Remembering the cable car era in Chicago

A new book highlights the cable-car era in Chicago around the turn of the 19th century:

Chicago historian and transportation author Greg Borzo has chronicled that forgotten era, which lasted not quite 25 years (1882 to 1906), in his new book, “Chicago Cable Cars,” published by The History Press.

These horseless street railway cars were pulled by the quiet, invisible force of continuously moving underground cables that crisscrossed the city, starting on the South and West sides and Loop district and leading to a nationwide cable-car boom in almost 30 cities, according to Borzo…

His research revealed that the cable-car experience, which debuted Jan. 28, 1882 on State Street, from Madison to 21st streets, became “a rich part of the very fabric of everyday life” in Chicago and led to people from different ethnic and economic classes rubbing shoulders, if only for the duration of a ride…

Borzo, who has written three other books about Chicago, said he took on his latest project because history books about the city either confused cable cars with trolleys or skipped over cable cars in describing the timeline from horsecars to electric trolley cars.

He said he hopes the book will foster a wider recognition of Chicago’s cable-car history, perhaps in the form of a monument, a plaque or, better yet, construction of a short cable-car line.

I knew Chicago had electric street cars but was not aware there was a thriving cable car system as well. Find a preview of Borzo’s findings at Forgotten Chicago. The site includes these two interesting pieces of information:

1. Here is the track mileage comparison between Chicago and San Francisco:

During Chicago’s cable car era (1882 to 1906), three companies provided more than one billion rides using an estimated 3,000 cars. Chicago ended up with the second most miles: 41.2 double-track miles compared with a peak of 52.8 double-track miles in San Francisco. And to operate its systems, Chicago’s cable car companies built 13 powerhouses and countless car barns, office buildings, waiting rooms, repair shops, car building shops and other structures. With a mile of single track costing about $150,000, Chicago’s huge investment in cable car track, infrastructure and equipment added up to $25 million ($600 million in current dollars).

2. A map of the cable car system in the Loop in 1894:

For a city looking for new revenues and already having a decent tourist base, I could imagine some people might want to look at a short cable car line that would sell nostalgia like it does in San Francisco. How about a short line from Michigan Avenue to Navy Pier? Not quite an authentic route but it would connect two important tourist spots and replace the buses made to look like trolleys. Perhaps they could even create a little hill to ride over…

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