Chicago’s once-thriving streetcar system

Like many American big cities, Chicago once had a large streetcar system:

Those cable cars were preceded by horse-drawn streetcars, which began service in 1859, and were replaced by electric-powered trolleys, beginning in 1890. By the mid-1930s, 3,742 streetcars were running on tracks laid along 529 miles of streets in a grid that provided Chicagoans a streetcar stop within a few blocks of where they lived, worked or shopped. Trolley wires extended into vast areas of the Northwest, Southeast and Southwest sides far from the nearest “L,” making it the adventurous Chicagoan’s system of choice for exploration…

For their part, aldermen and legislators knew the value of changing a “no” to a “yes” vote on a streetcar-line franchise. Each innovation in motive power brought with it safety concerns, upon which politicians could hang a price tag for overcoming their reservations.

The advantage of streetcars compared to the “L” or railroads, both of which helped make Chicago famous, was that it could cover more land and fill in the development gaps between the more infrastructure intensive types of transportation. While the streetcars were eventually replaced by cars, which could serve the same function and allow drivers more independence and privacy, streetcars helped kick off mass suburbanization in the late 1800s.

See more about Chicago streetcars here on this page about Chicago Surface Lines which operated Chicago’s streetcars until 1947. According to this, Chicago had quite the system that quickly went from peak to bust:

The continuous reorganization was finally completed by the Unification Ordinance of 1913, which stipulated that all lines would come under the management of a single operating association called the Chicago Surface Lines (CSL), and unified operations commenced in 1914. Four companies formed the CSL: the Chicago Railways Company, Chicago City Railway, Calumet and South Chicago Railway, and Southern Street Railway. At this time, Chicago had the largest street railway system, the longest one-fare ride, the longest average ride, and the most liberal transfer privileges in the world.

The 1920s saw continued growth despite the increasing competition from the automobile, and while the 1933-1934 World’s Fair and wartime demand supported ridership, the underlying companies were bankrupt. Creditors’ bills were filed against the Chicago Railways in 1926 and the Chicago City Railway and Calumet and South Chicago in 1930, resulting in the appointment of receivers and bringing their property into the custody of the Federal District Court. In 1944, the proceedings were converted to those under the Bankruptcy Act, and trustees were appointed. By 1958, the Chicago Transit Authority, which took over the Chicago Surface Lines in 1947, had abandoned the remaining trolley lines, which were “bustituted.” Before that, CSL had introduced gasoline buses for light routes in 1927,and trolley buses to the northwest side starting in 1930.

In Crabgrass Frontiers, a classic on American suburbanization, historian Kenneth Jackson gives reasons for the decline of streetcars: the automobile started taking away customers and many streetcar lines were locked into municipal contracts that didn’t allow them to raise fares even as they needed money to maintain infrastructure and compete with the automobile.

2 thoughts on “Chicago’s once-thriving streetcar system

  1. Pingback: Urban streetcars may primarily serve tourists | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #4: middle-class utopia | Legally Sociable

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