Chicago's First Elevated Line, Congress and State Street (1892-Present)
The first elevated rapid transit line in Chicago was planned in 1888, well before Chicago won the bid to host the 1893 World’s Fair. Yet the impetus for the still-experimental form of public transportation was part of the spirit that won Chicago the fair and the nickname “Windy City.”
From its inception as an incorporated town in 1833 to the mid-1890s, Chicago had grown from a swampy trading outpost on the edge of Indian territory to challenge New York City for the title of the largest city in the United States.
The official population of Chicago in the 1890 Census was 1,099,850, while New York City (the island of Manhattan) recorded its official 1890 population as 1,515,301. From the 1860s through the 1890s, Chicago had annexed several surrounding towns and townships-- Lakeview, Rogers Park, Albany Park, Pullman, Jefferson Park, etc.-- raising Chicago's land area to well over 200 square miles. In 1898, New York City annexed the boroughs of Brooklyn (until then an independent city), the the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens to more than double its 1890 population to 3,437,202 in the 1900 Census. Had New York City not consolidated its other boroughs prior to the 1900 Census, Chicago threatened to overtake New York City for the title of largest city in the United States.
While the two cities were in competition for the World’s Fair of 1893, Chicago boosters-- bragging unabashedly about their city’s incredible growth-- earned the city the nickname “The Windy City” from New York City fair advocates.
Ironically, it was a Chicago invention-the skyscraper-that might have preserved Manhattan’s statistical advantage over New York City in the 1900 Census. Equally ironically, it was a New York City invention that became most identified with transportation in Chicago-- the elevated train.
In December 1867, inventor Charles Harvey demonstrated an elevated train line for potential investors on a half-mile track in Manhattan. It was operating by 1868, and powered by steam locomotive in 1871.
Chicago’s first elevated system, the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Company was chartered on January 4, 1888. The South Side Elevated Line (also known as the Alley El for its route through the alley east of State Street) began at Congress Street on the southern end of the downtown area and reached the end of the then-heavily populated area at 39th Street.
When Chicago was granted the franchise for the World’s Fair by an International Committee in November, 1890, plans were quickly made to extend the line through largely undeveloped areas to the south end of the fair site at 63rd Street and Jackson Park.
The first leg of the South Side Elevated line opened on June 6, 1892, between Congress and 39th Street along the alley parallel to State Street (now the CTA Green Line). There were stations at Congress, 12th Street, 18th Street, 22nd Street, 26th Street, 31st Street, 33rd Street, 35th Street, and 39th Street. By January 1893, the route had been extended to 61st Street, and the line opened to the World’s Columbian Exposition on May 12, 1893, less than two weeks after the opening of the fair.
During the Columbian Exposition, the South Side Elevated enjoyed an average daily ridership of 116,000 at its peak in June 1893. However, ridership sank to 40,000 per day by February 1894. The total earnings for the private, unsubsidized venture were just $132,220 for the entire year in 1894-- not even enough to service the interest on its outstanding debts, let alone provide a return on investor capital. On October 5, 1895, the line was forced into receivership, and re-organized in 1895-96. It wasn't until The Loop was constructed in 1897 that the South Side Elevated became a profitable venture.
When the New York City subway opened in 1904, that city's elevated traffic declined dramatically, and most of the noisy tracks were dismantled in the early part of the 20th Century. In Chicago, however, more spacious and contiguous land allowed lower-cost private elevated lines to flourish until the later part of the 1920s. Automobiles and the Great Depression put an end to the efficacy of a privately-operated rapid transit system. Chicago’s first subways-- planned in the late 1920s-- was put off until the creation of the Works Progress Administration, and further delayed by the start of World War II. The State Street Subway didn’t open until 1943, and the Dearborn Subway wasn't completed until 1957.
Chicago's elevated rapid transit lines went through several re-organizations as a result of competition from automobiles, neighborhood changes, and the decline in ridership during the Great Depression. The Chicago Transit Authority, a taxpayer-subsidized organization, took over in 1947. In 1992, the South Side Elevated-- now known as the Green Line-- was closed for partial rebuilding and updating. At points on the line, some of the original steel pillars are still in place.
Sources: Chicago-l.org, Greg Borzo: "The Chicago "L", Bruce Moffat: The "L": The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, Wikipedia.