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150 Years on the Rail

Evanston's Second Railroad

Chicago Milwauke & St. Paul's Evanston station ca. 1891

The Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul's Evanston station ca. 1891. It was located on Benson between Davis and Church, approximately where the CTA's Davis Street station is today. (Collection J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, Inc.)

By the 1860s, Evanstonians and other North Shore residents had begun to agitate for better rail service. They felt neglected by the C&NW, and believed competition from another railroad would improve the situation. [Ebner, p. 114] Northwestern University founder John Evans was also a railroad visionary, as Charles B. George relates:

"The most wonderful of all railroading feats in my day has been the crossing of the continent. In 1850, not a mile of track existed beyond the Mississippi. Those who thought of a road from ocean to ocean were called visionaries, to use the mildest word, and even later, when one enthusiast after another took up the idea, they did little else but impress upon the world an idea of their own foolishness. The first time I ever heard the suggestion made was in 1860, by John Evans, who was an almost daily passenger on my train. Mr. Evans was the founder of Evanston, now the site of the Northwestern University, and a town of which I have made frequent mention in these pages. He afterward moved to Denver, when that city was in its infancy, was appointed governor of Colorado Territory, and became interested in the railroad development of the far West with such success that, by the sale of one of his roads to Jay Gould, he became possessed of enormous wealth.

'Sit down here, Charley,' Mr. Evans said, one day in 1860, when he was on my train. He had been figuring on some paper, and when I sat down he continued 'Charley, I think that one of these days there will be a railroad over the Rocky Mountains.'

'It's possible, but hardly probable,' I answered. 'The cost would be enormous, the engineering difficulties next to insurmountable, and after you have your road where will you get your business?'

'It will come in time, and that before many years,' was Mr. Evans' reply." [George, pp. 96-7]

Chicago & Evanston Railroad switch key.
A switch key, possibly from the Chicago & Evanston Railroad.

Not long after this conversation, in 1861, John Evans, along with Orrington Lunt and others, chartered the second railroad to run through Evanston, called the Chicago & Evanston. Service did not begin, however, until May 1, 1885. The new railroad's tracks paralleled the Chicago & North Western's, running just west of Chicago Avenue; the first station was across the street from the entrance to Calvary Cemetery in the village of South Evanston. Only 4 or 5 people rode the train on that first trip.

Yet another railroad, the Chicago, Evanston & Lake Superior, obtained the rights to build a line from the village of South Evanston into Evanston. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul soon absorbed both of these roads; by 1886, service to Church Street was inaugurated. Thirteen trains were run daily, with one accommodation train run on Sundays. Service was extended to Noyes Street in December, 1888, and to Wilmette in 1889. Passenger stations were built at Calvary, Main, Dempster, Church,
Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific logo Noyes, and Central Streets. A map of the line can be seen here.

Steam rail service on this line lasted a mere 22 years. Unable to extend the line north to Waukegan and Sulphur Glen (Rondout) as originally planned, and faced with competition from the C&NW and the Evanston streetcars, ridership on this line through sparsely populated North Evanston was extremely light. Eventually the trackage was leased to other railroads and, on May 16, 1908, the St. Paul ran its last steam train over these tracks. [Moffat, p. 214]

Interior view of DescansoOne might wonder why Calvary Cemetery was such a popular place to build railroad stations in the 19th century. In the days before paved streets and automobiles, funeral processions had a long and difficult journey by horse and buggy to the cemetery. The railroads saw a market niche and filled it by routing their lines near major cemeteries; some even ran special funeral cars.

Business, unfortunately, was booming, especially during the great cholera epidemics that occurred periodically in the days before good public sanitation systems:

"Among the sad reminiscences of my Waukegan run were those connected with the many funerals going from Chicago to Rosehill and Calvary cemeteries, which are among the largest on the continent. I remember away back in 1866, when the cholera was raging in Chicago, I ran one of the largest funeral trains that was ever known. I had thirty passenger cars containing over two thousand people, and one freight car in which were the dead bodies of forty persons who had died on the previous day." [George, p. 87]

With the advent of paved streets and private automobiles, of course, funeral business for the railroads died off, and the Calvary stations were eventually abandoned. The "L" station at Calvary was a flag stop for several years; it was finally closed in 1931 and a new station was constructed at South Boulevard. The C&NW's Calvary station at Mulford Street survived until 1958.