Gazette Article by: James A. Sprowl
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2005
Fifty years ago, an inter-urban, electrified railroad known as the Chicago, North Shore, and Milwaukee Railroad (the “North Shore Line”) ran its last trains through Winnetka. The North Shore Line had begun regular service through Winnetka, traveling between Evanston and Waukegan, in 1899. Until the Line’s demise in 1955, its electrified trains carried Winnetkans to downtown Chicago and other suburban towns. Families rode these trains to shop at department stores, visit friends and relatives across town, or see a movie on Friday and Saturday nights at the Community House.
The North Shore Line featured trains made up of one to six self-propelled, green cars with red window trim. One could not walk from one car to the next, so each car had to have its own conductor. Air brakes within each car were pumped up by electric motors that continually started and stopped, making a throbbing sound as the trains stood in the station. 600-volt D.C. motors mounted in each truck powered the wheels of each car directly and made a sound quite similar to the one made by the great drawbridges over the Chicago River.
The North Shore trains traveled north from Chicago on the tracks of the Chicago Transit Authority and its predecessors to Wilmette’s Linden Avenue CTA station. The North Shore tracks proceeded one block north and then turned left, became “streetcar tracks,” and continued down the middle of Greenleaf Avenue. In downtown Wilmette the tracks turned right (north) and then ran parallel to the present Union Pacific/Metra tracks through Winnetka and on to Waukegan.
Service was extended north to Milwaukee in 1908, but that year the electric railroad went into receivership. In 1916 Samuel Insull bought up the North Shore Line and improved it. Direct service to Chicago (with no need to change trains) commenced in 1919.
In 1932 Samuel Insull’s electrical empire collapsed, a casualty of the Depression, and the North Shore Line went into bankruptcy for the second time. Although it remained in receivership until 1946, it was during this time that the massive project of depressing Winnetka’s railroad tracks took place. Envisioned as far back as 1896, the grade separation finally began in 1938, thanks in part to the involvement of Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, prominent Winnetkan Harold Ickes. The first train went over the newly-depressed tracks on November 3, 1940, and the project was completed in 1942. None of the other villages north of Evanston succeeded in carrying out a similar grade separation project.
During World War II, everyone relied heavily upon the trains. Profits made during the War years permitted the North Shore Line to be reorganized and sold in 1946, but ridership soon declined. After the War, families began owning two cars. The Edens Expressway opened in 1951, and the Old Orchard and Edens Plaza shopping centers were built soon thereafter. The railroad petitioned to abandon the “Shore Line Route” through Winnetka in 1948 and again in 1954; the request was granted in 1955.
The ground over which electrified cars used to travel is now a paved bicycle and hiking path named the “Green Bay Trail.” The Illinois Train Museum in Union, Illinois maintains two steel North Shore cars that carry visitors on short train trips on most summer weekends.