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Chicago History Rides the Ravenswood El

Margot DiMuzio
Jamieson School, Chicago

Known as the Brown Line, the Ravenswood El has been a highly visible part of Chicago history for more than ninety years. It is part of the Chicago Transit Authority's Rapid Transit System. The Ravenswood threads its way 9.3 miles through the city's North Side. While riding on it, nearly a century of history will pass right next to you.

On October 25, 1893, the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company was incorporated. The Northwestern Company had money to build a new train route. It built the Ravenswood route. On May 18, 1907, the Ravenswood El was incorporated and service was started. It took one year to build the north section of the Ravenswood. It took about five years to build the south section. It is a "heavy rail" transportation system, and it includes nineteen stops. The journey begins at Kimball (3400W/

A locomotive El train engine pulls passenger cars through a Chicago neighborhood.


4800N). This station is at the corner of Kimball and Lawrence Avenues, in the heart of the Albany Park neighborhood. The station is a 1960s style, low-slung station constructed of beige brick and white steel. Curving east the El next arrives at Kedzie (3200W/4700N), the first of three small stations with island platforms. Kedzie has a newer station house at the eastern end of the platform. The next stop is Francisco (2900W/4700N), at an older-looking station house at the east end of the platform. After crossing the North Branch of the Chicago River over a bridge, the El stops at Rockwell (2600W/4700N). It also has an older island platform station with a small stationhouse at the east end. The next and first elevated stop is Western (2400W/4700N), the northernmost of five Chicago Transit Authority stops along Western Avenue. Service started between this stop and Belmont on May 18, 1907. This station is of fairly modern design. It features two large platforms and a large canopy roof. Damen (2000W/4700N) is the next stop and has an older station with side platforms and a vintage stationhouse at street level. The Damen station is being considered for historical landmark status. This would mean no changes could occur; a new station would then be built adjacent to this original stop. After the tracks curve south the train arrives at Montrose (4400N/ 1800W), followed by Irving Park (4000N/1800W), and then by Addison (3600N/1800W). All three of these stations have two-side platforms and fare control in small stationhouses. After Addison, the tracks curve east to Paulina (1700W/3400N), a station also with side platforms and long sets of stairs, Southport (1400W/3400N), and Belmont (3200N/1000W). The next stop is Wellington (3000N/1000W) followed by Diversey (2800N/1000W). Diversey has a station in the Lincoln Park/Lakeview neighborhoods. It has dangerously narrow platforms. Fullerton (2400N/1000W) and Armitage (2000N/1000W) follow. Just after Sedgwick (300W/1200N) the train turns east to the Chicago (800N/300W) stop. This station has long side platforms that follow the curve of the tracks. Continuing southward above Franklin Street, the El arrives at the Merchandise Mart (400N/200W) which has wide, side platforms. After Merchandise Mart the Ravenswood El circles the Loop before heading back to Kimball.

The Ravenswood El's name was changed to the Brown Line after the CTA changed the trains' names to colors in 1994. The names were changed because the CTA wanted to make the system easier to understand. They also added signs to the front of the trains.

On March 19, 1951, all electric cars were placed in service after replacing the steam locomotives. Some major accidents happened. In 1977 at Lake and Wabash, a Lake Street train hit the Ravenswood, and it derailed. Some cars fell into the street. In the early 1980s at Lake and Wells, the Ravenswood derailed turning north to Merchandise Mart. In the 1980s, after being approved by the CTA board, construction began on a new elevated station at Western Avenue on the Ravenswood route. The new station featured two elevators and two escalators. On April 10, 1989, more service, longer hours, and more cars were added to the Ravenswood because ridership had increased.

A part of the area served more immigrants in the 1990s than any other part of Chicago. This area was in the neighborhood known as Albany Park. Now, people of many backgrounds make up Ravenswood's ridership, and more tolerant times have eliminated conflicts among the different groups that use this interurban transit system.

In 1992 the El celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. The El is so much a part of city life, Chicagoans are scarcely aware of it. This includes the Ravenswood El.

In November of 1997 the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS)—a local metropolitan planning organization—included the Ravenswood Line extension in its transportation plans. This project would expand stations and platforms and straighten curves to allow the CTA to operate longer trains. In November 1999 the line expansion was built.

Through the years service and ridership increased. In the 1920s ridership picked up for the whole El system. The El carried 220 million people weekly. But, after World War II service fell off because of auto ownership. Many people decided it was cheaper to buy a car than to ride the train. For a time, the Ravenswood lost Sunday service downtown. It has now become more popular than when it was first built. Even though auto ownership is up, downtown parking fees continue to climb, so many people are once again using the CTA to travel downtown. The line currently carries approximately 104,000 on weekday boardings.

Many people feel that the Ravenswood El is an antique. "No city in America will ever build anything like the Ravenswood El again," according to one writer. It is a classic form of transportation that would be difficult to reproduce today. It would also be sorely missed by Chicagoans who depend on this line to commute to work but who often do not appreciate the history behind it.—[From Bruce Moffat, The "L": The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932; Alan Ehrenhalt, "On the Right Track," Preservation (Mar./Apr. 2001); CTA, "Brown Line, Ravenswood Brochure"; Jack Bess, "Brown line gets saddle, horse expected to follow," News-Star, Aug. 10, 1994; Patrick Butler, "Officials say transit program is essential," Booster, Mar. 19, 1997; Ron Grossman, "Shaped by the L," Chicago Tribune/Tempo, May 31, 1992; Phyllis Magida, "Adventures on the Ravenswood," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 1986; Marc PoKempner, "Working on the Ravenswood," Reader, Feb. 17, 1984; "Historical highlights of the Ravenswood elevated line," Good


News Weekly, July 19, 1989; CTA Metropolitan Transit, "Chicago Stations," Chicago (Nov. 30, 2001); CTA Metropolitan Transit, "Kimball: Stations," kimball (Nov. 30, 2001); Rapid Transit Authority-Northwestern Elevated, Northwestern Elevated— Important Dates, chictafan/crtnw.html?mtbrand=AOL US (Nov. 30, 2001).]


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