The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad

A 1936 Map of the C A & E (Source: Wikipedia)

A wheel and some rails preserved artistically in Wheaton, IL
Chicago is a city which owed it's tremendous growth to shipping traffic in the 19th Century, first in the form of canals, and later as a result of the development of the railroad network. Such dependency continues to this day, as six out of the seven Class I railroads make their way into Chicago, not to mention numerous regional and short-line operations.

That being said, the blessing of rail traffic has brought certain challenges to the city and to the rail network itself. Congestion is still a problem today, as it takes much longer for freight to move through the city than it does anywhere else in the US. Freight traffic can often delay passenger lines as well. This is a problem today and was also a problem in the late 1890's. Enter the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railway. 

Two groups of investors from the western Chicago suburbs set out with the goal of an electric passenger railroad that wouldn't be slowed by freight traffic. 

"A 1950 photo of the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad on CTA Tracks." Image: Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia

On August 25th, 1902, the railroad began revenue service, between Chicago and Aurora. The Aurora branch had a branch to Batavia which diverged at Batavia Jct., located just west of Eola Rd. The line to Elgin diverged in Wheaton, crossing over the Chicago & Northwestern tracks. That line had a branch to Geneva which diverged at Geneva Jct., located near present-day Grand Ave in Wheaton. All lines were in service by the end of 1903. By 1905, they were using "L" tracks to directly connect to the Loop. 

Initially, the C A & E was profitable, and the nearby Chicago Burlington & Quincy (today Metra's BNSF Railway Line) had a dramatic decrease in passengers. However, World War I ultimately bankrupted the railroad. Between 1919 and 1946 it was in bankruptcy, and as rail traffic gave way to the automobile in the United States. The Eisenhower Expy was built, requiring a relocation of the right-of-way and further siphoning traffic away from the line. The line would run until noon on July 3rd, 1957, when commuters coming to the Loop would be stranded with no return trip home. Freight trains ran slightly longer, but they too came to an end in 1959. Thanks to the efforts of May Theilgaard Watts, the line would be reused in what would become the first rail-to-trails project in the United States; The Illinois Prairie Path.

The Prairie Path runs throughout much of the C A & E right-of-way, including each of the branches, as well as connects to many other trails the Western Suburbs have to offer, such as the Fox River Trail. Its proximity to other active railroads allows plenty of railfanning to take place, such as the aforementioned bridge over the very busy UP West Tracks. 

Us in April, 2017 as a freight train passes under us. 

March, 2018 looking north from Glen Ellyn, IL immediately west of I-355 as a UP Train passes.
March, 2018 looking south over I-355 and IL-53. The C A & E was a distant memory by the time I-355 was built.

A view of Finley Rd from above on the Prairie Path

This survey marker is on the bridge over I-355/IL-53
The Illinois Prairie Path is one of my favorite rail-trails, as it passes through many different towns and offers unique views of railroads, highways, and isn't a challenging walk in the least.


  1. I have lived in Westchester since 1970 and ny dad was a streetcar driver. Walking the Prairie Path and discovering parts of it most people do not even know exists has been a joy, particularly what is left of the line to Geneva and then to St. Charles.

    1. Wayne, Thanks for the comment. Thanks to your dad for his service! I'm glad the Prairie Path exists to preserve the right of way, and allow future generations to enjoy recreational opportunities as well. It's a great trail, and even has some great spots for railfanning.


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