The Lowdown on Cable Cars in Chicago (Nary a One Since 1906)

The Lowdown on Cable Cars in Chicago (Nary a One Since 1906)
Me and the book photo/BruceOltman

I haven't thought about cable cars or trolleys or streetcars or anything like that since I last road a streetcar in 1958.  I didn't even know I hadn't ridden a streetcar since 1958 until popular South Loop writer Greg Borzo gave a talk at the Harold Washington Library last week about his new book, "Chicago Cable Cars," and told us that that was the last year they ran.  He explained that cable cars ruled from 1882 until 1906 and trolleys and streetcars from then on--until 1958.  The big difference between the two being that cable cars were mechanical--the operators physically grabbed onto moving cables buried beneath the street with a grip--and trolleys and streetcars were propelled by electrical wires above the tracks on the major streets. The power for the cable cars was provided by strategically placed power houses--the most recognizable being the defunct one at 500 N. LaSalle Street, which in recent years has been a number of failed restaurants.

Before this book, Borzo, who lives across the street from Harold Washington Library, was known for two others:  "The Chicago '"L"' and "Where to Bike Chicago."  (What could be next?  "Chariots, Covered Wagons  and Rickshaws I Have Known?")  He's definitely a local transportation expert.

Borzo says no one he knew was aware that Chicago had 82 miles of cable cars in its day.  No one.  Chicago cable cars, which was a pretty safe way to travel, got up to speeds of 14 miles per hour and carried a billion riders during their time.  Only San Francisco had more.

There's little cable car history in Chicago to experience.  But Borzo is definitely changing that landscape.  The book skillfully reminds readers of a few remaining physical vestiges:  like the Hyde Park Historical Society at 5529 S. Lake Park--which is a former cable car waiting room.

Borzo spoke to a filled Pritzker Auditorium at the library.  A fun reception on the Plymouth rooftop followed.  So there appears to be a lot of people interested in learning about the old cable cars.  I sure was, especially when I found out that the original Chicago cable car route--from Madison to 21st Street--went right past where my house stands at Roosevelt and State.  But alas, when ComEd began tearing up the street in recent months for their new smart grid project, the rails that they unearthed were not cable car-related.  Borzo says they were trolley tracks from the subsequent era.  Who knew?

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