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150 Years on the Rail

Takin' It to the Streetcars

By 1893, the two steam railroads serving Evanston had some new competition from electric streetcars. The first company to offer streetcar service was the Chicago & Evanston Electric Railway Company, although the name was quickly changed to the Chicago North Shore Street Railway Company to avoid confusion with the existing Chicago & Evanston steam railroad. On Sunday, June 10, 1893, service began from Calvary Cemetery south to Graceland Avenue (Irving Park Road) in Chicago. By July 1 of that year, service had been extended north along Chicago Avenue to Dempster Street. By August, the tracks had been extended again, jogging left along Dempster to Sherman and then north on Sherman to Emerson. [Buckley, p. 8] The streetcars proved extremely popular, and siphoned many customers away from the steam railroads, which were forced to take trains off their schedules. [Buckley, p. 11]

A southbound Evanston streetcar crosses Davis street. (Collection J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, Inc.)

"When the streetcar was first put in, it ran up to Ewing Avenue. Then it made a little loop out there, south of Central Street, then came back. There was also a little trolley car that went on out to Glenview every so often." [Interview with Mr. Nott, Hinky Dinks, p. 13]

In 1896, a second streetcar line was built by the Evanston Electric Railway Company. It connected with the CNS at Emerson Street and extended north to Central. This company was part of the traction empire of Charles Tyson Yerkes, and because of this there was much opposition to it in the Evanston city council. The owners of the line, including Andrew Crawford, also owned property along the route that they wished to develop; the new streetcars were built  specifically to aid in the sale of lots in these new subdivisions. [Braun, p. 14; Buckley, p. 12] On May 8, 1897, cars began operating west on Central to Bennett Avenue. The CNS and the EE were combined into the Chicago Consolidated Traction Company on February 27, 1899. [Buckley, p. 13]

By 1906, Evanston had yet another streetcar company. The North Shore & Western Railway ran along Harrison Street from Lincolnwood Drive and continued west to the Glenview Golf Club. By this time, the CCT had extended service west on Central to Lincolnwood; connection with the NS&W was made at that point. Evanstonians called these streetcars "Dinkys" and "Toonerville Trolleys" after a popular cartoon of the time. [Buckley, p. 37]

"The trolleys used to have pot-belly stoves in the wintertime, you know, and then the conductor had to shovel in the coal, I remember that. If it was really cold, you tried to get up near where the stove was, where it was warm! When I was in high school, when Northwestern won the Big Ten Championship, that I remember. All the Northwestern students would pile on that streetcar, up on top, hanging on the sides, all over, and would head south toward the Edgewater Beach Hotel for dancing championships and they all got on free!" [Interview with Mrs. Linnea Coulter, Hinky Dinks, p. 13]

The years between 1908 and 1913 were tumultuous times for the Evanston streetcar companies. After a receivership, a 35-day strike by the train operators, and three ownership changes, including one in which the entire company was sold for a single dollar, a new company called the Evanston Railway Company emerged in 1913 and took over streetcar operations. [Braun, p. 18] The line was extended at both ends: a connection was made with the "L" at Howard Street, and the tracks along Central Street were laid west to the new Evanston city limits at Crawford Avenue, where a new connection was made with the North Shore & Western streetcar line. Other route extensions to serve Evanston's southwest side were proposed, but never reached fruition due to the objections of property owners along the affected streets. It seemed everybody wanted streetcar service, but they wanted it along somebody else's street, not their own. [Buckley, p. 19] Many other improvements were made: new, heavier rail was laid; a car barn was built on Central Street near the site where Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field) would later be built; new rolling stock was put into service. Thanks to these and other improvements, ridership grew to a peak of 5,243,481 passengers in 1927. This was the Golden Age of the streetcar in Evanston. [Buckley, p. 23]

A fare token from the Evanston Railway Company. (Author's collection.)

"We children used to love to take two pins and cross them, put them on the streetcar track and the car would go over it and flatten them out, and then we'd have crossed swords. It was the symbol that the Civil War used and we would think that we were Civil War vets." [Interview with Mildred Crew, Hinky Dinks, p. 9]

The end of the streetcar era in Evanston came in 1935 at the hands of the Works Progress Administration. In that year, the city of Evanston began a massive street improvement project; approximately 70% of the city's streets were widened and/or repaved, including Chicago Avenue, Sherman Avenue, and Central Street - the streetcars' primary routes. Although the federal government would pay for the street improvements, the cost of relocating tracks, poles, and trolley wire was the responsibility of the Evanston Railway. Faced with having to rebuild its entire rail network all at once, the company decided to replace the streetcars with bus service. The last streetcars rolled down Central Street on November 23, 1935, carrying passengers to Dyche Stadium for an NU football game. [Buckley, pp. 24-5]