TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Remembering The Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railway: July 3, 1957

Remembering The Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railway: July 3, 1957

Danny Burstein (
Sat, 30 Jun 2007 20:19:15 EDT

( courtesy of a posting in alt.obituaries )

Remembering The CA&E Railway

Bob Roberts Reporting

Imagine the chaos that would result if a commuter rail line took
thousands of Chicagoans to work -- and no one home. Imagine the chaos
that would occur if it happened the afternoon before a major holiday.

It happened July 3, 1957, a day that was unique in Chicago history.

It was the day the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Ry. (CA&E), a line that had
served Chicago's western suburbs, DuPage and eastern Kane Counties
since 1902, quit operating in the middle of the day.

The railroad essentially took more than 6,000 people to work that day
and no one home, an unprecedented act that was front-age news and
created such chaos in the western suburbs that both of the Chicago
area's major rail museums will commemorate the event with
're-enactments' this weekend.

"It was pure, unadulterated hell that day," said Ed Allen, now 73
years old and in retirement following an electric railway career that
took him after the CA&E to Iowa and then Cleveland. "But it's a soul
experience I will never, ever forget."

In 1957, Allen lived near the railroad's nerve center, its Wheaton
shops. Three days a week he was an electrical inspector in the shops.
Two days a week, he was an inspector/switchman at the Forest Park
terminal, making up or uncoupling trains, performing electrical repair
work and loading newspapers aboard trains. That put him in the eye of
the storm the day the railroad quit.

There was no warning that trouble was at hand when the eastbound
express from Forest Park pulled in at 11:52 a.m. Then Allen saw the
railroad's trainmaster, M.O. Caliahan, step from the train onto the

"He went into the phone booth while the motorman and conductor were
looking at me," Allen recalls. "I was looking at them and thinking,
Why aren't they bringing it down for loading? There are a lot of
people down here."

It was at that moment that officials in Wheaton pulled the plug.

"(He) walked back into the train, they closed the doors, they put
white flags on the front, which meant it was an extra train with
nobody on it, and they went tearing through the station and on their
way back out to Wheaton. So I called the Wheaton dispatcher's tower
and told them, 'The 12:25 train just went through here with the crew
and trainmaster. What's going on? I've got a lot of people here
waiting to get on.'"

Allen says the response was a shock -- and not just to him.

"I haven't gotten around to calling you yet", the dispatcher told
Allen. "We're temporarily suspended.'"

Everything else continued to run like clockwork at the Forest Park
terminal. Only there were no CA&E trains.

"Another (CTA) train pulled through there, and more people got off the
elevated line and were on our platform, and before you knew it, the
whole platform was loaded with people from one end to another and here
the ticket agent was still announcing trains, and we had no more
trains," Allen said.

Allen pushed his way through the crowd to tell ticket agent Malcolm
Lyons what was up. The reaction as riders overheard them and the word
spread through the crowd was unlike anything you've ever seen in a
1950s-era Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell painting.

To put it politely, Allen said, it was a mini-riot.

"We had benches on the platform, and they pulled the benches off and
threw them down on the track," Allen said. "They were hoping to short
out the third rail against the running rail with those metal benches.
Then they came down and got the lanterns we used to carry on the back
end of the train and the headlights, because we had portable
headlights, and they threw them off against the third rail."

Soon, everything that could be thrown had been. The roiling mob still
hadn't shorted out the third rail, and Allen was becoming anxious. It
was at about this time that a newspaper photographer arrived and
snapped a photo of Allen with one phone up to his right ear, and another
in his left hand. To call the look on Allen's face perturbed is an

It was time to plot an escape route, and the CA&E provided him one.

"The Wheaton tower called ... and said to get the train out that's
stored down there for evening service," Allen said. Ever the good
employee, he had a dilemma.

"I said, 'Where will I take it?' because I was not allowed to run on
the main line," Allen said. "I was told there were no more trains so
what's the difference where I'm running."

The dispatcher told him to take the train to a spot opposite the
Public Service Co. material yard, east of 1st Avenue in Maywood, where
a crew would be driven in from Wheaton to pick up the train. Allen
said the dispatcher told him to stop short of the trip for the
crossing protection, so the gates wouldn't stay down.

"I went running out of the place," Allen said. So did Lyons. The
angriest in the crowd were right behind.

"People were trying to follow me down there to get on that train,
because they thought it would be a way to get out," said Allen, who
endured a two-hour wait. "Then, here comes a car with a driver, a
motorman and a conductor. We brought the last train out of Forest

There was warning. In fact, the CA&E had threatened to suspend service
several times and had informed the public that after June 30, 1957,
service was day-to-day. Cook County Superior Court Judge Donald S.
McKinlay presided over a highly-publicized hearing the morning of July
3, at which railroad officials stated that the CA&E had lost $3
million since 1953, when service had been cut back from downtown
Chicago to Forest Park to facilitate the construction of what would
become the Eisenhower Expressway.

The era of public subsidies had not yet arrived, and the CA&E made the
case that it cold no longer stand on its own financially as a
passenger carrier.

