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150 Years on the Rail

The Devil's Carriage Comes to Heavenston

Early C&NW logo.In 1850, a group of devout Methodists, among them John Evans, Orrington Lunt, and Andrew Brown, founded an institution of "sanctified learning" which became Northwestern University. The site they chose along the shores of Lake Michigan was at that time part of a rural farming community known as Ridgeville. They purchased several hundred acres of farmland, enough for a university campus and a new town. Over the winter of 1853-54, Philo Judson, business agent for the new University, laid out the town; the NU trustees named the town Evanston after John Evans. Knowing the importance of the railroad to the future of the town and the university, Andrew Brown induced the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad to route its tracks near the new town by donating the land for the railroad right-of-way as well as a depot site [Perkins, 16-22]. Up until that time public transportation in the area consisted of a stagecoach that ran along Green Bay Road and took a day and a half to go from Chicago to Milwaukee, and the ride was not exactly a smooth one:

"The stagecoach drivers were a wild bunch of fellows. They enjoyed jostling the passengers. The rougher the ride, the more they enjoyed it. Oh yea! They were a bunch of characters." [Interview with Mr. Orner, Hinky Dinks, p. 4]

With stagecoach service like this, you can imagine the joy with which the first Iron Horse to run through Evanston was greeted:

"The first railroad train passed through Evanston on its way to Waukegan, December 19, 1854. Ah, proud the day and proud the people, through whose towns the bravely puffing, little wood-burning engine drew its tender and one lone coach, amid the cheers of its admirers." [Reeling, pp. 378-9]

This railroad was the Chicago & Milwaukee, which in 1866 became part of the Chicago & North Western. That first locomotive probably looked much like the Pioneer, pictured below. The Pioneer was the first locomotive to run on the Chicago & North Western's predecessor, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad.

The Pioneer
In the early days, there was only one "accommodation train" run per day in each direction between Evanston and Chicago. There were no streetlights, so commuters brought oil lamps and left them at the station in the morning so they could see their way home at night.

"The largest string of lanterns was outside the Davis Street station in Evanston. And a stranger, who inquired about them, discovered that they belonged not to the railroad personnel but to commuters, men who had taken the early morning trains to Chicago.

'Raymond Park,' says the antiquarian who looked into the matter, 'was a thickly wooded section in the 1870s, and on an early winter morning, those woods were as dark as the inside of a fireman's glove...'

So you can see the picture. Father, late as usual, looks up at the cuckoo clock as he scalds his throat with a last quick cup of coffee. In the still, empty air he can hear the engine whistle blowing for Elser's Crossing up there on the other side of Grosse Point. He wipes his moustache, gives Mamma a peck on the cheek, picks up his lantern, and starts his trek through the black forest to the North Western station.

Survivors of those fascinating days say that the lanterns of commuters loping over the snow trails for the 7:23 were generally so thick that the woods seemed to be swarming with fireflies. During the day the station attendant would service the lanterns, trimming the wicks, and filling them with oil so that the owners would be able to find their way home in the evening." [Casey, pp. 277-8]

C&NW Station ca. 1906The directors of the railroad intended it primarily as a freight-hauling business; only the railroad's president, Walter S. Gurnee, envisioned a string of bedroom communities with residents commuting by train to work in downtown Chicago each day. With that in mind, Gurnee purchased land along the North Shore that would eventually become the towns of Lake Bluff, Highland Park, Glencoe, and Winnetka. Naturally, the passenger stations were sited near the land he owned [Ebner, pp. 22-3]. The directors of the road did not share this vision, however, and at the end of 1855 they decided to cancel the accommodation trains. Charles George tells us what happened next:

"After the Waukegan train had run about a year, the directors of the road met and passed a resolution to take off the accommodation, as it did not pay. 'That will never do,' Superintendent Johnson instantly remarked when he heard of the resolution. 'Charley, you have had a great deal of experience in carrying commutation passengers in Boston; come with me and we'll see what we can do in this matter.' We went before the directors and strongly urged them not only to continue the train, but to adopt a more liberal policy toward their patrons in the way of generous concessions in fares and a well regulated time-table.

