Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Old Curiosity Shop for May 2021: Goin’ to Chicago 

Bobby Boy Visits the Windy City in September 1971

You’ve seen my accounts of visiting San Francisco, now it was time to seek adventures further afield.  In San Francisco, I had ridden the Southern Pacific “commutes”, the local trains that ran between The City and San Jose; but this was just one route.  Chicago had suburban service trains running in all directions except due east—that would require steamboats.

In 1971, I finally had a chance to head east and visit places that still had electric railway operations other than local streetcars.  The original plan was to take an “auto driveaway” car from LA to Chicago, using my gas credit card for fuel and staying in Motel 6 type lodging.  This was cancelled at the last minute, so I took the Amtrak Super Chief/El Capitan to Chi-Town.  Although it was now run by Amtrak, the train and most of the personnel were still Santa Fe.  Here the Hi-level streamliner loads up in Winslow, Arizona, about a year before the Eagles recorded Take It Easy, the song that would make this stop on Route 66 at part of pop music lore.

Before leaving home, I did a bit of research and found that for a really cheap alternative to sleeping under a railroad bridge, Planters Hotel in the middle of the Loop area was the place.   It was on Clark St. just north of Madison.  One disadvantage from my point of view—there were no views of the elevated trains from that location.  I think there was one other hostelry that was listed under “desperation time” and it may have been the one used in the Blues Brothers movie as “The abode of one Mr. Elwood Blues.”  Planters had rather sparsely-furnished rooms, with one electric outlet which was labeled DIRECT CURRENT.  Like many really old buildings in New York and Boston, Planters had 110 volts DC in the wiring.  Guests were cautioned not to plug in any device labeled “AC Only”.  The fan in my room was US Navy surplus; many ships were wired for 110 DC in the old days.  Even the bathrooms were from another era, with claw-footed tubs and Fuller faucets, a type that had become obsolete back around World War I.  Instead of washers, they had “Fuller balls”, which were on a rod actuated by a crank on the faucet handle shaft.  I remember items in old issues of Popular Mechanics that called for using Fuller balls in non-plumbing applications.  Ask for a Fuller ball at a hardware store now, and you’ll get a blank look.  By the next time I visited Chi-Town, there was a vacant lot where Planters had been. 

One of my reasons for going to  Chicago was to ride the elevated railways.  In 1971 they still had some of the old cars from the 1920s, but they usually ran on only one line, the Evanston Express, which had been highly recommended by fans from the area.  I wasn’t disappointed; these venerable cars would roar along, just as fast as the motormen would dare run them.

While riding one of these relics, I chatted with a young woman who had just bought a copy of Tapestry by Carole King. I commented on how one of the songs was especially meaningful to Californians: I Feel the Earth Move.  Of course I liked the cover with the nice tabby cat in the photo.

One of the first things I did (after getting settled at the hotel and taking a shower) was to ride the South Shore Line electric interurban which I would ride to the end in South Bend, Indiana later in the week.  My first trip was just to Hammond, Ind., but it meant crossing into another state.  For Southern California natives, being in another state after traveling a little over 20 miles seems a bit strange.  From my home in San Gabriel, the nearest state line is the international boundary between the US and Mexico, about 150 miles.  Going to another US state is more than 200 miles, unless you want to go to Oregon—that’s more than 670 miles.

The next day was Sunday, so I took the Northwest “L” line to the Jefferson Park terminal and continued to O’Hare Airport by bus.  Fast forward to my Chicago visit in 1985, when the trains started running all the way to the airport, terminating in a very impressive station. At the airport, I rented a car to visit the two railway museums in the Chicago area.  The first was “RELIC” which is now called the Fox River Trolley Museum.  The museum operates on the remnant of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railway, which in 1971 still had occasional freight business delivering coal to the Illinois State Hospital with a small industrial diesel locomotive.  After riding this scenic railway along the west bank of the Fox River, I headed for Union IL, and the Illinois Ry. Museum.  This involved my first experience with a toll highway, and in those days travelers were advised to keep a stock of coins to feed the automatic toll collectors at rural off-ramps.   At one point on the toll road, I crossed Illinois State Highway 47, but this was several years before that route was made famous by the Blues Brothers.  IRM was just getting started, having arrived at the Union location in the mid-1960s and started operations in 1967.  Like  Orange Empire, IRM started as a trolley museum and more recently has acquired an impressive array of diesel locomotives.  Their operable steam locomotive had been down for a major overhaul, but they can now run steam, diesel and electric trains.


Illinois Railway Museum volunteers working on a Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban car with hand tools and out in the open.  Today’s IRM has several car barns and work shops. 

