Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Alley El Opens 120 Years Ago

The early south side elevated (Flikr Photo)

It was 120 years ago on June 6, 1892 when the first of Chicago’s elevated railways began operation.  At 7:00 in the morning the first northbound train left the Thirty-Ninth Street station with 27 men and three women on board.  The train arrived 14 minutes later at Congress Street where it began the return trip at 7:16.  The trip took about half the time that the State Street cable car line took to traverse the same distance.

As The Chicago Tribune reported, “There was no brass band, no oratory, no enthusiasm, but the opening was a decided success just the same.”

The “alley el” was pulled by a steam engine that “would come puffing up to the stations, stop at the spot where the sign is placed without a perceptible tremor in the cars behind, start up again as easily as it had stopped, and go running away form the cable trains on State Street or Wabash Avenue.”

Rail Car #1 at the Chicago Historical
Society (Flikr Photo)
The coaches were of pale olive green, finished inside in “oak and cherry in natural colors.”  Two sets of seats ran lengthwise at either end of the car with eight double seats in the center of the car.  Windows opened easily, at least on the initial runs.

It wasn’t all good news.  Said one teacher at the Haven Public School at Wabash and Fifteenth Street, “The noise and confusion in our school-rooms are simply dreadful and distracting in the extreme.  For a long time we have had the clanging bells and the steady rumble of the cable cars in front of the building . . . now we have the elevated road which adds its share of noise to the distraction of teachers and scholars alike.”

The new elevated line consisted of 20 engines and 60 coaches with 18 trains running during peak hours.  Trains usually ran with three or four coaches.  The line ran 24 hours a day with trains running every 20 minutes from midnight until 5:00 a.m., every 14 minutes from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., every six minutes from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., every three minutes from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., every six minutes from 9:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., every three minutes from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., every six minutes from 6:30 until 10:00, and every fourteen minutes from 10:00 to midnight.

There were stations at Congress, Twelfth Street, Eighteenth Street, Twenty-Second Street, Twenty-Sixth Street, Thirty-Third Street, Thirty-Fifth Street and Thirty-Ninth Street.

In 1892 the city’s public thoroughfares were hopelessly jammed with every description of cart, dray, and wagon.  Horses competed with pedestrians and cable cars with between 450 and 500 Chicagoans dying each year just trying to get across all the train tracks in the 2,000 places that they crossed city streets at grade level.  So the new elevated gave the customers of the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company a big, big lift.

A Busy day at Randolph and Madison Streets (JWB Personal Collection)
This first elevated line was known as the “alley el” for exactly the reason its name implies—it was built in an alley running between Wabash and State Streets in order to get around the arduous process of obtaining consent signatures from property owners on each side of city streets, a restriction that was part of the Illinois Cities and Villages Act of 1872.

The Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company was chartered on January 4, 1888 and, when in 1890 the city won the right to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, plans were made to extend the elevated line through largely undeveloped section of the city to the south end of the fair at Sixty-Third Street and Jackson Park.

Ticket offices were tucked beneath
the early elevated tracks
Ridership on the old “alley el” reached its peak in June of 1893 when 116,000 passengers rode the trains to the fair and back each day.  By February of 1894 ridership had dipped to 40,000 passengers per day and the line earned just $132,220 for the entire year, such a poor return that it could not meet the interest payment on its outstanding debt.  On October 5, 1895 the company went into receivership, and it wasn’t until the completion of Charles Tyson Yerkes’s Loop Elevated in 1897 that the south side company became profitable. [South Loop Historical Society].

1 comment:

Kristen said...

great story and one to know if you live and use the city transit lines!