Riding the Electroliner
The second Insull interurban was about to expire
Story and photographs © Glen Brewer
A ride to remember
My first train ride was on the blue and gray electric cars of the old Chicago Aurora & Elgin. When the end was obvious for the CA&E, I wanted to ride the lines west to Aurora and Elgin. Somehow I never got around to it; I have been kicking myself ever since.
But the CA&E was only one of three once related interurban electric railways. In the teens and twenties, Samuel Insull acquired control of all three of Chicago’s big interurbans. The other two were the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee and the Chicago South Shore & South Bend.
The interurbans, plus area trolleys and elevated railways, became a small part of Insull’s huge and complex Chicago area utility empire. What these railways had in common was that they were big users of electrical energy.
Under Insull management, many improvements were made to equipment and right-of-way. However, soon after the start of the depression, Insull’s whole empire failed. The company had strongly encouraged investment in the conglomerate, especially by employees. Many people, including many operating employees, lost significant savings just as the depression was worsening. When I was growing up in the suburbs, the name “Insull”, whenever it came up, was pronounced with unmistakable contempt.
By 1962, shortly after the CA&E was the first of the big three to be abandoned, prospects for the North Shore Line were looking especially grim. I was determined not to again lose the fleeting opportunity to ride. So, on summer break from college, I traveled into Chicago aboard the new, bi-level cars of the Chicago & North Western.
From my first trips to the Loop, I had thought of Chicago as a colorless place: The city seemed to me a study of grays and blacks. Years of layering of soot and grime, not only from locomotives, but from office, industrial and household use of coal had contributed. There always seemed to be a gray haze (we didn’t use the word smog then) hanging over the city. To add to this impression, most trains and motor vehicles were drably colored in those days immediately following the war – interurbans seemed always a striking exception.
By 1962, visible air conditions were improving, but much of the old grime remained. With the diesel and streamliner age, conventional trains were becoming more colorful but to me far less interesting.
8:00 A.M. Train No. 801: Electroliners 804-803 arriving Adams and Wabash. Motorman is white-haired Jim Wylie, age 82. Conductors Harry Cawley and John McMillan. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
At the North Shore’s small main station on the Loop elevated at Adams and Wabash, I caught the 8:00 am, bright salmon and turquoise stripped Electroliner for Milwaukee. We traveled over the sooty Loop structure with its contrasting bright silver rails around some pretty tight curves, then on to the straight, fast, ground level Skokie Valley line, one of Insull’s costly improvements. Tunnels of steel supported the catenary supplying power to the trolley poles. Our speed increased dramatically.
The CNS&M had acquired the two streamlined Electroliners from St. Louis Car Co. in 1941 – the last new cars on the line. Each was an articulated train set of four cars permanently coupled with controls at each end. One of the center cars housed a small Tavern/Lounge – the only dining car service remaining on the line.
My train traveled the 86 miles in one hour and 58 minutes, as advertised. The trip was swift and uneventful, but on it I noted that the ideal place for a railfan like me was the first seat on the first car – just to the left of the motorman’s tiny compartment.
My Electroliner set (803 -804) standing in the Miluwaukee station awaiting the next departure. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
In Milwaukee I had one hour to wait for the return of the same Electroliner. My original plan had been to wait for two hours over lunch in order to take a conventional train back. But now I was determined to stake out that perfect seat.
The first few miles out of the Milwaukee terminal were street running complete with traffic lights. I was surprised that the Electroliner had a foot-operated bell, just like many slow, conventional trolleys I have seen.
Then we entered private right-of-way, and the speed began to rise. Before long, the speedometer, which I could see through the operator’s compartment window, registered 92 miles per hour. We were still under conventional trolley wire, not the high-speed catenary hung wire we would see later in Illinois. It became obvious why the North Shore was the long time holder of the once coveted interurban speed trophy long ago an annual award by Electric Traction magazine.
I have since learned that the speedometer was not quite accurate, it read a little high, but I remain impressed by the speed attained.
A meet with a special (note the white flags).
From the front seat of train 802: At about 11:32 am, Train 411 is standing at the Racine station as our southbound Liner arrives: Cars in the 411 are 254-776-763-726. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
Electroliner trains 802 and 803 (Liners 802 – 801) meet at about 11:56 am near the midpoint of the trip in Waukegan, Illinois. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
I kept my seat for quite awhile fascinated by the speed and the view. A little boy joined me, his father remaining in the seat behind. The boy sat transfixed, staring into the window, as I snapped the camera shutter, hand rolled the film ahead and lined up the next subject — always in a hurry to be ready when the next opportunity presented itself. I photographed the other Electroliner and conventional trains we met, but it was past lunchtime, and I was anxious to sample the famous Electroburger in the Tavern/Lounge.
Train 802 leaving Madison & Wells showing Liner set 803-804, with 804 closest to the camera. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
I have often wondered if that young interurban enthusiast remembers to this day that blazingly fast ride and the privileged view we enjoyed together. I wonder if the experience changed him for life; I know I’ll never forget my only ride on the Electroliner.
On the Tuesday following my adventure, I drove up to the North Shore offices in Highwood. The building was ornate, although a little run down, and dated from 1905. I walked around the mostly empty building until I located a nice old gentleman. I talked to him about the possibility of a summer job. He listened and took an application but was clearly distracted, spending much of the time putting ant poison in bottle caps to combat an infestation in his office. I knew the chances were slight, and they certainly were, but I was sure that it would be an experience I would never forget to work, no matter how briefly, on the old North Shore Line. Nothing came of it, of course.
This Silverliner set was Train 414 which left Milwaukee at noon. Car 763 is in front at about 1:15pm, June 12, 1962. (Caption details thanks to John Horacheck)
On the way home, I stopped at the Highmoor station for a few more pictures. That was the last I ever saw of the CNS&M.
The last CNS&M trains finished their final runs about six months later, in the early morning of January 21, 1963. The two Electroliners went on to serve the Red Arrow Lines in Philadelphia where they were renamed “Libertyliners”. Both are retired now: train 801-802 may be seen at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois where it has been lovingly restored to its original 1941 appearance; train 803-804 is at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill, Pennsylvania , still a Libertyliner.
Later that summer, I rode the South Shore, just in case.
Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railway in Color, Streetcars & Electroburgers, Vol. 1, by Geoffrey H. Doughty
Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee in Color, Vol. 2: Point of No Return, by Geoffrey H. Doughty
North Shore South Shore, by Russ Porter
Interurban Trains to Chicago Photo Archive, by John Kelly
Days of the North Shore Line, by George V. Campbell
North Shore Line Memories, by George V. Campbell
30 Years Later the Shore Line: Evanston – Waukegan, 1896 – 1955, A photographic rememberance of the Shore Line of the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad by Norman Carlson
The Memoirs of Samuel Insull: An Autobiography, by Samuel Insull
The Insull Chicago Interurbans: CA&E – CNS&M – CSS&SB in Color, by Gordon E. Lloyd
Where to see the Liners
Electroliner at the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union, Illinois. Photo by Brian Cazell.