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

In the 1890's, 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. After years of starts and stops of construction, in 1902, the system began operating as the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad.


Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad Map. Map published in the public timetable folder of the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad dated February 2, 1936. (Wikipedia Commons)

Chicago is a city which owed its 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, which led to congestion along the freight railroad networks that continues until this day. The interurban was a response to this congestion, and an attempt to create rapid transit service to the growing suburban region.

Electric railroads gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as electricity quickly turned from a niche product to a necessity of a rapidly urbanizing world at the time. These lines were similar to urban streetcar networks in their operation - but would run along much longer routes, similar to suburban passenger services of the steam railroads at the time.

On August 25th, 1902, the CA&E 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. 

The railroad closely paralleled the Chicago Great Western Railway east of Villa Park, and while initially the railroad's entire purpose was to provide passenger services without freight train interference, it was this redundancy that would eventually lead to the line's misfortunes as the larger railroads would become more efficient.

All lines were in service by the end of 1903. By 1905, they were using "L" tracks to directly connect to the Loop. 




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


Initially, the line was quite profitable, and the nearby Chicago Burlington & Quincy (today's Metra BNSF Railway Line) had a dramatic decrease in passengers. 

However, World War I would bankrupted the railroad, and create a deficit from which it could continue to operate, but never really recover from. A second World War and a housing boom that would be built around the automobile further wounded the potential for a viable rail corridor. Between 1919 and 1946 it was in bankruptcy, and as rail traffic gave way to the automobile in the United States. 

Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad CA&E 20 at State Road [present-day IL-56], 1957. FRRandP photo collection.

This was combined with the fact that the entire railroad network, interurban and steam, was overbuilt across large swaths of the Midwestern and Northeastern United States, as multiple railroad companies often built tracks not with future economic interest in mind, but with the intent of cutting into their competition's revenue. While separate from steam operations, interurbans had their own issues to iron out, as many were underfunded, and built by the same entrepreneurs intent on putting short term profits over long term sustainability. 

Despite this, the line was much more successful than the vast majority of interurban networks across the United States, as very few survived to World War II, and few others survived much longer than that. It was survived in the Chicago area by the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee, or just the North Shore Line. Finally, the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad, or the present-day South Shore Line still operates today, making it one of the very few interurbans that continued to operate in some capacity, and it still maintains much of an interurban character around the Michigan City area and points east.

For the CA&E, however, its fate was sealed by the highway building of the 1950's, as the Eisenhower Expressway was built, requiring a relocation of the right-of-way and further siphoning traffic away from the line, and this would be the nail in the coffin for the line.

In 1951, service was cut back to the Forest Park "L" Station, which meant that riders would have to board CTA trains to continue into the city. 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.

A wheel and some rails preserved artistically in Wheaton, IL


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

CA&E Villa Park Station and Museum, with my lovely wife in 2018.


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. 

Illinois Prairie Path Bridge over the Union Pacific West Tracks

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, even during the winter.

"An abandoned railroad twofer along the Illinois Prairie Path in Elmhurst! The path itself uses the track of the interurban Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad, paralleling to its north was the Chicago Great Western Railway line. The concurrent tracks split a bit west of here near Villa Park, and the CGW path is also walkable from there as the Great Western Trail. Rail trails are many things to many people, but one thing I’ve learned from building the map of abandoned railroads, and studying their causes for abandonment is that it’s a far more nuanced issue than most people give it credit - and not one single policy or idea can be replicated across the system - active or abandoned. Something to think about I’m sure with regard to your own thought processes. With all that, I’m certainly thankful these trails are here to enjoy walking outside, even in this January cold." #abandonedrailway #abandonedrailroad #ilprairiepath #dupage #dupagecounty #railstottrails #chicagoauroraandelgin #cgw #elmhurst #illinois #history #trails #winter (FRRandP photo, 2022)

There's even a few neat finds along the trail, such as this Geodetic Survey Marker near Lombard.

This survey marker is on the bridge over I-355/IL-53

An incredibly detailed website for further information on the history of this line comes from the Great Third Rail, which was a nickname given to the railroad.

And indeed, with the small right of way that is also quite straight, its easy to imagine the interurban operations which once occurred on this land.
Further reading: Aurora 'N' Elgin: Being A Compendium of Word and Picture Recalling the everyday Operations of the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad (Amazon)

There's also a DVD on the Chicago Aurora and Elgin from Sunday River Productions.

Thanks as always for reading!

Comments

  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.

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    Replies
    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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