Few traces remain today of Chicago’s storied Garfield Park “L”, which was obliterated by construction of the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway in the 1950s, events that also hastened the demise of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin interurban. The transition from Garfield to Congress has long been one of our favorite topics, which we have written about at length.
But today, we offer a sampling of views along the old right-of-way, before the inevitable path of progress affected things. Looking at a route map from 1948, and considering how the western suburbs were expected to develop, we can see how the Garfield line (and its CA&E connections) had a tremendous reach and potential, only partly realized by today’s CTA Blue Line branch to Forest Park.
By the late 1920s, CA&E and CRT, both parts of the far-flung Insull empire, worked together as parts of a harmonious whole. While the Depression put everything under great strain, there were few real changes in services for the next 20 years. But the idea of a rapid transit line in the median of the Congress Parkway Super-Highway took hold by 1939, so change became inevitable.
The Met “L”s were not built to as high a standard as Chicago’s others, and therefore, sooner or later, the structure would have needed complete replacement anyway, as experienced by the Douglas/Pink Line. But not all of the Garfield Line ran in the footprint of today’s Eisenhower expressway. From Sacramento to a point just west of Laramie- a stretch of about three miles- the line ran outside where the highway is today, and this portion could have been retained. Likewise, the portions east of Halsted also veered off from the highway to connect up with the Loop “L”.
The highway plans did not always call for replacing the entire Garfield alignment. According to a 1948 CTA map, the plan at that time was to retain the old portion between Sacramento and Laramie:
On the City of Chicago’s construction program is a West Side Subway as an extension of the Congress Street leg of the Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress Subway. Crossing under the Chicago river in tubes, it is to emerge near Halsted Street in the strip between the roadways of the Congress Street Superhighway. It is to continue in the median strip of the highway to Kedzie Avenue and then turn north in subway tubes to connect with the Lake Street “L”.
Included in the plan are the construction of two track connections to the Douglas Park and Garfield Park branches at Marshfield Avenue and Sacramento Boulevard, respectively.
Planners also hoped to tear down the Loop “L” in stages, and in order to do this, the Lake Street “L” would need to be relocated into a subway. It was thought this could be done by building a new connection between Lake and the planned Congress line, which would then run downtown via the Dearborn-Milwaukee subway. Whereas the old Met “L” arrangement had three branches coming together at one point (Marshfield junction), these early CTA plans called for separating them, with the Lake and Congress lines coming together at a point further west.
But there were many practical reasons for letting the Lake Street “L” remain, and it and the Loop “L” structure have survived to this day. For one thing, the Lake “L” was built to a higher standard than Garfield or Douglas. Relocating the portion east of Kedzie would do nothing to fix the problems Lake had running at ground level west of Laramie. Routing Lake via Congress would also have slowed down service downtown and back, in the same manner that the Pink Line is slowed down today by being diverted over to Lake.
CTA planners helped improve operations on the Lake Street “L” in 1949 with the introduction of A-B “skip stop” service, and this seems to have quelled the notion of connecting it to Congress. After all, a Lake-Douglas-Congress route would have been a three-headed monster, and CTA was not going to institute an A-B-C service.
We can all be glad that service on the west side lines got rationalized in a better manner than some of the early plans. Unfortunately, expressway construction is also widely regarded as having sped the end of the CA&E, which ceased operating passenger service in 1957.
Opinions are divided on whether CA&E, which was losing money, really wanted to continue at the start of expressway construction. It may be that cutting back service to Forest Park was part of an overall plan for a piecemeal liquidation, in a similar manner to what happened to Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell Limited between 1949 and 1951.
CRT’s Westchester branch had great potential, but fell victim both to CA&E’s desire to liquidate its assets (it owned the land) and their desire to sever rail connections with the CTA. Continued CTA rail operations west of Forest Park would have meant keeping the track connection which CA&E cut as soon as their last westbound train passed Forest Park in September 1953. But I am sure CTA wishes it had the Westchester branch back today.
Meanwhile, I hope that you enjoy our Garfield Park “L” photo essay as we turn back the clock to a time before it, and much else of life in the 1950s, was swept away into the dustbin of history.