Chicago's cable car system uncovered

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z 2013-02-26T11:31:03Z Chicago's cable car system uncoveredJane Ammeson Times Correspondent
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The term cable cars, so quaint, picturesque and San Francisco. But back in the late 1800s, Chicago streets rumbled with the sounds of the largest cable car system the world had ever seen.

Indeed, the Chicago’s cable cars carried over one billion passengers in their 25 year history, helping make the city into a major metropolitan area by allowing people to get to work, stores, restaurants and recreational areas as well as sparking a cable car building boom in 26 other U.S. cities.

In a take-that-San Francisco, journalist and author Greg Borzo, discusses how historians have built up the West Coast city’s cable car system and ignored Chicago’s historical contribution during the nation’s cable car era.

“Prior to Chicago’s first installation,” he writes in his well researched book Chicago Cable Car (The History Press 2012; $24.99), “the cable car was regarded as a novel solution to climbing steep hills in San Francisco, a small distant West Coast city in a country dominated by the East Coast. At the time of Chicago’s first installation, San Francisco had only five relatively short, straight cable lines totaling 11.2 double-track miles.”

Borzo, who was born and lives in Chicago, notes that the Chicago Cable Car (CCR) technology which was able to serve a large, flat city with very cold winters so impressed others that ultimately 65 companies built cable lines, investing $1125 million (or about $3 billion in today’s dollars) and peaking at 305 double-track miles.

Even today, says Borzo, long after the history of cable cars has been mostly  forgotten, its ghostly remains still exist as people continue to walk past, ride over and even dine in remnants of the city’s past. In his last chapter he shows the remaining vestiges of this era including track structures hidden underground, cable cars on display at museums and old buildings, some now housing other businesses. The most prominent of these remnants are the two powerhouses including the North Chicago Street Railroad’s former powerhouse at LaSalle and Illinois Streets built in 1888 at an estimated cost of $35,000.

Borzo, who has written three other books on Chicago including a history of “L” and also has been a full-time reporter, editor and/or writer at Modern Railroads Magazine, Traffic World, International Thompson Transport Press, Field Museum and University of Chicago, includes maps tracing the cable car routes as well as a plethora of wonderful vintage photos illustrating the days when cable cars thundered through the city.

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