The “L”: The Early Years

by Emily Speelman

Along with the Bean and the Willis Tower, there is one Chicago icon that is not only central to the city’s identity, but is used by tourists and residents alike on a daily basis: the ‘L’ (also known locally just as the CTA). Including both Chicago’s bus and train systems, thousands rely on this system to get to school, work, and around the city. Currently, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) manages the eight different train lines and roughly 130 bus routes running in Chicago and several nearby suburbs, such as Skokie, Evanston, and Oak Park. The CTA serves roughly 3.5 million people a day with an average of 515.3 million riders (bus and rail) during 2015. According the CTA’s website, Chicago’s public transit system is the second largest in the United States (after New York City), running 224.1 miles of track and roughly 1,300 miles of bus lines. The L also services both of Chicago’s airports (O’Hare and Midway), making travel into the city easy and inexpensive for visitors. But how did the Chicago Transit Authority come to be and acquire these vital train and rail lines, most notably the famous elevated tracks?

Though the Chicago Transit Authority wasn’t established until 1947, the city’s first pedestrian rail lines (which would become the L) began running in 1892. The system expanded from its original parameters of Congress and 39th street after Chicago was chosen to host the 1893 Colombian Exposition. The first rail line, which is south branch of the Green Line today, now reached down to 63rd and Stony Island so visitors could get to the fair on these new trains. Until the opening of the CTA, however, each line was opened by a different company. The elevated (“L) Loop opened in 1893 and, as companies built more lines, Chicago’s downtown became a transportation hub of different trains. This lack of unity, however, led to fierce competition for ridership on the different lines and an increase in fares for those needing to switch between lines to reach their destination.

The four original companies running Chicago’s elevated trains merged into the Chicago Rapid Transit in 1924 under the leadership of Samuel Insull, who was the president of what is known today as ComEd. Though Chicago’s trains improved after this merge, the government still had a minimal role in the transit system. This proved problematic at the beginning of the Great Depression, when huge ridership drops and financial losses forced them to step in. The Chicago Transit Authority officially took over for the Chicago Rapid Transit in 1947 and they have controlled Chicago’s public transit ever since.

Sources:

http://www.transitchicago.com/cta70/

http://www.transitchicago.com/about/facts.aspx

https://www.wbez.org/shows/eight-fortyeight/120-years-ago-chicagos-first-l/3cd19039-42f1-4c15-a1c1-a6345cf57790

https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-blogs/how-the-chicago-l-grew/cce82b68-9091-4e0c-8e9a-1d55e4c73b2e

 

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