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“L” is for Elevated

2010 May 5
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS 2010

When elevated trains were first appearing in New York and Chicago the New York Academy of Medicine warned that the trains “prevented the normal development of children, threw convalescing patients into relapses, and caused insomnia, exhaustion, hysteria, paralysis, meningitis, deafness, and death.” People complained about the “L” when it was first built, and people complain about it today. The trains might be a little noisy and break down more than we’d like them to, but Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without the roar of the “L”. A reminder of our industrial past, the “L” is the skeleton of our city.

Chicago’s first form of public transit was a horse-drawn system. The horses produced copious amounts of manure attracting a horrific number of flies. Overworked and underfed, 10,000 horses died in the streets yearly. It was not an ideal system. In 1882 the Chicago City Railway Company, led by Marshall Field, introduced cable-cars to the city. The first line traveled between 21st street (near the affluent neighborhood along Prairie Avenue) to the Marshall Fields Store where it formed a turnabout or “loop” back to the homes of Field’s favorite customers. Thus the term “loop” was adopted by Chicago a decade before the elevated lines formed the loop that defines downtown Chicago today. In no time at all, Chicago had the largest cable-car system in the world. As fast as the cable-cars arrived, they left even faster to be replaced by the fastest mode of transport of all: the elevated electric trolley.

The first elevated structure ran from Congress Street south to 39th Street. It opened in 1892, just in time to shuttle visitors to the door of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Soon more elevated lines were built. It wasn’t until 1897 that all of the elevated lines converged around downtown forming what we today know as “the loop”.

Charles Tyson Yerkes was the man to thank for the success of the elevated system, but no one wanted to thank him. An ex-con from Philadelphia (he served some time in prison for misappropriating bonds), he was not shy about saying that came to Chicago solely to make a profit and leave. He was smart though. He knew that consolidating a mass transportation industry in Chicago was a sure way to make millions. In true Chicago-style he manipulated the system to his ends. In one telling instance he built the first North Chicago cable line at a cost of $3 million, charged his stockholders $10 million and pocketing the remaining $7 million for himself and two east coast partners. That wasn’t what forced him out of town though. Caught in the middle of a bribe to secure ownership of the elevated system for the next fifty years, Yerkes was met by a mob of angry men wielding guns and clubs. With millions in his pockets, Yerkes fled from the city leaving Chicago with the transportation system for which we’re still famous.

CNS 2010


Since 1945 the “L” lines and city buses have been operated under the direction of the Chicago Transit Authority (the CTA). For their website click here. For more in-depth information of all things “L” related be sure to explore And a must do is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s new Elevated Architecture: Chicago’s Loop by “L” tour coming this summer!

2 Responses
  1. Madeleine Raymond permalink
    May 5, 2010

    I had no idea about the Marshall Field and the loop connection. Fascinating information as usual. Thanks!

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