Imagine this: you are living in the west suburbs and working in downtown Chicago every day. Driving downtown is not seen as the best method of transportation, as there is a train that runs every 30 minutes and takes you straight to the Wells Street Station in the Loop. This train has an enormous amount of stops that covers a huge part of the Fox Valley area, which means that you probably live within a mile or two of a station and thus wouldn’t need to drive far (or drive at all) to get there.
Now if you have ever lived in the western suburbs of Chicago, you might think to yourself, “Wait, I know we have the Metra trains that take us to the city, but this doesn’t sound like a Metra experience at all!” And you are right, this isn’t the commuter rail we all have learned to deal with in one way or another. This is something else, something that arguably was taken away from us—the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad.
The Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad (the CA&E for short) was an electric rail that existed between 1902 and 1959 and, as its name suggests, serviced the suburbs going as far as both Aurora and Elgin and went straight into the Chicago Loop. Service started at 5:33 in the morning and ended service at 11:33 at night, running every 30 minutes. Originally, the CA&E went as far as the 52nd Ave station on the Garfield Park branch (which also does not currently exist), but in 1905 was expanded to continue service all the way to the elevated tracks we all know and love at the Wells and Jackson station. If you’ve ever been a train commuter from the west suburbs, all of this feels like a dream.
Even more dream-like was the fact that the suburbs themselves were connected via public transit options. Looking at the map, there were a lot more stops along the way, including stations for St. Charles, Batavia, and Geneva (the only town out of the three that still has a station). All along the Fox River, there also was a streetcar that ran, connecting the entire Fox Valley area by transit. Even as we get closer to the city, the train line does branch off at key points, such as the Mt. Caramel Cemetery in Hillside and a side branch into Westchester.
This transportation heaven didn’t last for very long, though. After World War I, ridership went down by a lot—since a bunch of people had to go do a war or something—and the railroad line went bankrupt. They cult some service on the Geneva/St. Charles line in the later part of the 30’s. Then the United States went to war again and the train line struggled to get out of bankruptcy until 1946. When the war ended, the CA&E was getting ready to upgrade the rider experience with new passenger cars and overall railroad improvements. The hoped that the end of the war would mean an increase in ridership, but that was a foolish hope because the car industry was pushing hard and newly-built highways were becoming all the rage.
Interstate 290, originally known as the Congress Street Expressway and currently known as the Eisenhower Expressway, is one of my sworn enemies for many reasons. First, it cuts right through Greektown, my old neighborhood, and makes it a lot uglier than it should be and makes walking the bridges over highways feel like a game between life and death every day. A good chunk of the Blue Line is just right smack-dab in the middle of the highway, making it both difficult to get to the train stations and making the wait time for the train loud as hell as cars are just zooming by. There used to be houses and stuff where the highway is now.
The second reason why I do not like the Eisenhower is that, as I just learned, that it was one of the main contributing factors to the fall of the CA&E. Having a fresh new highway going directly west out of Chicago meant disruption for the already existing elevated tracks during construction. Now, west suburban commuters had to ride the train to Forest Park and then transfer to a CTA train in order to get to the Loop.
The loss of a one-seat ride to downtown devastated the railroad even more. A lot of people out west decided to try different commuter options, such as the Union Pacific-West line that still operates today (and is what I usually take when I travel to and from the city these days). The company was struggling for years but still had to keep transporting riders until one day, July 3, 1957 where the CA&E officially stopped running service midday, unannounced, leaving thousands of riders stranded in downtown Chicago with no way to get home. Nothing like having a long day of work only to have no idea that your only way of getting home no longer exists!
For two more years, the railroad operated freight service but was officially abandoned on July 6, 1961. Parts of the railroad were paved over and turned into the Illinois Prairie Path, something that I used often when I lived in Batavia.
When I first learned about the CA&E and its evolution into the Prairie Path, I realized just how close in proximity my childhood home was to the path, and thus to the railroad. There were entrances to the path that were a short walk or bike ride away, which means that realistically if I lived in Batavia in, say, 1925 I would have been able to walk or ride a bike to a train station that took me all the way to the Loop. When I actually did have to commute by train every day, my only option was to drive a car for four miles to the station (where there were no sidewalks or bike paths available for me to use even if I wanted to).
At the start, fares used to be 25 cents one-way and 45 cents for a round trip. Now a round trip on a Metra train if you’re really far away is over $16.00. A monthly pass in 2018 was $240 a month, and if you don’t have parents who are literal angels to drive you to and from the station every day, you also have to pay for parking. There are a few express trains here and there, but service is cut to shit during off-hours and weekends. Being a transit-oriented suburbanite in the past half-century or so is almost impossible to do unless you live in very specific parts of the suburbs that are lucky enough to have a bus stop nearby. The commute is frustrating and a lot of the cars and tracks are so old they constantly break down. If you ever want to get a little sad, just search any city’s streetcar map before 1950, just like I did about the CA&E.
I’m a slut for trains and public transportation. I’m trying to see how long I can go without having to buy a car. There are a lot of reasons why I moved to the actual city of Chicago, but being able to move around fairly reliably without a car is a huge one. Maybe I wouldn’t have had big dreams of city living if my hometown wasn’t a complete sprawl disaster with no sidewalks and a love of Big Car, but it absolutely is a sprawl disaster. It didn’t have to be this way, though. But it is. Rest in peace, Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad and the Fox Valley streetcar. I never knew you, but I do miss you.
wow. just wow. so much to unveil. I want to go into a rabbit hole of historical nerdy wonders to learn even more. I do still appreciate my Metra commuter experience as it was always a straight shot from aurora to Chicago, and they always make sure you get off the train. So, I never worried about missing my stop and enjoy a quick nap. Oh the little things.