Before the ‘L’ Chicago ran on cable cars | WBEZ
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Dynamic Range

Before the ‘L’ Chicago ran on cable cars

A photo from 1903 shows a cable car bound for Jackson Park making its way down South Cottage Grove Avenue below 39th Street. On this particular day the cable had broken, so the cars had to be pulled by horses. (Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress)

Before Chicago inaugurated its famed elevated train system in 1892, the second city was home to the world’s largest and most profitable network of cable cars.

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The first street cars were pulled by horses. Cable cars were the next iteration, powered by a single, continuous cable that ran the length of the route. Cars propelled and stopped themselves by attaching and detaching from the moving line.

In Chicago, cable cars ran at the same speed as their horse drawn counterparts. But an 1882 article cites the superintendent one of Chicago’s lines boasting this way: “When we get rid of the horse-cars we expect to make eight miles an hour with ease.”

According to Joe Thompson, who runs the site, the cable car lines spanned the length of what was then the city. The South Side serving Chicago City Railway had two lines that both originated in one of the earliest versions of the Loop: The State Street line ran down to 39th Street and was extended to 63rd Street in 1887.

The Wabash/Cottage Grove line ran down Wabash to 22nd, then down Cottage Grove to 55th. It was extended to 71st in 1891.

The West Chicago Street Railroad ran a Milwaukee line up to Armitage, a Madison line to 40th Avenue, a Blue Island line to Western, and a Halsted line to O’Neil.

The North Chicago Street Railroad ran lines on Clark Street up to Diversey, on Wells up to Wisconsin, Lincoln up to Wrightwood, and Clybourn up to Cooper (300 ft. southeast of Ashland).

An 1898 City Council committee report on “Street Railway Franchises and Operations” gives another sense of the overall scale: In 1888 the Chicago City Railway alone provided over 52 million individual rides. It’s a fraction of what, say, the CTA provided in 2009 with 521.1 million rides, but it was done at a time when Chicago’s population was less than half of what it is now.

Like today’s CTA however, the city’s earlier form of public transit was not free from problems: Thompson describes the entire system as “undependable and prone to breakdown.” Then there was the occasional terrifying accident, like this one described in the Saint Paul Daily Globe in 1882:

While selling the evening papers on State street, Abe Rohmer, a little fellow scarcely ten years of age, boarded a cable car near Fourteenth street, rode a short distance, and then, having finished his business, made an attempt to jump off. As he did so his clothing caught on the seat, and he was thrown under the car and dreadfully mangled under the wheels. His death must have been instantaneous, as one of the wheels passed over his head, crushing the skull in a sickening manner. Nearly every bone in the unfortunate boy's body was broken.


At a recent talk in Chicago, author Greg Borzo argued that the time when cable cars ran across Chicago streets represented a decade of innovation and creativity in transportation that culminated in the development of the “L” in 1892. By 1913 Chicago’s system of cable cars was gradually overtaken by a sexier and more efficient system of electric trolleys. The network of cable car companies was replaced by Chicago Surface Lines, predecessor to the CTA.

You can hear Borzo’s fascinating description of riding the rails in 19th century Chicago in the audio above. And if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can check out the remnants of the old cable car infrastructure still kicking around town: The Hyde Park Historical Society’s building at 5529 S. Lake Park Avenue used to be a cable car waiting room. And Lalo’s in River North (the former Michael Jordan’s restaurant) was once a cable car power station.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Greg Borzo spoke at an event presented by the Society of Midland Authors in November, 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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