'This is the way it seems to me, gentlemen,' I argued. 'When a lawyer comes to town and hangs out his shingle, he does not get clients all at once. Months pass and they then begin to come in, slowly it is true, but it would be folly to take down the shingle and leave town just as business showed signs of beginning, even if it didn't pay just then.'

The directors asked me many questions about suburban traffic in Boston, and I stated what I knew of its rise and steady development.

'If you adopt that course,' I said to them, 'it will not be long before you'll have to put on a second train, then a third, and a fourth - in fact, there is no telling where it will stop.'

After considerable discussion, the directors decided to act on our suggestions. The wisdom of their decision has been proved by the vast increase of suburban traffic. On my old run, where a single small engine and one coach did all the service for the mere handful of patrons, there are now twenty-six daily trains, carrying two millions and a quarter of passengers annually." [George, pp. 89-90]

The C&NW's Davis Street station ca. 1908

Evanston is world-famous as a "Temperance town" and the home of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Almost since the beginning it was a "dry" town, thanks to the charter of Northwestern University, which prohibited the sale of alcohol within a 4-mile radius of the campus. However, as Charles George tells us, not everyone who worked on the railroad respected this prohibition:

"In my early days on the Waukegan road, I had an engineer who was as devoted to his bottle as to his engine. It was in 1855, and we were taking out three cars full of children, bound for Evanston where they were to have a picnic. The engineer was intoxicated, but none of us knew it at the time. When he reached Evanston, instead of stopping, he ran straight by the station at a high speed. We stopped the train with the brakes as soon as we could, the engineer claiming that something was wrong about the throttle, so that he could not shut off steam. Fortunately we stopped just in time, for another train was already in sight. I asked the fellow what in the world he was thinking about to do such a foolhardy thing as that.

'I was just thinking,' said the half-drunken man, 'that if I should hit that train, what a lot of little angels these children would make.'" [George, p. 87]

Until 1882 the railroad between Chicago and Evanston consisted of a single track. Adding the second track presented a bit of a problem for the C&NW, which had constructed its stations along the east side of the track. The second track had to be laid on the opposite side of the existing track from the stations. For the convenience of morning commuters, who would obviously prefer to wait for their trains inside a heated depot, it was decided to run Chicago-bound trains on the left hand track, since it was nearest to the station houses. This was, of course, no problem for commuters returning home in the evenings, who had no need to wait at the station after detraining. This is the most likely reason why the C&NW operated as a "left-hand" railroad. [Knudsen, p. 9] Incidentally, the "L" also operated left-handed for a time, but for a very different reason: to avoid switching delays on the downtown Loop. [Moffat, p. 198] It switched to right-handed operation in 1913 in concert with similar changes on the Loop. [Moffat, p. 242]

At its peak, the C&NW main line through Evanston consisted of three tracks, with the center track being a reversible "express" track used by inbound trains in the morning and outbound trains in the evening. Originaly, the three tracks merged into two about 1/4 mile south of the Wilmette station at a location called Wilmette Tower. As time went on, more and more of this "extra" track became superfluous and was removed in stages, with the former center track becoming the outbound track. For example, by 1957 the location where the three mainline tracks merged down to two was moved south to Canal Junction and Wilmette Tower was closed. This track removal is why Evanston now has several viaducts where weeds have replaced rails and ties. As time went on, several of the stations were reconfigured. In some cases, passenger platforms were cut back (such as the one that used to extend south over Davis Street). In other cases, new platforms were constructed directly on top of where the third track used to be.

The C&NW's commuter trains made several stops on the main line in Evanston, at Calvary Cemetery (Mulford Street and Chicago Avenue), Main Street, Dempster Street, Davis Street, and Central Street. On December 1, 1958, the C&NW closed down 22 of its close-in sations to increase the efficiency of the commuter trains serving the expanding suburban fringe. [Grant, p. 204] The Evanston stations at Calvary Cemetery and Dempster Street were closed at this time. The C&NW continued to run commuter service to its remaining Evanston stations until the merger with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1995. Today the UP runs these commuter trains under the Metra banner.