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The CTA in the 1950s: Challenges
 

The Chicago Transit Authority faced many challenges in its first years. The agency was forced to contend with obsolete rolling stock, aging infrastructure, declining ridership, and escalating costs, combined with rapid changes in the demographics and landscape of the city.

Stereocard of “Cattle in the Great Union Stock Yards,” late 1800s-early 1900s
Stereocard of “Cattle in the Great Union Stock Yards,” late 1800s-early 1900s

“These yards cover 475 acres of ground, 120 acres out of the number are divided up into pens like these—the rest of the space is taken up by railroad track, water works, and buildings. The whole establishment keeps 1800 regular employes [sic] busy.” Partial text on the back of the stereocard

By the 1950s, it was obvious to all observers that older American cities were changing rapidly, and not for the better. Industry, commerce, and middle- and upper-income residents were moving to the suburbs. This constituted a particular challenge to older, fixed rail transit systems like Chicago’s “L.”

From the early 1900s through 1957, the Indiana Avenue “L” station served as a transfer point to the Chicago Stockyards and to the South side Kenwood neighborhood. But by the 1950s, the once busy Stockyards had closed; ridership was down on both the Stockyard and Kenwood routes, and their infrastructure was crumbling. Both branch lines were closed in 1957, though the main line has continued to service Chicago’s South side.

Indiana Avenue “L” station, Chicago, Illinois, mid-1950s
Indiana Avenue “L” station, Chicago, Illinois, mid-1950s

This view shows a northbound 6000-series, Englewood-Howard A train, and a south-bound Jackson Park B train. A few passengers wait on the platform.

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

By the 1950s, aging infrastructure consituted a big challenge for the CTA. Many of the rapid transit stations and structures were more than 50 years old by this time.

Madison & Wabash “L” station, Chicago, 1965
Madison & Wabash “L” station, Chicago, 1965
Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

This photograph shows the outer-Loop station house on Chicago’s “L” at Madison & Wabash streets in 1965. (A promotional banner exhorts Chicagoans to Park ‘N’ Ride the “L-Subway, It’s the Fastest way!)

This station house was built in 1896, and torn down sometime soon after this photograph was taken. The inner-Loop station house remains— the last of the original “L” structures over Wabash Avenue.

The Chicago Transit Authority struggled financially for decades. In the 1950s, the agency had to budget for replacement of aging trains and buses, and increased operating costs—at the same time that ridership and revenue declined.

This 1955 CTA publication points out that ridership is down while costs are up—"As shown by this chart, the CTA has lost 410 million riders during the past seven years. We have lost them at the rate of about 6% each year for a total loss of about 40% of our business. That means that for every ten riders we carried in 1948, we carried only 6 in 1954...and the loss is continuing into 1955. During this period of time, our costs of doing business have not declined proportionately with our decline in riders. Quite the contrary.... The cost of settling accident claims has risen to over $7,000,000 a year...Wages, which account for about two-thirds of our total operating costs, have increased yearly...The cost of materials, supplies, and equipment also increased."

CTA, Your Company
CTA, Your Company

Two pages of a 1955 brochure published by the CTA for its employees.

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

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