By Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune reporter
January 13, 2013
With both a bang and a whimper, the North Shore railroad, half a century ago this month, pulled the plug on a trolley wire that stretched from Chicago to Milwaukee and made the fortunes of towns in between.
Its last southbound train crashed into an automobile stalled on the tracks near Zion, delaying it until a replacement lead car could be hooked up. That same bitterly cold day, a Tribune reporter accompanied Joe May, a conductor with 49 years service, on a train terminating at Mundelein, writing: "'End of the line,'" May called out. "His last passengers shook his hand and a curtain falling on an era was a visible thing — or were there a few teardrops in the frosty atmosphere?"
The interurban railroads — essentially streetcars that ran through the countryside — once were a key ingredient of Americana, economically and psychologically. The passing of the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railway was mourned even by Donald Knepper, whose car was totaled by that ill-fated train No. 427. He told a reporter for the Waukegan News-Sun that he bore no ill will.
"I always liked the electric," Knepper said. "I rode it when I was in service at Fort Sheridan and when I lived in Zion and was courting a Waukegan girl."
Every anniversary of Jan. 21, 1963, brings a lump to the throat of rail fans, intrepid partisans who travel far afield to ride a dying line or photograph abandoned tracks. Under the headline "Pays Triple for Historic Last Ticket," the Tribune told the story of Al Carter, who bought two $4.50 tickets on the last northbound train of the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railway. One was to get him aboard; the other he had the ticket agent certify as the last one sold. But when a woman subsequently bought a ticket, Carter went back to the booth for a third one.
"Does anyone realize the fine railroad the North Shore really is?" asked R.A. Johnson in a letter to the editor shortly before it was no more. Johnson noted that the Lake Michigan shoreline from Chicago to Milwaukee was becoming "a suburbia of new homes" — a development for which the North Shore railroad could take credit. As its tracks spread up and down that route in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homebuilders and buyers soon followed.
The phenomenon was even more dramatic when a second set of tracks further inland opened in 1925, an 18-mile bypass from Evanston to Mundelein. North Shore held a contest to name intermediate stops in the largely open countryside of its Skokie Valley route. One winner was Wau-bun. Real estate developers followed, making towns like Skokie and Northfield (nee Wau-bun) the North Shore's permanent legacy.
The Tribune had prophesied phenomena like that in 1907, sending a reporter on a 400-mile trip along the interurban railroads of Illinois. Under the headline "Trolleys Herald New Era in U.S," the Trib reported, "Country and city are being knitted together" as interurbans shared "with the telephone and the rural free delivery the honor of having revolutionized life in the agricultural districts."
Farmers could get produce to market via trolley lines that also ran freight cars. Rural hamlets received big-city newspapers carried by interurbans. And as a Tribune reporter noted in a 1958 eulogy to the then-vanishing electric railroads: "Many a youngster, waiting at a remote wayside crossing, drew his first thrill from the world of travel when the humming rails and singing trolley wire heralded the approach of the interurban."
The interurban was a logical extension of the streetcar, as a Tribune reporter once reflected. "It all began in the 1880s, when some industrial-age wizard realized there was no good reason to restrict the then-brand-new electric trolley to city streets," he wrote. "Capable of making jack-rabbit starts, the interurban trolley provided a soot- and cinder-free alternative to the steam-powered commuters."
In their golden age of the 1920s, interurban lines radiated out from many cities. Especially in the Midwest and the East, a traveler could cross considerable distances by hopping from one interurban line to another. Much of that journey could be made in luxury accommodations, like the North Shore's parlor and dinning cars. On that line, passengers didn't have to transfer to other transport within Chicago, as they would have if arriving by other rail services. The North Shore came into the city via the "L," with some trains making local stops as far south as 63rd Street. The North Shore's motto was: "Your watch is your timetable." From early morning to late night, its trains left Milwaukee and Chicago each hour on the hour.
Its premier Electroliners could reach speeds of 90 mph. "Our Skokie Valley tracks paralleled U.S. Hwy. 41, and as we were getting up to speed, you'd look over to the highway and see the automobiles falling further and further behind," motorman Al Justen recalled for the Tribune, two decades after the North Shore was abandoned.
During World War II, business boomed, as gas was rationed and automobile plants were turning out tanks, not cars. Fort Sheridan and Great Lakes Naval Training Base were along the North Shore route. "So as we'd pull into the Milwaukee terminal, we'd always be greeted by a flock of young ladies looking to make new friends from among the blue-jacketed passengers," recalled Rich Taylor, a conductor of that period.
After the war, the interurban's and the automobile's fortunes reversed. New expressways drained ridership from the North Shore, which fell from almost 28 million annually in 1945 to barely 4 million in the 1960s. Another interurban, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin, was a direct victim of the Congress (later the Eisenhower) Expressway. When the Harrison Street "L," which the CA&E used, was removed during highway construction, the railroad's fate was sealed. Its last passenger trains ran in 1957.
It was followed in death six years later by the North Shore, despite a last-ditch effort by die-hard riders to buy it. When motorman Justen's last run ended in Waukegan, he and fellow trainmen threw down a few drinks a Molinaro's Tavern, which bordered the tracks. "Then when it was finally time to head home for the last time, we all cried a little," he said.
Yet a glimpse of the interurban era can still be had. An Electroliner is preserved in the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union, Ill.; the Skokie Swift runs along the Skokie Valley route between Howard and Dempster Streets; and running south and east from the Loop is the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad — the nation's only remaining interurban.
In Michigan City, its tracks still run down the center of 11th Street. An arriving train first shows itself as a distant light. The headlight gets bigger, the trolley wires sing, the motorman sounds its horn, and finally the air brakes screech. Experience those sights and sounds, and imagine the thrill myriad farm boys and girls once felt knowing tracks like those connected them to a wider world.
Editor's note: Thanks to Fred Lonnes of Western Springs for suggesting this Flashback.
Second editor's note, posted after print publication: Flashback reader Phil Becker of Elgin wrote us to share the following: "Your readers might like to know that they can still take a ride on Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad and Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad interurbans at the Illinois Railway Museum at Union, Ill., during the summer months. The museum has restored 5 miles of track on the right-of-way of the old Elgin & Belvidere interurban and operates beautifully restored North Shore and CA&E cars at 40 mph. The round trip ride takes about 40 minutes. The non-profit museum will be celebrating its 60th year during the coming summer. The schedule is available at irm.org."