In addition to the “L” trains, Chicago is served by several commuter rail lines.  The one that interested me the most was the Illinois Central electric suburban operation, followed by the Rock Island.  To combine the two railroads, I took the IC Electric train to Blue Island, a branch line that ended about a block from the Rock Island station. The IC train made an unscheduled stop in the yard just south of the terminal.  There had been a derailment, and two company officials rode to the site to investigate.  One of them was Mr. Mullins, whose name was in the news some months later when there was a serious wreck further south that involved injuries and was fortunately near a large hospital.  Since this was an off-peak train, there weren’t many passengers, and Lou,  the motorman, invited me to come up front for a cab ride.


At one point we stopped and he got off to confer with a South Shore crew—IC and South Shore share tracks and wire for about ten miles before the South Shore turns eastward on its own tracks and heads for Indiana.  We continued on, switching to the Blue Island branch heading westward.  Lou asked what kind of work I did back in California, and when I told him “electronics”, he said, “We could use you.  We’re getting these new modern cars that have electronic control systems.  With these old clunkers, if something gets hung up in the switch group, you can poke around with a flag stick until everything drops out, then you’re good to go.  With these new cars, if you poke around, you’re likely to fry a $3000 module.”  Then he asked if I had children; when I told him that I had two daughters, he started extolling the virtues of the suburb where he lived, with reasonable house prices and a fine school system. But I didn’t stop by the IC headquarters and put in an application, and about four months later Chicago was clobbered by a major winter storm, while I was in sunny California.  We arrived at the IC Blue Island terminal, and I went across the street to the local diner for breakfast.  I was waiting for my order to come up, and saw this weird looking locomotive in the Rock Island yard.  I told the waitress that I’d be right back, grabbed my camera and took this photo.


One of the locals couldn’t understand my excitement. “That thing comes by here every day” and I replied “But I don’t!”  This was one of two locomotives built for the Rock Island’s Rocky Mountain Rocket train, which went from Chicago to Colorado.  When it got to Limon CO, the train would split, one section going to Denver and the other to Colorado Springs.  The lead engine, a more normal looking streamliner, would go to Denver, while the other segment, with this oddity for power, went to Colorado Springs.  By 1971, Rock Island passenger service to Colorado was ancient history and this unit was assigned to commuter service. After getting my photo, I resumed breakfast, then got some more Rock Island pix.  These were to share with my daughters, who knew about the Rock Island Line from hearing Johnny Cash sing about it.   Now it was time to “Ride it like you find it” taking one of their locals back to downtown Chicago.

And here it comes!  I think this was my first experience with a “push-pull” train set, where inbound runs are operated from the control cab in the end passenger car.  Normally, the locomotive pushes on inbound runs, so passengers don’t have to walk by a noisy machine to enter the terminal station.  Some Rock Island locals start at Joliet and run limited to Chicago; others start at Blue Island and take an alternate suburban line that goes through the Beverly Hills neighborhood, with stops every half-mile or so (closer than the stations on the LA Metro Gold Line east of Pasadena).

One of the first things I did Monday morning was to check in at the Chicago Transit Authority public relations office in the Merchandise Mart building.  I met Mr. Robert Heinlein (not the Sci-Fi author and asked about a photo permit for taking pictures on the CTA system.  He said that these were not required, and asked if I would like a guided tour of the Skokie Shops, where the “L” cars were maintained.  Of course I said “Yes” and the next morning I met one of the supervisors at the shop complex on the north side of the city.  During one part of the tour, he showed me the parts store room.  I was ready to take a photo and one of the parts clerks started giving me a hard time.  My host turned around and told the young man to back off, commenting “Make this guy third assistant parts man and he thinks he owns the place.”  Later on, we were out behind the main shop buildings near the scrap track, where old transit cars were being cut up.  I asked if it was OK to take pictures, and my guide said, “Sure, it’ll let everyone know we’re getting rid of the old clunkers.”

New cars recently arrived at the shops—two similar cars are now at Illinois Railway Museum

The boneyard—after 40 to 50 years of service, the old cars become scrap iron.  Several of the CTA cars that were built in the 1920s have been preserved.

CTA still had a bit of freight business when I was there, but this electric locomotive wouldn’t be switching the coal and lumber yard until late at night.  It’s similar to the Pacific Electric freight motors that went by our house in Monrovia, taking the rock products from Azusa into LA.  Yes that’s me in the cab. 

If I had followed the original plan of driving to Chicago, I would have used a lot of my vacation time just to get there, and by the time I had covered the museums, CTA and the commuter trains it would have been time to come home.  But by taking the train, I had time to go further east, and visit Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with a side trip into New Jersey.  We’ll cover that section of the transit survey in a future report.

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