100 Years Young: Chicago Aurora & Elgin 308
Article by Frank Hicks
The Chicago Aurora & Elgin (nicknamed the “Roarin’ Elgin”) was an electric interurban line that ran west out of the city of Chicago to the suburbs and to the cities on the Fox River. It was built in 1902, at which time it was one of the first truly high-speed interurban lines. The cars built for the CA&E (known as the Aurora Elgin & Chicago until reorganization in 1922) used state-of-the-art high horsepower motors and multiple-unit electrical equipment developed only a year earlier by General Electric. The right-of-way was built to enable operation of speeds up to 80 mph, and the railroad used a form of current collection unusual to interurban lines: third rail. Almost the entire railroad used an electrified third rail, which was thought to make high-speed operation easier. It led to the CA&E acquiring the nickname “the Great Third Rail.”
CA&E cars were all equipped with both third rail shoes and trolley poles from day one in 1902 right up until the end of service. The railroad was always predominantly third rail, but there were always short sections with overhead trolley wire at the west end of the railroad. Originally the street running in Elgin and Aurora had overhead wire (this trackage was later relocated to private right-of-way but still had overhead wire); the last mile or so of track into Batavia also had overhead wire, as well as the street running track in Geneva and St. Charles. There were also a couple of long grade crossings that had wire over them in case a car stalled in the gap in the third rail.
The CA&E started out in 1902 without an entrance into Chicago, but starting in 1905 a connection with the West Side Elevated was made. From 1905 until 1953 all CA&E trains entered downtown Chicago over the "L". In 1953 the West Side Elevated structure was torn out during construction of the Congress Expressway, and from then on CA&E service was cut back to suburban Forest Park, where passengers had to transfer to CTA trains. That cost the CA&E half its passengers and it abandoned service four years later.
The CA&E expanded its fleet of cars steadily. It started with a group of 25 motor cars and five trailers built in 1902, added another five cars in 1905, ten more in 1906, two in 1908, five in 1910, and six in 1914. This gave the CA&E a fleet of 56 essentially homogenous wooden interurban coaches (and two parlor cars), all of them built with about the same dimensions, styling, and electrical equipment. Even the six cars built in 1914 were constructed similarly to their 12-year-old predecessors despite giant leaps forward in carbuilding technology in the interim.
The focus of this article will be on one of the cars in the 1906 series. This series of motorized cars consisted of nine coaches, numbered 300-308, and one parlor car, the “ Florence” (car 305 was later rebuilt as dining car 600). The cars were built by the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company of Niles, Ohio, which had built ten of the CA&E’s original 1902 cars as well as the five cars ordered in 1905. Niles was one of the smaller car builders which specialized in interurban car construction and was a proven name in the business. The 1906 series of cars was built to the standard established by the 1905 cars, with some changes to the interior. They were 52-seat double-end all-wood coaches with a smoking compartment and a lavatory, they had railroad roofs, and were fitted with four GE 66 traction motors and type C-21 master controllers. As built the cars had arched leaded stained glass windows on the outside, though these would be removed in a 1940’s remodeling program by the railroad. Their walkover seats were upholstered using a black leatherette material, in contrast with the rattan (cane) seats of earlier orders.
The cars of the 1906 series, except for the “ Florence” and the 305, served the CA&E faithfully for more than fifty years. After the CA&E began acquiring steel cars in the 1920’s, the older woods were often relegated to rush-hour service. They continued to run day in and day out, carrying commuters into and out of the Loop in downtown Chicago. They were used right up until the end of passenger service on the “Roarin’ Elgin,” which occurred abruptly on July 3, 1957. The ICC granted the CA&E immediate permission to abandon passenger operations, which had been costing the company thousands of dollars in deficits a day. As soon as the order came down around noon, all trains were immediately recalled to the shops at Wheaton, and laid up forever. The thousands of people who had taken the CA&E into work in the morning had to find other ways of getting home.
A total of 20 cars from the CA&E would be preserved by museums, though it took five years of litigation before the fleet was finally disposed of. Two cars of the 1906 series were saved, 303 and 308, and the story of the latter car will be told here. Car 308 led a service life typical of the other cars of its series. It had been rebuilt and modernized in 1941, with its stained glass windows removed and its varnished mahogany interior painted. At an earlier date, probably in the 1920’s, it had also lost two of its traction motors. Becoming a “half-motor” decreased its acceleration and top speed somewhat, but in train service the effect wasn’t great.
In 1962 car 308 was sold to the Indiana Museum of Transportation and Communication (IMOTAC) in Indiana. It was IMOTAC’s first car. The 308 was stored at Indiana Union Terminal for a couple of years until a site in suburban Noblesville was found, at which time it was transferred to the new site. IMOTAC built up a fair-sized trolley museum in Noblesville, and in 1973 the museum inaugurated electric operation. Car 308 ran on the first day; it was the second car to do so. Within the next few years, though, it was decided to disassemble one end of the 308, probably due to rot in the vestibule floor. One platform was completely disassembled but, before reassembly could begin, the restoration effort ground to a halt. The 308 sat in a state of suspended animation in the barn at Noblesville for twenty years, with one end gone and the interior filled with parts.
In 1996 the car’s state of limbo ended. Experiencing financial difficulties, IMOTAC (by now the Indiana Transportation Museum, or ITM) elected to auction off the 308. The successful bidder was the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) in Union, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. In November 1996 car 308 was trucked to its home state and moved to indoor storage at IRM. In 1998 restoration work began. It took three years to strip and repaint the 308 in its 1940’s-era livery of dark blue, red and light gray. Another two years were spent to reconstruct the missing end of the car out of oak, pine and poplar. Though its restoration was far from complete, the 308 made its operational debut at IRM on July 3, 2002, the 45th anniversary of the abandonment of service on the CA&E.
The following year car 308 entered regular service at IRM along with sister CA&E car 309, and the pair has operated in passenger service around 15-20 days a year since 2003. During that time, restoration work on the car has continued. Major exterior work, mainly the rebuilding of the disassembled end, was completed in 2002, and most efforts since have concentrated on refurbishing the car’s water-damaged interior. The ceiling was repaired in 2003-2004, the walls patched and repaired in 2004-2005, and other work such as seat reupholstering and vestibule interior repainting was also done during the last several years. Electrically the car was found to be in good condition, but some rewiring was needed and the 308 needed a new air compressor, and the controllers were replaced by the original C-21 type. Some minor steel work was also required. All of the work was accomplished by dedicated IRM volunteers, most of it by a team of three workers assigned to this project.
The 308 project is due to be completed in 2006, in time for the 100th anniversary of the car’s construction. As this is written, the completion of the restoration is near. Final touch-up painting is being done on the car’s interior, woodwork is being done where needed, and finish paint and lettering is still being applied in places. When completed, car 308 will be the first car outshopped by IRM’s Electric Car Department in five years. Along with car 309, it helps form the only two-car wooden interurban train currently operated in regular museum service in North America. We hope you can join us for the official re-dedication of car 308 on Sunday, July 2, 2006 at the Illinois Railway Museum and take a ride on a 100-year old piece of traction history yourself.
About the Author
Frank Hicks lives near Chicago, Illinois, and has been a volunteer at the Illinois Railway Museum for many years. His interest in trains originated with his father, who has volunteered at IRM since 1974. Frank’s favorite railroad is the Chicago Aurora & Elgin; together with his father they work on restoring and maintaining IRM's three CA&E wood interurban cars. Frank will graduate from Western Illinois University this December, and recently authored a book on the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway, to be published by WIU in 2006. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline.