The steam locomotive pulled four wooden coaches, carrying more than a couple of dozen people, departed the 39th Street station, its southern terminal, (but only two months) traveling along alleys, behind and around buildings and through backyards, and arrived at the Congress Street Terminal 14 minutes later.
The “Alley L” was an instant hit, because it was far faster than the cable cars that paralleled it half a block to the west on State Street.
NOTE: July 3, 1868 the first elevated ("EL"), rapid transit system in New York City. Chicago's 'L' (not "EL") selected 'L' as the nickname for its elevated rapid transit system to distinguish itself between Chicago and New York, which already was using "EL."Along with other north, south and west sections of the 'L' built over the next 10 years, it helped to both expand the city and create its character, said Greg Borzo, author of "The Chicago 'L.' The combined subway and elevated system now has 224.1 miles of track and sees more than a million riders daily.
"It developed confidence in the city," said Borzo. "It created energy and pride and attracted residents. It encouraged people to invest in and move to Chicago."
Borzo said the 'L' also promoted democracy, since it forced people from different income levels, races and ethnic groups to sit together. A Tribune reporter at the time noted that the passengers included both the "lunch pail crowd" and those "resembling gentlemen."
The 'L' was created just after Chicago had started to build skyscrapers, also supported by steel. "It's very appropriate for this period, that you have this upward movement," Borzo said.
The early train cars were attractive, with varnished wood and cushioned seats. The train ran 24 hours, and the cars were lit by gas lamps at night.
Riders had to contend with some smoke and cinders from the coal-fired engine, but all trains were like this during the 19th century, so people were used to it. With factory smoke and lower standards of sanitation, the 1890s were a grungier time. The railroad company had to smooth out a couple of issues at the beginning. One was that it used to have a two-part fare system — passengers would pay a nickel to get a ticket from an agent, and then go to the back of the stationhouse and hand the ticket to a second agent, who would rip it in half before sending riders up the stairs, Garfield said.
This proved to be cumbersome and was changed to a one-step system — just pay and go, Garfield said. There also was concern that people would fall off the elevated platforms onto the tracks, so there used to be railings on all sides of the platforms, with openings on the trackside to allow passengers to get on the train, Garfield said.
"This required some extremely precise berthings of the trains," Garfield said. "The doors wouldn't always line up, so in about a year or less they removed these railings."
Soon after the original 'L' line opened, work began to expand it to 63rd Street to take passengers to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The expansion, opened two weeks after the May 1 start of the fair, is now the Cottage Grove branch of the Green Line. "Much of the original structure is still in place, though it's been refurbished over time," Garfield said.
"The South Side 'L' converted to electricity about six years after it opened with an innovation that would become standard for future electric trains," Garfield said.
Whereas earlier electric trains in other cities had emulated steam trains by having a lead engine at the front and "dead" trailer cars behind, inventor Frank Julian Sprague had the idea of having a multiple unit system so that every car would have its own motors and brakes. "The train, controlled by one operator, could brake faster and accelerate faster. This also eliminated the need for a "roundhouse" to turn the locomotive around at the end of the line," Garfield said. This system was picked by mass transit operators in other cities and became the standard for the world.
Other lines created by private companies between 1893 and 1900 included the Lake Street 'L,' (now the Green Line's Lake branch), the Metropolitan West Side 'L' (portions survive as parts of the Blue and Pink Lines), the Union Loop (now the Loop 'L'), and the Northwestern 'L,' which went to Wilson Avenue (now forming parts of the Brown, Purple and Red lines).
The expansion of the 'L,' along with the commuter rail lines now run by Metra, allowed people to easily live outside of downtown and commute to work. "It helped integrate the entire area with the downtown," Borzo said.
It also became part of Chicago's look and feel. You know you are in downtown Chicago by the creak and rattle of the 'L' trains overhead. The 'L' has been featured in movies like "The Blues Brothers" (1980), "While You Were Sleeping" (1995), "The Fugitive"(1993) and "Spider-Man 2" (2004). It also frequently appears in literature about the city — writer Nelson Algren warned that "Every day is D-Day under the 'L.'
The only remaining ‘L’ car from Day One, South Side Rapid Transit car №1, is on long-term loan to the Chicago History Museum, where it's on static display.
By the Chicago Tribune
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.