Local Residents Reminisce On North Shore Line
By Bob Roberts
January 20, 2013— There was a time when you
could hop on a train at certain north side ‘L’ stations,
sit down in a tavern-lounge car, order a drink and eat a freshly-cooked
hamburger as you rode to Milwaukee at up to 90 miles an hour.
That’s Milwaukee as in Wisconsin, not
the northwest side street.
All of that came to an end 50 years ago, early on the bitterly
cold morning of Jan. 21, 1963. Most businesses that shut down half
a century ago are long ago forgotten, but not the North Shore Line.
Rail historians have called the Chicago North
Shore & Milwaukee
Ry. the "standard interurban of the world," borrowing
a phrase that was once used to describe the old Pennsylvania Railroad.
Not only were its trains fast, but the railroad thrived on innovation.
It sold joint tickets with steamship companies and airlines, as well
as other railroads. It pioneered the movement of truck trailers on
flatcars, a practice that is common today. When the lakefront suburbs
became too built up to allow for high-speed operation, it built a
high-speed bypass five miles to the west – and opened up whole
new areas to suburban development in communities such as Skokie,
Wilmette, Northfield, Northbrook, Deerfield and Lake Forest. As early
as 1908 it boasted full dining car service and by the early ‘20s
operated open-ended parlor-observation cars that were the last word
in rail comfort. Later, its air-conditioned Electroliners provided
a break from summertime heat long before auto air conditioning and
more than 20 years before Chicago’s first air-conditioned ‘L’ cars.
Decades before the Obama Administration began
talking about speeding up Amtrak, the North Shore was a railroad
without speed limits – just
“There was something in the air about the North Shore,” said
Tom Jervan, who rode its streetcars in Waukegan as a child and later
worked for the railroad. “There was a period in the existence
of that railroad where it was the super-interurban in the country.
It was the fastest. It had the facilities like nobody else had. It
did everything in superlatives.”
The record bears Jervan out. The North Shore
received numerous accolades from industry peers in its time, and
perhaps the most impressive were the speed trophies it won repeatedly
in the 1920s and 1930s as the fastest railroad of its kind. In
fact, when the North Shore won the award three years in a row in
the early ‘30s, the award
It won the speed awards despite the handicaps
of running over the ‘L’ south
of Howard Street, in Chicago, and on the streets of Milwaukee for
the last few miles into its downtown terminal. Those last few miles
were typical of interurbans, an electrically-operated type of railroad
popular 100 years ago that generally ran through city streets, utilizing
private right-of-way between towns.
Many interurban lines were relatively slow because of that street
running and succumbed easily once automobiles became cheap and roads
plentiful. The North Shore hung on for much longer, although the
opening of the Edens and Kennedy Expressways both proved to be damaging,
in an era before transit subsidies.
The North Shore was helped by its proximity
to two important military installations – Naval Station Great
Lakes and Fort Sheridan. To the end, recruits bound to and from
Great Lakes filled its trains, requiring special runs on a regular
Even in its final months, the North Shore operated expresses that
hit 80 miles an hour between stations on the main line, the Skokie
Valley Route, to Waukegan and on a branch to Libertyville and Mundelein,
in addition to the limiteds that ran hourly from 6 a.m. until midnight
to and from Milwaukee. The two top-of-the-line Electroliners ran
every three hours, back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Much of the line was served by four trains an hour, meticulously
cleaned and cared for.
“There was an espirit d’corps,” Jervan said at
a reunion of North Shore employees, the most recent of which took
place in November. “We kept the darned thing running. Our
on-time performance was usually around 95 or 96 percent. In your
dreams, Amtrak. In your dreams, Metra.”
At its peak, the North Shore reported 99.26 percent on-time performance,
and it did so with equipment that, except for the two 1941-vintage
Electroliners, pre-dated the Great Depression.
“Our oldest rolling stock was built in 1915,” Jervan
said. “They were all still running, racking up in many cases
millions of miles each. The Highwood shop, if you were to look at
that shop and compare it with a modern (railroad repair) shop, you’d
say, ‘How did anybody get any work done in this prehistoric
The commuters who rode the North Shore were
loyal – more
than 4 million even in its final year. When the North Shore first
proposed abandonment in 1958, a commuters’ association formed
that raised money to try to buy the railroad. The group raised more
than $1.5 million, through donations that were often a nickel or
a dime at a time. The North Shore’s parent company, the Susquehanna
Corp., demanded $6.2 million for the 89-mile railroad. Efforts to
reopen the line continued for a number of months after it shut down,
but proved to be unsuccessful.
Today, that $6.2 million couldn’t even begin to build the
short proposed Yellow Line extension from Dempster Street to Old
Orchard Road in Skokie which, like the Skokie Swift itself, would
travel on the North Shore’s old right-of-way.
The North Shore used to boast in its advertisements that you could
set your watch by its trains. Jervan said snow never stopped the
North Shore for long. Neither did bitter cold. And he said its trains
moved up and down the line with dispatch. Its trains never sat in
“The dwell time (time stopped) at our stations was negligible,” he
said. “The dwell time that Metra has at its stations is a
total joke. In this time and age, in the 21st Century, they need
to look back at an interurban line that ran with cars built in 1915
on how to run a railroad.”
Noted rail historian Norman Carlson said if
the North Shore has a lasting legacy, it may be the emergence of
federal transit assistance. The CTA’s Skokie Swift start-up
in 1964, using former North Shore tracks, received the first federal
transit demonstration grant, the forerunner of the federal operating
and capital subsidies in the decades since.
The Yellow Line is the only operating remnant
of the North Shore, but many of its historic interurban cars still
can be found today in museums, including the Illinois Railway Museum,
in Union, which has more than a half-dozen operating North Shore
cars and one of the Electroliners. The Fox River Trolley Museum,
in South Elgin, has two operable North Shore cars and Wisconsin’s East Troy
Electric Railway Museum is restoring a North Shore “Limited” car.
Other North Shore cars reside in museums as far away as Iowa, Connecticut