Contemporary newspaper accounts state that Aurora Mayor Paul Egan
offered to put up his home, valued at $14,000, to keep the railroad in
business through the holiday weekend, but Judge McKinlay said it would
be "embarrassing" to take away the mayor's home. Still, former CTA
Executive Director George Krambles said in a 1997 interview, it was
difficult for the public to believe the railroad would shut down so

"There was a feeling of, 'You've cried wolf so many times. Are you
really going to do it?' The public was a little incredulous that it
was actually happening."

Krambles said the CTA found out about the suspension in service about
the same time Allen did. They had to race into action.

"CA&E riders all went to work without the slightest idea that anything
was wrong," he said. "The CTA got caught in the mess a little bit
because we had also carried all those people to work. We could carry
them back to Desplaines Avenue, but then what? How do we get the word
to them?"

At that time, Krambles notes, television was not a source for breaking
news. Chicago had no all-news radio station, and the afternoon
newspapers were not yet on the streets.

Krambles' title at that time was operations planning engineer. He was
one of the CTA people who planned operations mighty fast that afternoon.

"All of us, including myself, were out on elevated platforms where
people were boarding to go home and we were warning them that there
wouldn't be any Aurora & Elgin trains out there," Krambles said.

It was a job made more difficult in an era before widespread
loudspeakers on 'L' platforms. Only a fraction of the CTA's rapid
transit fleet even had on-board speakers.

The West Towns Bus Co. provided service from the Desplaines Avenue
terminal to the Harlem Avenue terminal of the Lake Street "L" line.
From there, the Leyden Motor Coach Co. rushed buses into service to
take riders as far west as Wheaton. The paralleling Chicago & North
Western Ry. (today's Metra Union Pacific West Line) soon modified
service and quickly became a major commuter carrier in the western
suburbs, a status it could never achieve until the CA&E's end was in

The CA&E couldn't bid its employees goodbye so quickly.

"That happened so fast that the employees never got a notice through
the union. They had to keep us employed two weeks further, even though
no service was running," said Allen, who recalls that during those two
weeks he reported to Wheaton Shops and essentially did "nothing."

The CA&E's death throes would be protracted.

"I personally prepared plans for how the CTA might handle that
property if we had a way to finance it," Krambles said. "There was no
way at that time."

The plan would have utilized some of the streamlined streetcars being
retired from Chicago's streets at that time, running as far west as

Contemporary accounts quote Kenneth A. Van Sickle, CA&E board
chairman, as saying, "We hope that the service may be restored promptly."

Allen remembers the tax referendum that was narrowly defeated as the
CA&E's freight service staggered on, but he believes the railroad's
owners hoped for defeat.

"Nobody (in management) really wanted that railroad to run again,"
Allen said. "The Aurora Corporation had bought all the stock of the
railroad. The Aurora & Elgin was worth more to the Aurora Corporation
out of business than it was in business."

Amazingly, though, the railroad was not allowed to go to seed as it
awaited the scrapper's torch.

"We were called back to work," Allen said. "We started to rebuild
cars, some of the better cars. We put new roofs on cars, new floors,
aluminum window frames, windows, reupholstered seats and painted a lot
of cars. In fact, they painted everything on the Aurora & Elgin ... red
and gray. Even the phone booths, the fences, the stations. Everything
had a fresh coat of paint on it."

The CTA even built its new "L" line down the Congress (now Eisenhower)
Expressway with the CA&E in mind, leaving room for a third express
track in many places, including concrete portals where the "L" line
passes underneath the expressway from the south near Cicero Avenue and
at Halsted Street, where it heads into the Dearborn subway. In
addition, CA&E trackage was relocated west of the Forest Park terminal
and the Des Plaines River bridge was moved, to a location just north
of the expressway.

Nonetheless, it was "a ruse," Allen said, charging that the railroad
that proclaimed "courtesy always" on its employee timetables had done
what it could before cessation of service to undermine its chances for

"They systematically dynamited the railroad out from under itself,"
Allen said. "They made schedules on timetables purposely so they would
not meet a CTA train (at Forest Park). A CTA train would pull out and
then we would pull in. Now all the people had to stand on the platform
in the rain or the cold or everything else at Forest Park and wait for
the next train."

The CA&E lasted as a freight carrier until the spring of 1959. Formal
abandonment was granted in 1961. Allen stayed with the moribund
railroad until 1962, becoming its last employee. He still mourns what
happened that hot, July day.

"The western suburbs all the way to the Fox River lost something
worthwhile," Allen said. "You know, in 1957, that was a lot of
cornfields west of Wheaton and now it's all built up ... Think of what
it would have been like to have a suburban commuter service running
through there."

Krambles took a slightly different view in his 1997 interview, but agreed.

"The commuters in this area are very lucky that the North Western
Railway was here to pick up some of that load for the commuters," he
said. "The property values of the area no doubt suffered from the
removal of that service. So there is a cash justification for people
supporting public transportation."

Today, where CA&E trains once streaked along the rails at 70 miles an
hour, the Illinois Prairie Path has taken its place. CA&E interurban
cars can be seen in two Chicago-area museums, the Fox River Trolley
Museum, in South Elgin, and the Illinois Railway Museum, in Union. The
Fox River collection includes CA&E 20, the last surviving car from the
railroad's first day of operation in August 1902, which will be
featured (weather permitting) at the museum's CA&E Days celebration
this weekend, including a re-enactment both days at noon of the sudden
cessation of service. The Illinois Railway Museum has a similar
re-enactment scheduled at noon Sunday.

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