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April 26, 2011

National Train Day Tour

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Chicago has long been the rail hub of the nation, both in terms of passenger and freight trains. In the period between World War I and World War II, there were six passenger rail stations in downtown Chicago serving the city’s railroads. Virtually every passenger making a coast-to-coast trip had to pass through Chicago, and likely had to transfer between stations. Three of the stations are still in use today by Amtrak or Metra. Two are completely gone, and another is still standing, but not serving any railroad function. Also today, there is one new downtown station that serves Metra and South Shore trains. We’ll start our walk from Millennium Station and end up at Union Station, where National Train Day is being celebrated on the 7th of May, and stop at most of the stations or station sites on the way.

Working our way from east to west, we have the following

Millennium Station at the corner of Michigan and Randolph. When Millennium Park was constructed in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, it covered the existing commuter station that had been below street level but uncovered. This new station serves the Metra Electric Line and the South Shore, often referred to as the “last interurban,” which serves NW Indiana, and runs as far as South Bend, 140 miles from the Loop.

Central Station sat astride the tracks of the Illinois Central (IC) at Roosevelt Road, which continued north into what is now Millennium Station. No trace of Central Station remains today. Central Station served the long distance IC trains, notably the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans, and was torn down in the early 1970’s after Amtrak took over almost all of the intercity passenger trains and consolidated operations in Union Station. This area is now the booming South Loop district of the city, and one of the real estate development calls itself “Central Station.”

Dearborn Street Station was best known as the home of the Santa Fe Super Chief, perhaps the most famous of the western trains in the United States, which provided a two-overnight service between Chicago and Los Angeles. All the tracks into the station have long since been removed. The station, at Dearborn and Polk Streets south of the loop, is now home to a number of small shops at the south end of the Printer’s Row district of the city.

La Salle Street Station, south of Van Buren, was the home of the New York Central Railroad, who’s most famous train, the all sleeping car 20th Century Limited, whose 18-hour run from Chicago to New York represented the pinnacle of luxury intercity trains. The station is now home to the Metra Rock Island line trains, and the station house has been replaced by the Chicago Board Options Exchange high rise, and only the platforms and a small enclosure with the CBOE building still remain. The movie The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, features scenes on the 20th Century Limited, and some segments were shot in the station before it was torn down.

Grand Central Station Many considered this the architecturally finest of the Chicago stations. It was located at the corner of Wells and Harrison, and remains an empty lot in the middle of the dense downtown area. Some of the platforms, overgrown with grass, can still be seen. This station, too, was torn down in the early 1970’s when Amtrak moved all trains to Union Station. The best known of its intercity trains was the Baltimore and Ohio’s Capitol Limited, running daily between Chicago and Washington DC.

Union Station Many cities built “Union Stations,” which accommodated all rail service to that city from all railroads. Despite its name, Union Station in Chicago never came close to consolidating all intercity rail into one station until the Amtrak era. Union Station in Chicago was the last of the magnificent rail stations built during the heyday of passenger rail, opening in the 1920’s. It hosted trains like the sleek Burlington Zephyrs, an early diesel train, an example of which can be seen near the entrance to the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s South Side. Amtrak consolidated all passenger rail service to and from Chicago at Union Station shortly after assuming control from most of the railroads in 1971. Many of the Metra long distance commuter lines also use Union Station, making it a very busy place on a weekday morning! A typical weekday sees about 325 Amtrak and Metra trains coming and going.

Chicago and North Western Station (now the Ogilvie Transportation Center). This was the only station owned and used by a single railroad—the Chicago and North Western (C&NW). It opened in the 1890’s and served the C&NW’s fleet of long distance and commuter trains, which served destinations in the great plains, and partnered with western lines to provide through service to west coast destinations. The station waiting areas and retail shops were torn down in the 1980’s and replaced with a modern high rise office building. The station’s platforms are now reached through the office building, and host Metra routes that correspond to the C&NW’s former commuter service. After transferring intercity passenger rail operations to Amtrak and commuter operations to Metra, the C&NW continued to operate their freight network, and was bought out by the Union Pacific in 1995 after almost 150 years in business.

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