L is for Long Life

Chicago “L” celebrates 125 years of operation

Midwest Transportation
Chicago
Chicago "L" celebrates 125 years of operation. Seen here: A Brown line train and Orange line train meet at the Southeast corner of the Loop in Chicago. (Kelly Martin/Wikimedia Commons)

Few things in Chicago are as iconic as its extensive elevated rail system, locally known as the “L.” June 6th marks the 125th anniversary of the system, making it the second-oldest rapid transit system in the Americas. To mark the occasion the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is rolling out some vintage cars and giving away commemorative posters.

The original elevated rail was built by the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company, which began regular service on June, 6th 1892. That first leg of the rail rain from Congress Avenue, just south of the downtown, to 39th street. A small coal-burning steam locomotive pulled wooden passenger cars, and the entire trip took about 14 minutes. One year later the tracks were extended to 63rd Street, where there was a station at the Louis Sullivan–designed Transportation Building. To this day, some of those very same tracks are still in regular use by the southern portion of the Green Line.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_%22L%22#/media/File:Stanley_Kubrick,_%22L%22_elevated_railway,_Chicago,_Illinois,_1949.jpg

Photo taken by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine in 1949, shortly after the CTA consolidation. (Stanley Kubrick/Wikimedia Commons)

It would only be a few short years before elevated lines spread across the city in all directions radiating from the downtown. It would be five years, though, before the many separate lines would be connected to the downtown-encircling Loop, making the train one of the most convenient ways to get to the city’s commercial and financial center. More branches and extensions were continuously added for the next 30 years, and eventually, some of the lines were continued underground, making them true subways.

This year also marks 70th anniversary of the transfer of the “L” from private ownership to public control. In 1947 the Chicago Transit Authority took over the system and began modernizing. This week’s celebration will include train cars from both pre-, and post-CTA eras. For a limited time on June 6th, starting at noon, 4000-series cars from the 1920s will make trips around the Loop. At 1:45 pm, 2400-series cars from the late 1970’s, complete in their red-white-and-blue bicentennial livery, will make trips around the loop. Passengers will also be able to get commutative posters on the inner-Loop platform of the Clark/Lake stop.

Many Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with the L. While it is sometimes late, the elevated platforms are frigidly cold in the winter, and the small cars are packed every morning and afternoon rush, there are some things about it that Chicagoans would trade for any other city’s transit system. Unlike New York’s sticky and sweaty subway stations, the “L” subway stations are a relief from the summer heat. There is also nothing quite like riding through the downtown at eye level with beautiful architectural details and workers at their desks just feet away from the tracks, or rumbling through the neighborhoods, so close to residential balcony’s you can smell the barbecue. And as for that rumbling echoing through the city, as Elwood Blues said, it goes by “so often you won’t even notice it.”

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