The first elevated train to make a test run around the Loop created such a stir that 50 rail workers had to clear the platforms of people clamoring to take a ride. When the line finally opened on October 3, 1897, the fare was five cents and ridership was near capacity.
"At the turn of the century, it was a guaranteed moneymaker," says rail historian Bruce Moffat. "No one had cars, and having a horse and buggy was unusual. People walked or took public transportation," which in pretrain days meant a handful of cable cars and horse-drawn omnibuses. The city's first-ever elevated line had opened on the south side in 1892--the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, or the "alley el." In those days, the service included special hearse cars used for funerals and the transportation of corpses. For a short time during the bike craze of the mid-1890s, train riders were even allowed to bring their wheels with them.
Though the Loop el, the brainchild of shady tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes, was profitable, some lines got into financial trouble early on. "They would build into areas where there was no population," says Moffat, who is an administration manager for the CTA. When the Metropolitan West Side Elevated line opened out to Cermak and Pulaski in 1902, most of it looked down on vacant land. The idea was that public transportation would spur development, though sometimes it didn't happen quickly enough for the company to make a profit. To encourage people to move into undeveloped areas, "you had to have transportation," Moffat explains. "When the area gets developed, you now have riders for your transportation. Along with that came a demand for utilities. From the World War I era on, there was a close relationship between Commonwealth Edison and transit lines through ownership by common investors. The market for electricity, phone service, and transit grew as people moved out of congested areas."
Building tracks within busy neighborhoods presented a different set of obstacles. Lines like the Ravenswood zigzag because developers chose the path of least resistance, building around parcels of land that were difficult to acquire. "The north-side el otherwise was the last word in public transit in 1900," says Moffat. "There were four tracks most of the way, two for local and two for express trains. But the curves slowed it down."
Ridership peaked during the 1920s, when there was a train every minute or less during rush hour, and dropped off during the Depression. It eventually picked up again; in 1943 the subway was built to take some of the pressure off the Loop el. But business tapered off once again after World War II, as people "ran out and bought cars and moved to the suburbs."
In 1947 the rapid transit system was taken over by the CTA, which had been created by an act of the Illinois General Assembly two years before. It quickly reduced service, echoing today's cuts. The CTA must still raise half its funds from fares. "It's obvious the CTA still has some relevance," says Moffat. "The Ravenswood is gaining riders all the time, and it's all tied to the areas around it and how they're doing. I won't get into why all of a sudden they're sticking up overpriced town homes near Cabrini-Green, but it's certainly tied to the CTA's fortunes."
Moffat remembers riding the train by himself as a young boy in the early 1960s from his home in west Garfield Park to the Austin YMCA. "When I was a kid, you had one car in the family and didn't have your parents chauffeuring you around," he says. All those years of el riding must have had a big influence: he's the author of a book called The "L": The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, and he spends his weekends volunteering at railroad museums and doing research on the train system.
Moffat still rides the el each day from his home in the South Loop to his office at Lawrence and Kimball. "It's cheap," he says. "I was riding twice a day to work even when I wasn't working for the CTA, when it was costing me money. It saved me a bundle, especially if you figure what it costs to maintain a car."
Moffat will discuss "105 Years of the 'L'" in a lecture and slide show from 5:30 to 7:30 Thursday, August 7, in the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. It's free. Call 312-747-4050 for more. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): two vintage train photos from Bruce G. Moffat collection; Bruce Moffat photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.