03 July 2007

Another 50th anniversary

CA&E car 431 (Illinois Railway Museum, 1983)
A half century ago today my favourite interurban railway abruptly ceased passenger service after 55 years of business. The Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railway began in 1902 when the original line was built between Chicago and Aurora, powered by electric third rail. In the next few years lines were extended to Elgin, Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles, all communities located along the Fox River. The lines branched out at my home town of Wheaton, the centre of operations and the location of the shops. Though most interurban railways were little more than trolley lines running alongside rural roads between towns, the CA&E was built to the standards of the steam lines and could thus attain higher speeds. While most interurbans flourished in the first two decades of the 20th century, only to founder after the Great War with the advent of the automobile, the CA&E, along with two other Chicago area interurbans, survived much longer, effectively becoming a suburban commuter line.

The CA&E was a precarious enterprise from the 1920s on, and it went through more than one receivership and reorganization over the decades. The Second World War years saw an increase in ridership, but ten years later it was struggling to remain afloat. In 1953 its entrance into Chicago over the Garfield Park elevated line was terminated to make way for the construction of the Congress (later Eisenhower) Expressway. Passengers from the Fox Valley suburbs had to get off at suburban Forest Park and transfer to the "L" for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. This was the final blow to the CA&E. Ridership plummeted and management petitioned to abandon passenger service. Permission finally came in the late morning of wednesday, 3 July 1957. Service was suspended a few minutes after noon, stranding passengers in the Loop, forcing them to find other ways home that evening. Freight service limped along for another two years. I recall seeing a CA&E freight train crossing Roosevelt Road in Wheaton when I was quite small. The railway was abandoned altogether in 1961.

A few CA&E cars are still operating at various railway museums around the United States, most notably the Fox River Trolley Museum and the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM). The CA&E right-of-way is now the Illinois Prairie Path, a recreational trail for jogging, hiking and bicycling. Here is a look at restored CA&E cars in action at the IRM:

Incidentally, the cessation of passenger service on the CA&E occurred only three days after my baptism.

Five years ago, to mark the occasion of the CA&E's centenary, I composed a song, titled The Great Third Rail Rag, after one of the railway's many nicknames. It is written in the style of Scott Joplin's rags, which were popular in the first years of the 20th century.

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