 1920’s the “L” continued its expansion under the control of Samuel Insull, owner of the Chicago Edison electric company, who saw a profit in owning the electric trains. He bought the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad and the South Shore Interurban tracks and joined them to the existing “L” tracks, giving suburban commuters a straight shot downtown. However, this mixing of various tracks caused strange detours for many trains trying to enter the city. Two subway lines were added by 1951 in an attempt to grant a more direct access to the city’s core.

The Chicago Transit Authority bought out the Chicago Rapid Transit Company soon after it became public in 1947. The CTA added metal train cars and closed unused lines as a means of modernizing the system. However, their greatest addition was the implementation of the “A/B skip-stop” service. Certain stations became “A” stations while others became “B” stations, and the busiest ones became “AB” stations. “A” trains would stop at their stations and “B” trains at theirs, while both of them stopped at the “AB” stops. While we may recognize this as our normal transfer system, it was revolutionary at the time and allowed for unprecedented speed when using the “L.”

Over the past 40 years, ridership has continued to increase on our famous “L” despite worldwide drops in mass transit passengers. What can arguably be called the low point in “L” history was the 1992 Loop Flood, which shut down major subway lines for days, as the 1940’s tunnels began to fill with water. Nonetheless, the CTA has put that dark day behind it and continues to expand its massive transit system.

Say what you will about the “L.” It may have its own schedule at certain times of the day; it may choose to reroute your train on the day of that major job interview; it may even leave you stranded in the middle of the Brown Line as workers try to clear the track. But for you to be able to reach any part of the city without a driver’s license speaks volumes about how the elevated train system keeps this city running.

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