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The "L" Train's First Day

The "L" Train at Wabash Ave. & Van Buren St. Postcard published by V. O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.

During the morning hours on June 6, 1892,  just 12 people boarded the first elevated train to run in Chicago, departing from the 39th Street station en route to the Congress Street stop. The first train, which left at 7 a.m., had four wooden cars that were pulled by a steam locomotive. The 14-minute trip cost a nickel and was twice as fast as riding a cable car.

There were no brass band performances, ribbon cuttings or other celebrations for the new line, according to an article published on the following day in the Chicago Daily Tribune. However, more passengers started taking the train on the afternoon of its inaugural day, some probably out of curiosity. Other people watched the trains from below. “Servants, cooks and chambermaids left their work to watch from back porches the fast-flying trains as they went by,” the article states.

Other people were not prepared for the noise of the “L” train as it swung around buildings on its first day. “The noise and confusion in our schoolrooms are simply dreadful and distracting in the extreme,” a schoolteacher was quoted as saying, adding that the cable car on State Street was also loud and distracting.

View of the "L" train looking north on Wabash from Van Buren St. Published by V. O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago. 

The author of the article described the coach cars on the new train as “gay” in comparison to trains in New York City. “They have an outside color of pale olive green and the inside is finished in oak and cherry in natural colors. The seats are roomy and comfortable, with cushions, the ones on either end, running lengthways of the car, being divided by an arm rest in cherry.”

The trains featured double sliding doors and windows. The train stations looked similar in design to the many aging stations in the Loop today. The new “L” trains departed every 20 minutes or less and ran 24 hours a day. The single train line was quickly extended to Jackson Park for the World’s Colombian Exposition held at the site in 1893.

Other train lines soon began to open on the city’s west and north sides. The trains were converted to electric at about the turn of the century. The State Street subway opened in 1943.

An "L" train near the Wells St. Bridge and Northwestern Station. Postcard published by V. O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.

The total route length of the “L” today is about 102.8 miles long, making it the fourth-largest rapid transit system in the United States. In a 2005 Chicago Tribune poll, readers voted the “L” as one of the “seven wonders of Chicago.”

There happen to be numerous vintage postcards of the “L” trains, tracks and train stations. Most of these postcards are dated 1903 or later. One can view and ride a few of Chicago’s antique “L” trains that are on display at the Illinois Railway Museum in the town of Union, which is the largest railway museum in the country.
The "L" train crossing at the Jack-Knife Bridge over the Chicago River. Postcard published by V. O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.

The Marshfield Ave. Station. Postcard published by Franklin Postcard Co. of Chicago.


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