The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Riverside & Harlem Railroad

Perhaps having grown up in an area where trains ran seemingly everywhere made me curious to spot trains that were in less common places. With that thought in mind, there are two railroad spurs that I was aware of growing up that would have a profound impact of my love of uncovering rare mileage and abandoned railroads. The first is the Santa Fe Argonne Industrial District, and the other is from a time when I was even younger, the Illinois Central Railroad's Forest Park Branch. 

The latter days of the CN (former IC) Forest Park Branch were captured in this picture, taken 1/29/2007 by Kevin Vahey. By 2012, the rails were torn out and the crossings removed. I took the bottom photo in 2018, after Dominick's had become Tony's Finer Foods.

The Forest Park Branch is much older, and has a lot more history associated with it, and a lot more of it was documented, thankfully, than the Argonne Branch, which is why I've held off on doing a blog on it until now. Here's the right of way on our abandoned and out-of-service railroad lines map.

I still say this was an awesome right of way, and fairly unique in the Chicago area. Looking north from Tony's. (FRRandP photo, 2018)

It was incorporated in 1901 as the Riverside & Harlem Railroad, and in its earliest iteration, connected North Riverside and the Illinois Central Railroad with the Wisconsin Central Railroad and Chicago Great Western Railway at Forest Park. 

Early blueprints of the line, before any spur tracks were added. This map is south-to-north, meaning Harlem Jct. is the north end of the line, while "Parkway" was the junction with the IC mainline.

The R&H "mainline" was just two miles in length. By 1905, it was part of the Illinois Central. Both the IC and Wisconsin Central used the line, the latter of which to reach Chicago's lakefront via the IC tracks.

Officially abandoned in 2012 by CN, the Forest Park Branch was built by Illinois Central and operated from just south of here near the mall entrance north to Forest Park, about three miles with spurs included. While it was never a particularly important or historic branch, it holds a place in my heart as a line I loved to see as a kid. Bottom photo: Illinois Commerce Commission

As a kid, I thought it was awesome that a railroad ran straight through a parking lot, as it divided the North Riverside Mall complex from the rest of the retail development along Harlem Ave (IL-43).

CN's R953 thumps down the "famous" Forest Park Branch which splits a mall in half. This at one time was a connection from the IC to the CGW, and is now an undermaintained spur. Very tight clearances, indeed! (Kevin Vahey, 2007)

North of Cermak, the railroad ran on the east side of Woodlawn Cemetery, where Showmen's Rest is located, and where the 86 performers who lost their lives in the Hammond, IN train wreck of 1918 lay.

From within Woodlawn Cemetery, outside of a raised easement, it's quite hard to tell there was any railroad activity here, as even just a few years after the fact, nature has taken course along the old right of way. (December 2019)

Looking south along the abandoned right of way and north and south parts of the mall development. Note the Toys R Us going out of business in 2018. (FRRandP Photo)

Beyond that, it served industrial interests along Greenburg Rd, but as far as I can tell, never served the nearby VA hospital despite some claiming that it did, or its predecessor, the Maywood Airport, and topo maps seem to show that the hospital had its own IC connection. 

1950's USGS Topo Map of Hines VA Hospital. Note IL-55, Cermak Rd's old number, and ALT-US-30, Roosevelt Rd's old number.
It did, however, serve Naval Ordnance Station Forest Park, the plot of land that is now occupied by Forest Park Mall

"Mrs. Lenore Radway, left, and Miss Sherley Becker polish a torpedo flask in 1943 at the Amertorp Torpedo Ordnance Corporation in Forest Park, Illinois. As many as 6,500 workers churned out hundreds of torpedoes per month, a long-forgotten but crucial part of the war effort." — Chicago Tribune historical photo

Sometime in the late 1950's-early 60's, the connection with the then-Soo Line Railroad, WC's successor, was abandoned, as was the trackage was no longer necessary to serve the now-defunct Ordnance Plant, nor any industry north of about 13th Ave. Tracks continued to serve industrial customers south of there until 2012 or so, although likely not beyond Greenburg Av.

Despite that, however, tracks remain in the pavement of an alleyway between Hannah and Circle Ave to this day.

14th St in Forest Park, IL. 2018 Google Street View Image.

The tracks have been removed between 16th St and the railhead at the CN Mainline, but weren't removed until at least several years after abandonment, as in 2015 they were still there, if in a disused state. 

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. Wasnt this the same little portion of the IC on which Frank Nitti shot himself in 1943?

  2. The Forest Park Branch has always been one of my favorite pieces of Chicago railroading. The land the mall is on was once the Cook County Home for Boys and later a tuberculosis sanitarium which had a spur. I have been looking for Sanborn maps of this line but have been unsuccessful. It's a really interesting line for being so short, thanks for writing about it!

    These are the only photos I have been able to find of older operations from 1967:


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