Chicago & West Towns

Brief History:
In its later days as a rail system, the West Towns ran streetcars and motor buses. Earlier it was more complicated!

The origins were a light steam railroad (operated for a while by the Wisconsin Central Railroad), conventional electric street railways, and an early interurban to La Grange (Ill.). By 1918 the electric rail network was merged into a single company, the Chicago & West Towns.

The car tracks had seen horse cars (as stopgaps) and through operation of elevated trains. Though the streetcars never had reached downtown Chicago, by 1914 they were cut off at the city limits and thereafter ran strictly in a dozen west suburban municipalities. Fortunately they reached several pockets of industry.

Trying to serve local needs with a rail route pattern designed for travel to or from Chicago, and not being prosperous enough for much track extension, the West Towns early (1923) added buses, which outnumbered the streetcars by 1936. Even so, it often faced bus competition.

For photos of the Chicago & West Towns, check out the railroad's photo archive.

Quick Facts:

When it ran:

  • 1881-1902 (steam)
  • 1890-91 and 1910-11 (horse)
  • 1891-1948 (electricity)

Early abandonments:

  • Steam-operated lines, 1897-1902
  • Randolph St. line, 1901-03

The last extensions: 35th Street, 1931

Later-surviving portion: La Grange line, 1948

Miles of line (1931): 35

Number of routes (1928): 7

Frequency of service (1928): Rush hours 3-22 minutes, midday 10-20 minutes

Population (total of 12 suburbs, 1940): 276,313

Number of cars (1935):

  • 70 passenger
  • 26 service

Originating revenue passengers (bus and rail,1947): 32,061,206

Number of employees (bus and rail, 1946): 677

Principal companies in system:

  • Chicago & Western Dummy Railway Co. (founded 1879)
  • Chicago, Harlem & Batavia Railway Co. (1886)
  • Cicero & Proviso Street Railway Co. (1889)
  • Ogden Street Railway Co. (1891)
  • County Traction Co. (1910)
  • Suburban Railroad Co. (1895)
  • Chicago & West Towns Railway Co. (1913)
  • Chicago & West Towns Railways, Inc. (1932)

Surviving equipment:

Major books (all are out of print):

  • Chicago & West Towns Railways, by Robert W. Gibson (Bulletin 3 of the Electric Railway Historical Society, 1952

More Reading in First & Fastest:

Many issues contain CWT material. Some major articles include:

  • "West Towns . . . the Final Years" by Don Idarius, Spring 1998
  • "West Towns . . . an Uncommon Carrier" by Don Idarius, Winter 1998-99
  • "Madison Street, the Last Winter" by Don Idarius, Winter 1999-2000
  • "The Odd Couple" by Don Idarius, Spring 2001
    For back issues of First & Fastest, click here.

More Reading on the internet:


Contributing to this report: Roy G. Benedict and research by the late James J. Buckley

  Map of the Chicago & West Towns system. –Map by Roy G. Benedict Publishers' Services
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  Like the West Towns territory as a whole, on July 27, 1946 Madison and Desplaines displays a mixture of residential and business use with empty space. Car 134 is one of sixty-plus streetcars obtained in 1912-27, all superficially similar thanks to their production by the Cummings plant, which was owned by the same interests as the railway. –Photo by James J. Buckley
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