The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: Pilsen

As I've discussed before, the City of Chicago has been most radically transformed in the recent past near the Chicago River. The area east of the river (and south of Roosevelt), once home to large railyards and industry, has been transformed into parks, condos and shopping centers.

But what about the area west of the river? This is where things get a little more confusing, as East Pilsen is still quite industrious, but at the same time, is also undergoing some of the change that has been seen on the other side of the river. West Pilsen is now home mostly to shops, businesses and homes. 

With the occasional tracks to nowhere.

The history of Pilsen is interesting in its own right, and I highly suggest reading up on it, but my focus is on the gradual decline of railroads, especially in the last decade. If you're interested on the history of neighborhood, I recommend this page from WTTW

But from the photographer's perspective, it's quite easy to witness the gradual abandonment of railroad tracks in Pilsen.

Look at all those railways. Almost every street had one! Image: 1929 USGS Englewood Map
The transformation is taking longer than it did on the East side of the river. But there are plans to do so, including the El Paseo Trail, which will use some of the right-of-way of main line which ran through Pilsen.

Once used by the Central Illinois Railroad (CIRY) and later BNSF, this railroad crossing sits dormant and soon to be abandoned.
As shown above, even the dormant railroad crossings and tracks are just a sliver of what the area used to look like. But let's focus on the main spur trackage in Pilsen, which spurred from the BNSF Racetrack near 16th and Morgan St.

Rail bridge where the spur diverges to serve Pilsen. Image: Google Maps

The spur has existed since at least the late 19th century according to maps, and once connected the tracks to docks on the Chicago River a mile or so south of here.

Using the magic of Google Maps, we can actually witness the abandonment in real time. Compare this Google Maps image from April 2009:

Sangamon & Cullerton St April 2009: Google Maps

To this one taken by me in May of 2018:

Rails are gone, but no trail. (Yet)
Also thanks to Google Maps, you can quite easily notice some of the scarchitecture of the neighborhood, much of it thanks to railroads.
Some parts of the neighborhood appear to just have random railroad crossings as decorations.
The difference is even more striking along Cermak Rd, where at one point, there were four railroad crossings in the span of less than 1000 feet. As a child growing up, I used to love this area for all of the crossings.
Image: Google Maps
The four railroad crossings were two industrial spurs serving nearby factories (at least one was disused by 2009, but the crossings were still up), and two sides of a wye, as the line ran on the south side of Cermak for about a mile before heading up Lumber St and heading down Blue Island Ave, connecting to other railways near the Chicago River.

Before 2020, you could see railroad crossings all over the neighborhood in various states of disrepair. Most have been removed since. (FRRandP photo, 2019)

Railroad crossing Cermak. Image: Google Maps
One of my all time favorite crossings, now gone, was also on Cermak, immediately west of the river, where the line crossed the road to head up Canalport. While this crossing was disused long before 2009, it was removed in about 2011.

Many businesses still have abandoned rail spurs in the neighborhood too. This one is off of Leavitt St.
Part of the wye as seen from Canalport Ave.

I can't wait to see what this looks like in trail form!
As I've stated before, I am a big advocate for the El Paseo Trail, as I believe it offers a chance to experience Pilsen in a whole new way. 

A shot of the former railroad right of way and future El Paseo, as once can see, there's plenty of space for the walkway. (FRRandP photo, 2019)

As always, thanks for reading!


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