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.
Scientific American cover, vol. 72, no. 17, April 27, 1895Courtesy of Bruce G. Moffat
Chicagos Loop, late 1800s-early 1900s
[I]n the exploding American city it was not public planning but mass transportationa creation of the market placethat 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 citys 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 citys elevated railway companies.
By 1910, the Loopa half-mile-square section of downtown Chicagocontained 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 Chicagos 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 werent allowed within city limits until the 1890s.
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 Chicagos 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.
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.
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, Chicagos 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 Chicagos 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.
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, Chicagos 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 hellsurely Chicago must be hell.
Quotes from Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, 1969.