Chicago gets a subway

October 17, 2011

In October 1943 Chicagoans took time off from World War II to enjoy a grand weekend celebration. After 40 years of talk, the city was opening its first subway.

Construction had taken five years. Though Chicago's transit lines were still privately-owned, the subway had been built by the city, with some help from the federal government. The price tag was $46 million--the equivalent of $720 million today.

On the new route, southbound trains left the "L" structure near Armitage and Sheffield. They then ran in the 4.9-mile-long tunnel under Clybourn, Division, and State, re-emerging at 15th and Wabash. Travel time through downtown was cut by a full 25 minutes.

Chicago had actually started building two subways, with another tunnel following Milwaukee-Lake-Dearborn. Then the war came, and construction materials became scarce. The second subway would not be completed until 1951.

But on this glorious Saturday morning--October 16, 1943--the city was ready for a party.

Starting at 9:15, ten special trains were dispatched from ten different outer terminals along the "L" system. They carried various dignitaries to a rendevouz in the subway at State and Madison. When the lead train passed through the first underground station at North-Clybourn, it was saluted by the Lake View High School band, blasting out "El Capitan" from the platform.

One by one, the ten specials converged at State and Madison. The dignitaries got out, shook hands all around, and made a few speeches. At 10:47 Mayor Edward J. Kelly cut a ribbon strung across the northbound track. As the newsreel cameras whirled, the trains rumbled down the tracks. "This is the most significant event in Chicago history to date," the mayor declared.

Kelly and his cohort then marched upstairs to review a parade along State Street. Meanwhile, curious Chicagoans were invited to inspect the new tunnel. All that day they came, and looked, and swelled with pride at their city's latest wonder. At midnight, as Saturday became Sunday, regular subway service officially began.

City officials had ambitious plans for more subways. Existing "L" routes would get underground extentions. A line under Archer Avenue would link Municipal Airport with downtown. The ugly Loop elevated was going to be torn down, replaced by subways. Also on the drawing-board was an open-air line in the median of the planned Congress Expressway.

Only one of these lines was built--the Congress (now called the Eisenhower Blue Line). Opened in 1958, it became the prototype for other routes in other expressways. And since the Loop "L" has become a tourist attraction, any future subway construction now appears doubtful.

Here's a video from the archives that the City of Chicago produced in 1940 to demonstrate how the subway was dug: