Union Loop Elevated Railroad - Chicago L
by: chicago designslinger
[Union Loop Elevated Railroad, Chicago "L" (1897) / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
"The Union loop will never run in Van Buren street," as far as Levi Z. Leiter was concerned. Marshall Field's former partner was rich, powerful and a Chicago mover and shaker, not someone to mess with. It wasn't that he was against the unifying elevated loop railroad, after all he had supported the construction of the above ground rail line running along Wabash Avenue, but he felt that the southern end of the proposed central business district loop should extend farther south, to Harrison Street. Leiter had a formidable nemesis in New York bond wizard and banker Charles Yerkes who had come to Chicago in 1881 to build another financial empire based in the city's transit system. During the last two weeks of November the two traded barbs in the daily newspapers accusing one another of nefarious deal making to insure that the loop "L" would - or would not - operate 20-feet above Van Buren Street.
[Union Loop Elevated Railroad, Chicago "L", Wabash Avenue at Van Buren Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Frank Parmalee began providing Chicagoans with their first unified public transportation system in 1854 when he secured a franchise to run horse drawn omnibuses along Madison Street from downtown Chicago west to today's Union Park. By 1882 his Chicago City Railway Company was operating the largest cable car system in the world. The cable cars transported people from outlying neighborhoods into the central city, looped around the bustling business district, and then headed back out to the city's north, south and west sides, defining Chicago's soon-to-be world famous loop. In 1888 a group of investors, including Levi Leiter, decided to form a company that would speed up travel times by elevating pubic transit above Chicago's slow moving and overcrowded streets. The South Side Rapid Transit Company began at the south wall of a recently completed Leiter property on Congress Street and run down the alley between State and Wabash to the city's boundary at 39th Street. That same year a company was organized to run above the mess of traffic on Lake Street with a downtown terminal at Market (South Wacker) and Madison Street.
[Union Loop Elevated Railroad, Chicago "L" - Wabash Avenue, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
When the Metropolitan elevated line incorporated in 1892 to serve Chicago's expansive west side its downtown terminal stood on Fifth Avenue (Wells Street) between Van Buren and Jackson. When Yerkes organized the Northwestern line in 1893 to service the city's north side residential population he was hoping to bring that elevated system as far into downtown as Fifth (today's Wells). But none of the lines came anywhere near Parmalee's ground level, centrally located, cable car loop. Yerkes saw a need, and perhaps, the potential to make even more money. So, on November 22, 1894 a group of investors backed by their silent partner Charles Yerkes, incorporated the Union Elevated Railroad Company. The proposed line would not only help alleviate the center city's artery clogging ground level traffic problem but would deliver the "Alley," "Lake," "Polly," and future Northwestern lines directly into the heart of the business district before looping around and heading back out to their respective neighborhoods.
[Union Loop Elevated Railroad, Chicago "L" - Quincy Street Station, Wells Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Union loop company would lease their tracks to the elevated rapid transit lines for a set fee and a percentage of their yearly receipts. There were grumblings from business and property owners along Lake, Wabash and Fifth (Wells), but no one raised their hackles as much as Leiter and a vocal group of businessmen who not only used the popular press to make their case, but sued in court to stop the Van Buren segment of the loop from being constructed. They lost, and on October 4, 1897 the Chicago Tribune ran a banner headline proclaiming that the unifying elevated loop was complete and open to the public. Although unsightly, the boundary defining steel structure of the "L" caused property values within the central business district to soar, just as the banks of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan had done a generation before.
[Union Loop Elevated Railroad, Chicago "L" - Wells Street at Jackson / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Downtown Chicago, like many American urban cores, entered into a decline in the early 1970s, and as a part of revitalization efforts there were a number of proposals to finally rid downtown of its unsightly steel loop, but the transit way held on and became a defining symbol of the city. Known as an eyesore through much of its history, during the 1980s the Chicago Transit Authority - which had taken over the entire private transit system after the Second World War - undertook a restoration and rehabilitation of the elevated structure. One of the oldest intact "L" stations in the Loop at Quincy and Wells was closed down, extensively renovated, and reopened to the public in 1988. Soon the aging stations at Randolph and Wabash, and Madison and Wabash, will be joined into one 21st century stop at Washington Street. And in one of the more interesting concepts featuring this 117-year-old Chicago landmark, Jack Newell and Seth Unger are proposing a visually interactive experience with The Wabash Lights project.