Chicago Surface Lines

Brief History:
Chicago streetcars were known as the Chicago Surface Lines, "the largest street railway system in the the world." Populated areas within the city were gridded with car lines a mile, half-mile or quarter-mile apart. In 1914-47 CSL was a single system as to management; but until public ownership in 1947, the property was still owned by separate companies in various portions of the city.

Earlier, the trunk routes had made Chicago the world's greatest cable car city. To replace single-truck grip, motor and trail cars, in 1900-11 the companies purchased thousands of double-truck, double-end, deck-roof two-man electric cars with the rear platform open to the weather on one side, some running until 1954. City growth added arch-roof cars through 1929. CSL was known for its bright red and cream cars (1921-54) and 7¢ fare to any point in the city (1922-42).

In 1930 CSL introduced the world's largest fleet of trolley buses. Later, 683 PCCs displaced older streetcars. Motor buses, introduced in 1927, replaced car lines in 1937-58.

For photos of the Chicago Surface Lines, check out the railroad's photo archive.

Quick Facts:

When it ran:

  • Horse cars, 1859-1906
  • cable cars, 1882-1906
  • electric streetcars, 1890-1958

The last extensions: 1937, on 47th and 87th streets

Population (city limits, 1930): 3,376,438

Miles of line (1935): 529

Number of streetcar routes (1935): 97

Number of cars (1935):

  • 3,742 passenger
  • 423 other

Revenue passengers (streetcars, 1929): 896,576,586

Number of employees (1942): 16,142

Principal companies in system:

  • Founded 1859: Chicago City Railway Co.
  • 1899: Chicago Consolidated Traction Co.
  • 1899: Chicago Union Traction Co.
  • 1902: The Southern Street Railway Co.
  • 1903: Chicago Railways Co.
  • 1908: Calumet & South Chicago Railway Co.
  • 1914: Chicago Surface Lines (operator)
  • 1945: Chicago Transit Authority (which also operates rapid transit lines)

Surviving equipment:

Major books (all are out of print):

  • Chicago Surface Lines: an Illustrated History by Alan R. Lind (3 editions. Park Forest, Ill.: Transport History Press, 1974-79)
  • A Century of Chicago Streetcars by James D. Johnson (3 printings. 1964-67)
  • Chicago City Railway Company Book of Standard Cars, Car Plans of the Chicago Railways Company, and Car Plans of the Chicago Surface Lines (Electric Railway Historical Society Bulletins 2, 13 and 38, 1952?-62?)
  • Cable Railways of Chicago by George W. Hilton (ERHS Bulletin 10, 1954)
  • Annual Report of the Board of Supervising Engineers, Chicago Traction (40 volumes, 1908-47)

More Reading in First & Fastest:

Most issues contain CSL material. Some major articles include:

  • "Streetcars in the Chicago Transit Authority Era" by Richard F. Begley and Roy G. Benedict, Spring 2000, Winter 2000-01, Autumn 2001, Winter 2002-03, Autumn 2004, Spring 2006
  • "Sweeping Snow" by Joe L. Diaz, Winter 1996-97
  • "The Chicken or the Egg?" Spring 1996
  • "Modern Madison," Autumn 1994
    For back issues of First & Fastest, click here.

More Reading on the internet:


Contributing to this report: Glenn M. Andersen and Roy G. Benedict. It is based largely on the unpublished research of James J. Buckley.

  Map of the Chicago Surface Lines system. –Map by Roy G. Benedict Publishers' Services
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  Car 111, one of the 600 famous Big Pullman cars, runs south on Dearborn Street in front of the Old Post Office at Jackson Boulevard. It is working the Roosevelt-Downtown route. –Roy G. Benedict collection
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