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Friday, December 1

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This week's question was submitted by Ramsin. Thank you.

Q. I know originally the public transit lines in Chicago were privately owned (mainly by a guy named Charles Yerkes, I believe); how, when and why did they become public?

"Charles Tyson Yerkes lost a fortune in Philadelphia, made a new one in Chicago, gave the city transportation when it needed it, woke the enmity of a combination of the city's most powerful men of finance, bludgeoned his way to success through legislative lobbies, 'back room' threats, and all in all, led one of the most colorful lives ever led in Chicago." (Gilbert and Bryson, 1929)

Charles Yerkes, born to Quaker parents in 1837, was simply the most important developer of Chicago's mass transit system in the late-nineteenth century. He made his first fortune in Philadelphia in the middle of the century as a banker specializing in the bond market. But, when the bond market crashed in 1871 after the Great Chicago Fire, Yerkes was financially ruined and famously spent seven months in jail serving an embezzlement conviction. Though the Pennsylvania governor was persuaded by a group of wealthy Philadelphians to pardon Yerkes, controversy surrounding his business practices followed Yerkes throughout his career. After his pardon, Charles Yerkes quickly resumed his brokerage business and rebuilt his fortune. Yerkes then left Philadelphia and settled in Chicago in 1881 during a period of unprecedented growth for the city.

In 1860, Chicago comprised only 17.5 square miles and had a population of just over 100,000 people. The chief mode of mass transit at the time was the horse-pulled streetcar. This so-called horsecar consisted of a box-shaped wooden coach with flanged wheels that rode on rails laid in the streets. The largest cars seated up to thirty people and were pulled by a team of two horses. Since the average speed of a horse walking in city traffic is about three miles per hour, one of the only real advantages of traveling by horsecar was being able to avoid wading through the considerable mud of Chicago's streets.

However, in just one decade, Chicago's population nearly tripled and the city limits doubled to 35 square miles. By the time Yerkes arrived in 1881, Chicago was home to more than half a million people, and about 380,000 of those lived within a three-mile radius of the downtown area. Horsecars were no longer adequate to service the explosive growth of the city, and Charles Yerkes recognized an opportunity for investment.

In the 1870s, after the successful implementation of a cable car system in San Francisco, Chicago seized upon the opportunity to modernize its system and replace the horse-drawn streetcar. The first cable car line in Chicago was completed in 1882, located along State Street and stretching four miles south from Madison Avenue to 21st Street. By 1894, Chicago had more than 86 miles of cable tracks.

The history of the competing businesses that were responsible for the early building of Chicago's street railway system is hopelessly complicated and well outside the scope of this short column. Suffice to say, Charles Tyson Yerkes saw the opportunity to make a huge profit by buying up the transit companies, then organizing and consolidating the system. With the help of several business partners, the North Chicago City Railway was his first acquisition in 1886. Then, just two years later, he gained control of the Chicago West Division Railway. At the height of his empire, Yerkes owned more than half of the private elevated railway companies in the city as well as the majority of the streetcar system.

Though he often used ruthless business tactics that earned him a reputation as a robber baron, Yerkes modernized and expanded Chicago's transit system, laying over 250 miles of track and playing a lead role in the development and construction of the Loop elevated line. But, amid scandal and charges of bribery, Yerkes left Chicago in 1900, selling the majority of his transit holdings, and moved to New York.

When Charles Yerkes left Chicago, his transit holdings were worth about five million dollars, but, overall, the business of rapid transit was hardly profitable. From an accounting standpoint, Chicago's transit companies continually flirted with bankruptcy. In order to ensure the future of the system, the successor to Yerkes' empire, Samuel Insull, completely consolidated the four remaining distinct elevated railway companies in 1924, creating the Chicago Rapid Transit Company. But the Great Depression followed by World War II, combined with the rise of the automobile, crippled the rapid transit system.

The problems of privately-owned rapid transit were manifold, and it was clear by the 1940s that the elevated and street railway companies in Chicago would not survive on their own. Consequently, on April 12, 1945, by Act of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois, the Chicago Transit Authority was created to acquire the city's public transportation system. The CTA was able to buy the cable car and elevated lines, and, by 1947, the city had fully taken over all elevated and street railway transit operations.

The real struggle, however, was yet to come. The CTA needed to streamline and modernize the newly unified system while hampered, as it still is today, by legislation requiring that half of its operating revenues come from fares, but that, perhaps, is a story for another day.


Chicago "L".org

Gilbert, Paul Thomas and Charles Lee Bryson. Chicago and Its Makers. Chicago: F. Mendelsohn, 1929.

Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Young, David. Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian"? Send your suggestions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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Ramsin / November 27, 2003 3:32 AM

Alice- This is the topic for my senior thesis in History. At first, I found it fascinating (and you certainly rendered it so). After five or so trips to Northwestern's Library of Transportation and countless hours poring over the proceedings of the City Council between 1907-1947, I realized something: it's not.

But surprisingly, I couldn't find much about Yerkes (since, as you pointed out, he ditched the city before the turn of the century), so this was a real help. There's no biography of Yerkes, although there is one about Sam Insull. Oh, and Theodore Dresier wrote a fictional trilogy about Yerkes, called I believe, "Titan."


Alice / November 27, 2003 1:41 PM

Have you read the Young book? There's quite a lot on Yerkes in there, and I would definitely check the excellent bibliography in the back of his book. There are a lot of good, general Chicago transportation histories from which you can piece together Yerkes' life story.

But, yes, Drieser fictionalized the life of Yerkes as the character Frank Cowperwood in his "Cowperwood" trilogy which, in addition to The Titan (book 2), included The Financier (book 1) and The Stoic (3).

Glad you liked it. Now I'm off to gorge myself on turkey. Happy Thanksgiving all.


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