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Chicago, the Transit Metropolis

The 1890s-1920s: Transit Shapes the City

Private enterprise played an enormous role in forming Chicago’s early urban transportation systems and, thus, the city’s development. In Chicago, these agencies of growth and development were a bewildering number of privately held transit companies. By 1900 there were at least 17 separate street railway companies, four elevated companies, and a number of interurbans, each with their own stations, stops, equipment, and fares.

As competing transit companies laid elevated and surface track through existing neighborhoods and into undeveloped areas, the city’s authority to grant franchise permits and pass ordinances achieved only minimal control. In large part, it was the choices made by the transit owners that both centralized and decentralized urban development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company was the first to successfully obtain right-of-way and permission to build an elevated passenger railway in Chicago. Constructed over alleys through the South side, the Alley “‘L” opened for regular service on June 6, 1892.

The Lake Street “L” began servicing the West side on November 6, 1893, followed by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company on May 6, 1895. The final “L” line, operated by the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company, didn't begin passenger service until December 31, 1899.

The West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad of Chicago, 1895
The West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad of Chicago, 1895

Scientific American cover, vol. 72, no. 17, April 27, 1895
Courtesy of Bruce G. Moffat

Chicago’s Loop, late 1800s-early 1900s

“[I]n the exploding American city it was not public planning but mass transportation—a creation of the market place—that unified urban space” and “inaugurated the most sweeping reconstruction of the urban settlement pattern since the advent of cities.”

From Donald L. Miller, City of the Century, 1996

One of the consequences of early transit competition in Chicago was the centralization of commerce, industry, and services in the heart of the city’s central business district, known then and now as the “Loop.” The Loop was initially defined in 1882, by the tracks of a cable streetcar turnaround. Its place, both geographically and historically, was cemented in 1897 by the opening of the elevated Union Loop serving the city’s elevated railway companies.

By 1910, the Loop—a half-mile-square section of downtown Chicago—contained nearly 40 percent of the total assessed land value of the 190-square-mile city, and accommodated the arrival of 750,000 people a day on its streetcar and “L” lines.

Chicago mass-transit riders relied on private street railways for years before the “L” was built. Franklin Parmalee's horse-drawn omnibus ushered in Chicago’s street railway system in 1853. Parmalee and other investors chartered the Chicago City Railway Company in 1858 providing horse railroad service to the city. Beginning about 1881, Chicago City Railway converted to cable cars. Because of safety concerns, electric trolleys weren’t allowed within city limits until the 1890s.

State Street, Chicago, Illinois, early 1900s
State Street, Chicago, Illinois, early 1900s

Pedestrians, street cars, horse-drawn carts and carriages all share the road in this early 1900s view of “State Street, that great street.” State Street was, and continues to be, one of the main avenues of traffic and commerce in the center of Chicago’s central business district, the Loop.

“You take your life in your hands when you attempt crossing State Street with its endless stream of rattling wagons and clanging trolley cars. New York does not for a moment compare with Chicago in the roar and bustle and bewilderment of its street life.” A tourist in Chicago, turn of the 20th century, quoted in Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, 1969.

La Salle Street, Looking North, Chicago, Illinois, 1901-1907
La Salle Street, Looking North, Chicago, Illinois, 1901-1907

A lone electric streetcar rolls down LaSalle Street in this post card view from the early 1900s; horse-drawn carriages and an automobile are parked on the side of this broad street while pedestrians go about their business.

Madison Street, East from Dearborn, Chicago, 1907-1915
Madison Street, East from Dearborn, Chicago, 1907-1915

An electric streetcar, and horse-drawn carriages and carts share the road with an early automobile in this view of Madison Street, a major East-West thoroughfare in downtown Chicago. The Madison & Wabash Loop “L” station is suspended above the street in the distance.

Under the stewardship of local financier Charles Tyson Yerkes, Chicago’s competing transit companies fought for and obtained the right-of-way to build a loop of train tracks about 25 feet above major streets in Chicago’s downtown central business district. The Union Loop “L” route opened fully in 1897, allowing each of the private transit companies to bring commuters directly into the city center, and to transfer more easily between the different routes.

Wabash Avenue “L” looking north from Van Buren Street, Chicago, about 1905
Wabash Avenue “L” looking north from Van Buren Street, Chicago, about 1905

This c. 1905 bird’s eye view shows Chicago's “L” structure towering over Wabash Avenue, a major north-south street in the central business district.

At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago’s Loop was one of the most densely packed and gridlocked commercial areas on earth.

A French artist visiting the Loop around 1900 commented that “The sky is made of iron, and perpetually growls a rolling thunder … below are wagons of every size and kind, whose approach cannot be heard in the midst of the noise; and the [street]cars, with jangling voice which never ceases, cross and recross.”

A Japanese visitor wrote of the Loop, “If the most noisy place is hell—surely Chicago must be hell.”

Quotes from Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, 1969.

Union Loop, Chicago, about 1913
Union Loop, Chicago, about 1913
This view from the early 1900s shows the entrance to the Union Loop at Wabash Avenue and Van Buren Street, on the south end of Chicago’s Loop. A wooden South Side Elevated Railroad train passes Tower 12; a Northwestern Elevated train approaches the junction.
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