“X” is for Railroad Crossings: The “Big Ditch”

Gazette Article by Bean Carroll, Fall/Winter 2002

In 1854, the first trains arrived in Winnetka. With the building of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, Winnetka began its long history of train travel to and from Chicago. At the beginning, there were only two tracks in the Village with two trains a day. At that time, the majority of residents traveled by horse and buggy and safety risks at the railroad crossings were infrequent. As transportation improved and the automobile was invented, the electric train also made its debut in Winnetka. There were now four railroad tracks going through town. With the increased ease of travel to the city, the population of Winnetka grew, as did the number of automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians. This led to greater confusion at the street level railroad grade crossings. In 1909, there were 177 daily steam engine trains passing by and stopping in Winnetka.

The increase in rail traffic also resulted in an increase in the number of crossing fatalities. In the 25 years prior to a fatal accident in 1937, there were 29 fatalities with numerous injuries at the crossings. The Village of Winnetka and the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad tried to solve this problem by increasing the number of gates and hiring additional employees to hold stop signs as trains passed through. But these actions did not resolve the problem. Driving home from the Community House Halloween party on October 20, 1937, Janet Getgood and Sibyl Collins Brittain were killed instantly by an empty, unlighted train on the southbound tracks of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad at the Pine Street crossing. The gates failed to operate in time and the two women were the 30th and 31st persons to lose their lives at Winnetka railroad crossings.

These 1937 fatalities were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Janet Getgood’s husband was the director of the Community House. Though Mr. Getgood made no public statement about the tragedy or his personal loss, the outraged community insisted on immediate action. The Village had considered a grade separation over the prior 20 years. Village Engineer Frank Windes had recommended a plan to lower the grade of the tracks in 1906. Though this was more expensive than grade elevation, it would not create a divided community as experienced in other towns. Instituted in 1930, FDR’s New Deal provided aid to Winnetka. At the time, former resident Harold Ickes was the Secretary of the Interior as well as the Administrator of the PWA (Public Works Administration) program started by FDR. With help from Ickes and an agreement among Winnetkans, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and the North Shore Electric, funding was obtained for the grade depression. The PWA funded 45% of the project, the Village funded 29%, and the remainder of the project was funded by the railroad companies. The Big Ditch ran from Indian Hill to Hubbard Woods. It included seven bridges, two pedestrian bridges, as well as the three train stations and necessary retaining walls. Finished in 1943, the project took five years to complete.

Early Winnetka railroad crossings and consequent fatalities led to one of the most progressive civil engineering projects of its time. Winnetkans can be thankful to those who were so forward thinking. We should remember each time we cross the railroad tracks that the risk has been eliminated. A major civil engineering project sits in our midst – the Big Ditch.

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6 Responses to ““X” is for Railroad Crossings: The “Big Ditch””

  1. May 26, 2017 at 2:53 AM #

    I remember an overhead electric train traveling from Waukegan through the town of Winnetka in the 1950s on the streets and turning eastward toward the lake and to the Linden Street station in Wilmette. Can anyone collaborate this?

  2. April 29, 2018 at 10:18 AM #

    Yes, that was the Chicago & North Shore Electric Railroad. That particular line of the railroad was eliminated in 1954, leaving only its Skokie Valley route, adjacent to the present-day Edens Expressway. That railroad went defunct in its entirety in 1963.

  3. January 20, 2020 at 12:34 AM #

    To be completely accurate, the name of the railroad was the Chicago, North Shore, and Milwaukee Railroad. It was considered to be the finest of what were called electric interurbans. Originally the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad begun shortly after the turn of the century, it was purchased and significantly upgraded by Samuel Insull, known utility magnate, who also owned and upgraded the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin and the Chicago, South Shore, & South Bend interurbans. The South Shore is one of the very few interurbans still in service.

  4. December 4, 2020 at 3:42 AM #

    The Starbucks on Dempster St. at the CTA Yellow Line (Skokie Swift)’ Northern Terminus is the former CNS&M station. Along with its ‘Kenosha Twin’, and their former ‘Briergate’ counterpart, (the small Spanish/Mediterranean style red-tiled roof building at 1495 Old Deerfield Rd. in Highland Park), are three of the few remaining ‘in-place’ vestiges of ‘The North Shore Line’, though a small handful of their original passenger cars (including one of their two former ‘Electroliner’ articulated trainsets) still routinely operate at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.

  5. Robert Willett March 22, 2021 at 11:25 AM #

    Is the Big Ditch still in existence?

  6. April 22, 2021 at 11:01 AM #

    Yes, it still exists, and is utilized by a commuter rail line as well as a bicycle trail.

    If you’ve ever seen the film “Home Alone” (1990) there is a sequence filmed in Hubbard Woods, where the protagonist runs away from a pharmacy and crosses a bridge over the Big Ditch, if you want an idea of what it looks like in more contemporary times (it hasn’t changed much in 30+ years).

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