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June 6, 2024 9 mins

On this day in 1892, the first "L" train in Chicago made its inaugural journey through the city.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that gives you a bird's eye view of history
one day at a time. I'm Gay Bluesier, and today
we're talking about a historic lynchpin of the Chicago mass

(00:21):
transit system and the city Skyline, the indispensably handy and
unbelievably noisy L Train. The day was June sixth, eighteen
ninety two, the first L train in Chicago made its
inaugural journey through the city. At the time, it was

(00:43):
known as the Chicago and south Side Rapid Transit Railroad,
but today most Chicagoans know it simply as the L
short for Elevated. At the turn of the twentieth century,
many American cities built elevated railways to help transport their
growing populations, and while New York holds the distinction of

(01:05):
being the first city to do so way back in
eighteen sixty seven, it eventually replaced its system with a subway,
just as most other cities did more than a century later.
The Windy City now boasts the only downtown area in
the country where elevated trains still reign. Supreme. Chicago's need

(01:27):
for a rapid transit rail system began in the eighteen seventies,
when the city was experiencing a period of tremendous growth.
Private companies tried to meet that need by laying rail
tracks downtown and introducing horse drawn trolleys and a decade later,
electric cable cars. However, these ground level forms of transportation

(01:50):
further clog the cities already congested thoroughfares, and as more
and more people moved to the city, the street cars
had a hard time keeping up with the high volume
of passengers. Chicago officials briefly considered building a subway to
solve the problem, but because of the high cost of
digging tunnels, they decided to use elevated tracks instead, and

(02:13):
so on June sixth, eighteen ninety two, the first elevated
or L train went into operation. Passengers boarded wooden coaches
pulled by a steam locomotive and were whisked from one
end of the line to the other in about fourteen minutes.
The three point six mile route began downtown at a

(02:34):
terminal at Congress Street and ran in a straight line
to thirty ninth Street, now known as Pershing Road on
the city's south side. This direct route was made possible
by one of the elevated system's most unique features, its
ability to run behind buildings and alongside and over top
of alleyways. It would have been prohibitively expensive to obtain

(02:58):
consent signatures from the property owners along the front of
the streets, but there were no such restrictions behind the
building adjacent to city owned alleys. The original tracks plotted
along this line were nicknamed the Alley L, and they
are still in use today as part of what's now
called the Green Line. Although Chicago's first L lines were

(03:22):
owned and operated as separate private companies, they were still
egalitarian in function. Residents of all different income levels, races,
and backgrounds shared the train together. It ran twenty four
hours a day and sported classy touches like cushioned seats
and gas lamps for evening rides. In the early days

(03:43):
of the l's operation, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune
highlighted the system's leveling effect, noting that passengers ranged from
members of the quote lunch pale crowd to those resembling gentlemen.
Shortly after the original Alley the L line opened, work
began to expand it to sixty third Street in Jackson Park,

(04:05):
where the World's Columbian Exposition or World's Fair was set
to take place in eighteen ninety three. Meanwhile, a second
elevated railroad, known as the Lake Street Line, was built
between the West Side and the edge of Downtown. Steam
powered trains began operating on those tracks in eighteen ninety three,

(04:26):
and they too, are still in use today as part
of the Green Line. The expansion of the L Line
wasn't the only boon provided by Chicago's hosting of the
World's Fair. One of the exhibitions at the fair demonstrated
a new third rail electrical power system by taking attendees
on a short ride around the grounds. Two years later,

(04:49):
that technology was incorporated into the city's third elevated train line,
the Metropolitan West Side L, the city's first electric powered
train star It out at Franklin Street before branching in
three different directions toward Garfield Park, Douglas Park, and Logan Square.
This exact route is no longer used today, but sections

(05:12):
of its track now make up the modern Blue and
Pink Lines. The advent of electrical power made the L
lines faster, cleaner, and more efficient, but they still had
one major shortcoming because of the complications involved in obtaining
permission from landowners Downtown. All of the existing lines terminated

(05:33):
just short of the central business district. That finally changed
in eighteen ninety seven thanks to a wealthy and controversial
mass transit mogul named Charles Tyson Yerkeys. He already owned
portions of Chicago's streetcar system, including several blocks of a
downtown area known as the Loop due to the circuitous

(05:55):
route of its cable car tracks. Yerkys used his as
well as some bribes, to secure permission to construct elevated
tracks right above the downtown streets. His tactics weren't always
on the level, but it's hard to argue with the results.
By connecting the various train lines together, Yerkeys essentially formed

(06:18):
the Downtown Loop the Chicago commuters still rely on today,
and once residents had easy access to the businesses downtown,
the l's ridership increased exponentially. The system's growth continued well
into the twentieth century, and in nineteen twenty four, the
private owners of the various lines joined forces to create

(06:40):
a single entity, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company. Sadly, the
good times wouldn't last much longer. Ridership took a hit
during the Great Depression, as some residents could no longer
afford to ride the ALP and many others lost their
jobs and thus their reason for commuting. To be improved

(07:00):
in the nineteen forties, but by then the elevated railway
was facing steep competition, both from the city's first subway station,
which opened in nineteen forty three, and from the growing
popularity of automobiles. As more people abandoned the city for
the suburbs, the l's ridership continue to decline. By nineteen

(07:22):
forty seven, the system was no longer turning a profit
for its owner, so to keep the L from shutting down,
the local government bought them out and established the Chicago
Transit Authority or CTA. They're still in charge of daily
operations for all the L trains in Chicago, and they
managed the city's street cars as well, until the last

(07:43):
of them ceased to run in nineteen fifty eight. In
the following decades, Chicago's L lines continued to grow in
fits and starts, and in nineteen ninety three they adopted
the color coded names that they're known by today. After
many years of sustained growth, the l's ridership took another

(08:04):
major hit during the COVID nineteen pandemic. The numbers haven't
quite rebounded to their record setting levels yet, but the
eight lines of the Chicago L still carry an average
of more than three hundred thousand passengers each weekday. It's
hard to say exactly what the future may hold for
the L, though the CTA has plenty of plans for

(08:26):
line extensions and revitalization projects in the years ahead. But
at this point, the site and sound of an L
train passing overhead are as much a part of the
city as the people who ride it, so if Chicagoans
have anything to say about it, the iconic trains won't
be departing anytime soon. I'm Gay Blues Yay, and hopefully

(08:51):
you now know a little more about history today than
you did yesterday. If you'd like to keep up with
the show, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and
Instagram at TDI HC Show. And if you have any
comments or suggestions, feel free to send them my way
by writing to this day at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks

(09:12):
to Kasby Bias for producing the show, and thanks to
you for listening. I'll see you back here again tomorrow
for another day in history class.

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