As the "L" carried Chicagoans to work and home for the past 121 years, its girders and beams provided a rusty picture frame for the city's skyline and neighborhoods. The screech of binding wheels as a line of cars bends around its tight curves created the unmistakable soundtrack of a big city.
Born of a simple idea — getting commuters above congested street traffic — the elevated rail line not only became emblematic of a no-nonsense industrial powerhouse, but also stitched Chicago together as the system branched into new neighborhoods, offering riders a tempting peek into life in its mansions and tenements.
A Tribune reporter noted of its June 6, 1892, inaugural run: "Those who made observation trips early in the day were well-repaid for the trouble, for the people living on either side of the tracks had seemingly forgotten the warning about the start, and the passengers saw bits of domestic life generally hidden from the gaze of passing crowds. Late risers were confronted with the alternatives of lying in bed until darkness came again, or watching until there would be no train in front, giving them the opportunity of pulling down the all-concealing blind."
As that first leg, running above the alley between State Street and Wabash Avenue, was about to open, the Tribune, judging that it would be big, sent a correspondent to ride New York's elevated train. He said Chicagoans should expect congestion to follow them up the stairs to the ticket window. "While you are picking up your change the crowd behind you will try to walk up your back, but if you remain firm they can't do it," he advised.
He proved prophetic, another Tribune reporter noting a downside to the Alley "L"'s immediate popularity. "In fact, at the present rate of push and shove incident to every train, it is only a question of time as to when every man and woman in Chicago who travels that way will become dyspeptic, and the peace and quiet of many a home will be threatened with destruction," he wrote in 1893.
The sound of the "L" was as memorable as its look. Long after leaving his home town, novelist Albert Harper recalled it in a short story, "My Aunt Daisy," describing her sitting on a Chicago back porch "while a hundred yards to the south the Lake Street elevated roared and crashed along, hurtling its racket through the summer night like long-range artillery."
Through much of its history, the "L" was called upon to provide real people-moving muscle when needed. One of the first was an extension to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. Another branch ran west from the Alley "L" to loop the stockyards, providing an awe-inspiring view of a sea of cattle and hogs. Another branch line ran east from the Alley "L" to Kenwood, carrying the "beef barons" who owned the packing companies to the lakeshore mansions.
Northwest Siders got a widening perspective on back porches and rear windows as elevated structures snaked through neighborhoods along the Ravenswood line. Branch lines had their own branches, like the Humboldt Park line that came off of the Logan Square line and the diminutive Normal Park branch that ran south for a few blocks from the Englewood branch. Riders on the West Side's Metropolitan line might see the special funeral car carrying mourners and the departed to Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park. The North Side "L" overlooked Graceland Cemetery with its mausoleums and memorial columns of Chicago's former movers and shakers.
For others, the new vantage point provided unwanted information.
Harold Blake Walker, the paper's religion columnist, bemoaned "the decaying factories and rubble filled empty lots." "Reading Henry Thoreau's 'Walden Pond' on an elevated train racing toward Chicago is an incongruous experience, like trying to swim in an empty pool," Walker wrote.
Nelson Algren saw that bleak landscape at ground level, where the alternating stripes of light and shadow cast by railroad ties high overhead were reminiscent of a battlefield.