|The original Rock Island "Rocket".|
The Rock Island's first train departed from Chicago to Joliet on October 10, 1852. That line would later cross the tracks of the the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (aka Panhandle) at a point known as "The Junction" that would become the Village of Washington Heights. Much of the lands around Washington Heights were part of the vast estate holdings of one Thomas Morgan, English gentleman farmer, who had purchased 3000 acres from early Chicago settler John Blackstone in 1844 for his estate known as "Upwood". Morgan would give the Chicago & Great Eastern Railroad (progenitor of the Panhandle) an easement through his property in 1864. The seed was planted for development.
|Real estate ads for the newly developing suburbs of Beverly and Washington Heights.|
|Left: Washington Heights map shows the original suburban line with the main track at connection at 97th Street. Right: Map of the suburban line after the extension to Gresham.|
Passenger train service was initially sparse, with the Panhandle providing a few "accommodation" trains, while the Rock Island deigned to not stop their trains there at all. With the death of Morgan, his heirs sold their holdings to Fredrick H. Winston who helped to form the Blue Island Land and Building Company. Its important to note that executives of the Rock Island also held positions in the Land and Building Company. While initially know as the Washington Heights Subdivision, the area would become the Village of Morgan Park. In the 1870's construction of branch line began from 97th Street west to a point below the glacial formation known as the Blue Island Ridge, which was completed in 1871. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would accelerate the migration of residents away from the central city to newly platted suburbs. The burghers of Morgan Park envisioned a sylvan enclave far removed from the bustle and cacophony of burgeoning Chicago.
|A Rock Island Forney locomotive pulls a train towards Chicago.|
By 1883 the Rock Island was operating 10 daily suburban trains each way, mostly on the Suburban Branch between Chicago and Blue Island. In 1889 the line was extended north through Beverly, and the new development of Brainerd, to a mainline connection at 89th Street. Within a year there were 19 trains operating each day. Like many early suburban commuter operations the trains were steam powered with diminutive locomotives known as Forneys, named after their inventor Mathias Forney. The locomotives combined the steam engine with the coal and water carrying tender as one integrated unit. They were designed to run boiler forward in one direction and tender forward in the reverse. This arrangement negated the need to turn the locomotive so that it always ran in the typical boiler forward mode. Turning required a either a turntable or wye track, and was time consuming. The Forneys were uncoupled from the train at the end of a run, then run around the equipment and quickly coupled back on the the opposite end of the train. Residents coined the nickname "Dummy Line" to describe the branch line, perhaps due to the slight resemblance of the locomotives to the early shrouded steamers, known as "dummies", designed so as not to scare horses (it didn't work). Another theory put forth by local historians is that early train service to the area was operated by dummy locomotives on the Panhandle line.
|The first Morgan Park Station.|
|Morgan Park residents unashamedly touted the quality of their mode of transportation versus that afforded city residents. While the streetcar system did eventually expand to the area it was not a major factor in community development.|
Morgan Park did indeed grow become a well-to-do suburb, the nexus of which was the business district around the 111th Street station. Impressive mansions sprouted up along the two main streets of Washington and Prospect, particularly at the top of the Blue Island Ridge. There were also more humble working man's cottages east of the tracks, and a small African American community grew in that area as well. Beverly grew as well, and the early 20th Century saw the neighborhood become a solidly middle class community with a mix of housing that ran the gamut from mansions to bungalows. The area attracted a number of notable architects who helped to create a leafy oasis of attractive homes on the edge of the city.
|Preliminary report recommending landmark status for the train stations.|
In 1889 the original 111th Street Station was moved and converted to a residence. In its place rose a Romanesque style depot designed by architect John Long, the construction cost of which was shared by local residents, businessmen and the railroad. In all, 7 stations were built between 91st and 115th Streets during the late 1880's. Each station was unique in it's design and were exemplary of the architecture of small town train stations of the late 19th Century. The majority of the stations lasted into the 21st Century, save for Longwood (95th Street), Tracy (103rd Street) and Raymond (115th). Each station was built with second floor living quarters for the station agents and their families. Small business districts grew up around each station, adding to the small town charm of each area. The City of Chicago recognized the unique nature of these stations by creating a landmark district that encompassed 6 of the 7 stations. The luck of their survival is much owed to the fact that the tracks through the area were not part of Chicago's track elevation ordinances. The tracks remain at grade level. 103rd Street was not included in the district as it was built to replace the original station in the 1960's, and is an unremarkable brick structure. The 111th Street Station was damaged by a tornado in 1909, but was rebuilt as it stands today. Metra undertook a program that saw the 95th, 99th and 111th Street stations undergo historic restorations. Funding for the program ran out and the other stations languish waiting for the necessary funds for their turn at renewal. 115th Street (Raymond) Station was the luckless victim of a fire set by vandals on Memorial Day weekend in 2017. It was badly damaged and demolished, with no apparent plans or funds to provide a suitable replacement.
|The Rock Island began to dieselize their commuter service in the late 1940's. Perennially cash poor, the railroad would re-purpose older locomotives from intercity passenger service or purchase used equipment from other railroads. The steam engine pulls a set of "Capone cars" while preparing to pass an Alco RS-1 diesel used in commuter service. The railroad did purchase some new bi-level coaches which allowed for the introduction of "Push-Pull" service. Photo by John Humiston from the Classic Trains Collection.|
The branch line was primarily used for commuter service. Some businesses at 111th Street, such as a coal yard, required minimal freight service which would have originated at the Rock Island's Blue Island freight yard. The Rock Island continued to provide service until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1980. At this point the Regional Transportation Authority bought the commuter service and some of the assets of the Rock such as tracks, yards and stations. By this time the physical plant of the railroad had deteriorated to the point that a massive rebuilding program was required to restore the railroad to an adequate level of safety and efficiency. So to, the tired and worn locomotives and passenger cars needed replacement. Now, almost 40 years after assuming the operations and upgrading the service, Metra (the commuter rail division of the RTA) faces the same dilemma of the Rock Island with the specter of diminishing funds to maintain aging equipment and the physical infrastructure.
|An Metra commuter train departs the 111th Street Station inbound to Chicago. Photo by David Daruszka.|
Beverly Hills was annexed, as part of Washington Heights, by Chicago in 1890. Morgan Park became a city neighborhood in 1914 after a protracted battle between residents for and against annexation. Both communities remain desirable places to live, thanks in part to the excellent railroad transportation that greatly factored into their creation and development. Residents still consider the branch line as "their railroad".