Before Chicago inaugurated its famed elevated "L" train system in 1892, Chicago was home to the world’s largest and most profitable network of cable cars.
The first street cars were pulled by horses. Cable cars were the next iteration, powered by a single, continuous cable that ran the length of the route. Cars propelled and stopped themselves by attaching and detaching from the moving line.
The first cable car in Chicago ran past expectant throngs on State Street at 2:30 pm on January 28, 1882. In Chicago, cable cars ran at the same speed as their horse drawn counterparts. But an 1882 article cites the superintendent of one of Chicago’s lines boasting this way: “When we get rid of the horse-cars we expect to make eight miles an hour with ease.”
The cable car lines spanned the length of what was then the city's boundaries. The Chicago City Railway serving the South Side had two lines that both originated in one of the earliest versions of the Loop; The State Street line ran down to 39th Street and was extended to 63rd Street in 1887. The Wabash/Cottage Grove line ran down Wabash Avenue to 22nd Street, then down Cottage Grove Avenue to 55th Street. It was extended to 71st Street in 1891.
The West Chicago Street Railroad ran a Milwaukee line up to Armitage; a Madison line to 40th Street; a Blue Island line to Western Avenue; and a Halsted Street line to O’Neil Street (now 23rd Street).
The North Chicago Street Railroad ran lines on Clark Street up to Diversey; on Wells Street up to Wisconsin; Lincoln Avenue up to Wrightwood; and Clybourn up to Cooper (now Bosworth Avenue - 300 feet east of Ashland).
The last cable car arrived at a powerhouse at State and 21st Streets on October 21, 1906, lucky to avoid the mobs that had ripped apart the cars of the final cable trains that traveled the Madison and State Street routes that summer.