Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Saga of LaSalle Street Station

The two principal owners of LaSalle Street Station.

In 1851 the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad incorporated and began construction of a line between Chicago and Joliet, which was completed in 1852.  That same year the Northern Indiana and Chicago Railroad reached Chicago, the first Eastern railroad to reach the city.

 This 1862 map shows the first station.

The first LaSalle Street station was constructed at the foot of Van Buren Street at LaSalle Street and opened on May 22, 1852 coinciding with the completion of the Northern Indiana and Chicago. The Rock Island began using the station soon after on October 1, 1852. The NI&C would later become the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway (LS&MS), a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P). Both companies shared a right-of-way to the terminal north of their intersection at Junction Grove, later known as Englewood.  There appears to be no illustrations or photographs of the first station, although it does appear on early maps.  It was probably a humble structure made of wood, similar to other early railroad stations in the city’s central business district.  With the rapid growth of passenger traffic a larger station was called for, and construction of the new building began on April 16th of 1866.

 Architect Boyington and his masterwork.
Completed in November of 1866, it was designed by architect W.W. Boyington. Boyington is best known as the architect of the iconic Chicago Water Tower. Designed in the “Franco-Italian” style, the station building measured 542 feet by 160 feet.  The balloon type train shed roof spanned five tracks, three tracks for departing trains and two for trains arriving. The Howe Truss roof stood 60 feet above the platforms and was covered with slate. The west side of the building contained a number of rooms for the accommodations of travelers waiting for the departure of trains. These rooms connected with the platform within the depot, and fronted on Sherman and Griswold streets. Each railroad using the depot had baggage rooms, oil and lamp rooms, conductors’ room, and large waiting “apartments” for ladies and gentlemen. There were rooms for second class passengers and immigrants, as well as a restaurant and ladies dining room.  The Van Buren Street facade featured a frescoed entrance hall. On the east side of this hall were the offices of the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad Company. On the west side of the hall were the offices of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

The fire ravaged remnants of the station.
The Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 destroyed the station, which was rebuilt and expanded with additional stories shortly afterwards. From its completion in 1882, the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (Nickel Plate Road) ran over the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway from a junction at Grand Crossing neighborhood north to downtown Chicago, where it had its own terminal south of LaSalle Street Station at 12th Street. The LS&MS quickly gained control of the Nickel Plate, and later allowed it into its LaSalle Street Station as a tenant. The station was also served by a direct link to the elevated rapid transit system.

The rebuilt and expanded station.

The direct connection with the elevated train was a major advertising point.
On December 20th 1901 the trains using the station were shifted over to Grand Central Station and the post-fire station was demolished to make way for a new station designed by the architectural firm of Frost and Granger. The initial plans called for an 8-story steel-framed office building with a station on the first three levels. By the time construction started an additional 4 stories were added.  The construction of the station coincided with the raising of the platform tracks above street level.  The station design included a massive balloon shed covering eleven tracks.  The limestone facade of the old station was ground up and used in the concrete for the foundation of the new station.  The station opened for business in May 1903, and cost close to $2,000,000.

Plaster model of the station's initial design.

Construction photographs.

Postcard images and photographs of the station's exterior.

Photographs of the station's interior.
Among the most famous name trains that terminated at LaSalle were the New York Central's 20th Century Limited from 1902 until 1967 and the Rock Island-Southern Pacific Golden State Limited from 1902 until 1968.  Most intercity rail service at La Salle ended on May 1, 1971 when Amtrak consolidated long-distance services at Union Station. Rock Island opted out of Amtrak and continued to operate intercity service from LaSalle until 1978. The station was a set for Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, and in the 1973 movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The New York Central's and Rock Island's crack passenger trains operated out of the station.
The Rock Island fell on hard times in the 1960’s and filed for bankruptcy on March 17, 1975, and the station continued to serve as a commuter terminal while the bankruptcy wound its way through the courts.  The plight of the Rock and other commuter services was impetus for the formation of the Regional Transportation Authority in 1974.  In 1980 the bankruptcy judge liquidated the assets of the railroad, completely ending operations on March 31, 1980.  The RTA purchased the commuter service that did not include the station, which had become decrepit after years of deferred maintenance.  In 1984 the RTA created Metra as the operating agency for Chicago’s regional commuter railroad service.

By the time the RTA assumed commuter operations the station had become decrepit.

The Chicago Pacific Corporation, a shell corporation, was created from the remains of the railroad to sell off its assets including the station. The station was then sold to the Chicago Board of Options Exchange who demolished it in 1981 and replaced it with a new office tower and trading floor.  This essentially severed the former station's link with Van Buren Street and pushed  the platforms south of Congress Parkway.  Exit from the station is now accomplished by two narrow enclosed corridors on the LaSalle Street and Financial Place sides of the new building.  A small “station” was added to the building in 1984.

LaSalle Street Station was replaced by One Financial Place.

In 1985 the Chicago Pacific Corp. announced plans with other landholders to develop 150 acres in the area that would require the station to be moved two more blocks south and a block east.  Other plans called for Metra to move the Rock Island service to Union Station to accommodate the development plans.  Yet another plan called for the tracks to be depressed below grade along with the platforms and waiting room. Competing studies weighed the merits of these plans, but Metra and the RTA balked and brought public and political pressure on the developers to abandon their plans. Metra’s plans for an improvement project to rehabilitate the platforms were stymied by this battle.  After two years Metra won its battle and the tracks and platforms remained.

 Metra's present day LaSalle Street Station.
Viewed from today’s perspective the continued presence of the tracks has not been a hindrance to development in the area.  The plan to move the trains to Union Station would have proved to have been a transit nightmare as Union Station is now at capacity.  Although only Metra's Rock Island District trains now use LaSalle, additional service is planned. Metra's proposed Southeast Service would terminate at LaSalle, and Chicago's massive CREATE infrastructure improvement program would allow trains from Metra's Southwest Service to use the terminal.  In June 2011, The Chicago Department of Transportation opened the LaSalle/Congress Intermodal Transfer Center alongside the station as a bus terminal to serve people transferring to CTA buses as well as Blue Line trains at LaSalle.

 The Chicago Transit Authority's Intermodal Transfer Center.
The final lesson in the history of LaSalle Street Station is the failure to incorporate a new station into the Board of Options Building.  Commuters became an afterthought rather than an asset.  When the Chicago & North Western Madison Street Station was demolished it was replaced by an office building that included a train station.  The station is filled with the kind of shops and restaurants that one would expect in a modern urban transportation center.  As it stands now the present LaSalle Street Station is little more than a cattle trough with a miniscule waiting room.  At best it’s a monument to missed opportunities to create a transportation nexus worthy of its predecessors.

 Development continues to take place despite the presence of the tracks to LaSalle Street Station.


  1. Very nice, Dave. Some of us old heads were reminiscing and I searched for info on LaSalle Street Station because I worked there as a Wire Chief for CRI&P in late 1976 and early 1977. I headed west to Des Moines when I finally turned 21 and got the call to be a train dispatcher.
    Thank you for putting together the historical information I was looking for!
    Jerry Buxton

    1. Thanks for the nice comment Jerry. I have been neglecting my blog as I am working on a project called Chicago Railroad History Month( Its always great to hear from rails and one of the things I hope to do is have railroaders tell their stories as part of that project. Take care.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I've been inside that new LaSalle St. "station" a couple of times. That place reminds me of crypt -- a mausoleum, and someone had the unmitigated gall to affix to the wall a plaque dedicating the station to the millions of passengers they'd slighted in the construction of that uninspired and uncomfortable box.