Remembering Chicago street cars

She was 100 in 1999 and said the biggest change she had seen during her life in Chicago was not having streetcars though that was before the Internet and cell phones. She probably would have spoke differently. At one time, Chicago had the largest railway system in the world. The street cars began in 1859 with a horse-drawn cart running along a single rail track down State Street. However, they were replaced with cable cars and then replaced again with electric streetcars powered by an overhead trolley. Over 3,000 passenger cars existed.

As a girl, my Aunt used to ride the red street cars for only a nickel back in the early 1900’s and she said she could go anywhere in the city of Chicago for that cost. They also had a free transfer privilege where you could switch from one car to another. The streetcar industry began to decline in the 1920’s because of automobiles but at the time her family could not afford a car so she was a regular streetcar customer. A white band surrounded a pole to indicate where the car would stop. And according to my Aunt, you only had to wait a few minutes for the next car. There were over 100 routes throughout the city. A motorman stood in front of the car while the conductor was in the back where people loaded onto the car. The conductor rang a trolley bell to let the motorman know they were ready to go.

The PCC car was her favorite which only last a short time from 1945-1946. The streetcar company known as Chicago Surface Lines would not give up on their streetcars. Four companies formed the CSL: the Chicago Railways Company, Chicago City Railway, Calumet and South Chicago Railway, and Southern Street Railway which continued with Hammond, Indiana until 1940.

The new public agency Chicago Transit Authority took over Chicago Surface Lines and the streetcar system in 1947. They began to integrate the surface lines with the city’s elevated train network. The last street car journeyed down Vincennes Avenue on June 21, 1958. James O’Neil talks about his memories as a child with streetcars and living near a large streetcar, later bus, “barn,” as they used to call it. He used to have quite a collection of paper transfers.

Many years ago, I took my son to Illinois Railway Museum where he saw the red street car that my Aunt talked about. He was too young when she passed away but his love for everything on rails was passionate. The Illinois Railway Museum is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization which is owned entirely by its volunteers. The museum receives no state or federal money for its operations. All capital and operating costs are paid by individual donations and revenue derived from tickets and on-site sales. Currently, they are closed until early May but they are always looking for volunteers.

 

 

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