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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Automobile Shapes the Suburbs Moving In The Automobile and the City Chicago's L Taking the Bus O'Hare International Airport
15: City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s

Chicago’s L

Chicago’s elevated railway, the L, opened in 1892. Its massive steel structure snaked through alleyways and towered over busy commercial streets in downtown Chicago. By World War II, the L was an integral part of the city’s enormous network of rapid-transit trains, streetcars, and buses. It was one of the oldest and most extensive mass transit systems in the country.

In 1947, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was charged with operating most of the city’s surface, subway, and elevated transit lines. Through the 1950s and beyond, the CTA struggled to balance the needs of its riders with limited funds, rising expenditures, and changing patterns of use. By 1959, the CTA had replaced many of its aging buses and trains, and opened the first expressway median-strip rapid-transit line in the United States. But the costs were high. Fares rose, services were cut, and the streetcars were phased out.

Mayor Richard J. Daley driving the first spike, Congress Expressway rapid-transit line, Chicago, 1955
Mayor Richard J. Daley driving the first spike, Congress Expressway rapid-transit line, Chicago, 1955
View from the west of Chicago’s Loop and L, 1952
View from the west of Chicago’s Loop and L, 1952
In the 1950s, Chicago's buses and streetcars and elevated, subway, and commuter trains carried 80 percent of downtown workers in and out of the Loop, Chicago's central business district. Though car ownership and use was rising dramatically, downtown traffic jams and expensive parking garages made public transportation attractive for many Loop commuters. For workers without access to a car, mass transit was a necessity.
Congress Expressway and rapid transit, Chicago, 1958
Chicago’s city planners pioneered the use of median-strip rapid transit. The Congress Expressway transit line replaced the old West Side L, and featured sleek new stations and quicker service to the Loop for suburban commuters. But these benefits were achieved at a cost to the quality of life of the inner-city neighborhoods served by this route. There were fewer stations, and the median strip platforms were apart from the daily fabric of neighborhood life.
Congress Expressway and rapid transit, Chicago, 1958
Madison & Wabash station, Chicago, 1965
Madison & Wabash station, Chicago, 1965
This setting is modeled after the 1897 L station suspended above the intersection of Madison and Wabash Avenues in Chicago’s Loop. The signs, registers, and other artifacts you see here date from the 1920s to the 1950s. All would have been found in a 1950s L station. Because the CTA seldom had the funds to modernize its stations, the old existed alongside the new.
Dedication plaques for Chicago subway, 1943, and Congress Expressway rapid-transit line (West Side subway), 1957
Congestion on Chicago's Loop L was eased when subway lines opened in 1943 and 1951. More trains were diverted from the L in 1958, when the CTA's pioneering Congresss Expressway rapid-transit line connected with the subway.
Dedication plaques for Chicago subway, 1943, and Congress Expressway rapid-transit line (West Side subway), 1957
CTA car #6719 at Congress Parkway and Paulina Street, 1975
CTA car #6719 at Congress Parkway and Paulina Street, 1975

By the end of World War II, many of Chicago's privately owned bus, rapid-transit, and streetcar companies were nearly bankrupt. In 1947, the city purchased most of these lines and unified them under the newly created, semipublic Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA had to modernize rolling stock, pay wages, and improve service solely on money raised from fares, even as ridership and receipts fell.

Car 6719 was one of hundreds of transit cars purchased by the CTA in the 1950s to replace obsolete trains. This car carried L and subway passengers for almost 30 years.
Chicago Transit Authority car #6719
Chicago Transit Authority car #6719
“Push” and “Pull” signs
“Push” and “Pull” signs
Transfer validating machine
Transfer validating machine
Carson Pirie Scott & Co Direct Entrance sign
Carson Pirie Scott & Co Direct Entrance sign
To All Trains sign
To All Trains sign
Stairway to Northbound Trains
Stairway to Northbound Trains
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