The Fox River Trail in Illinois used most of the former Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company’s (AE&FRE) right-of-way, running along the Fox River between Aurora and Elgin. For many years this interurban was closely aligned with—and later owned by—the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad (long remembered as the “Roarin’ Elgin” or “Great Third Rail”). The CA&E radiated westward from Chicago to nearby suburbs, roughly resembling a sideways “Y.” In time, it became one of the Windy City’s most important commuter systems for many years. The road ran into financial difficulty during World War I and sold off its interest in the AE&FRE property, which continued as an independent for roughly another decade before declining ridership and the Great Depression forced most of it into abandonment during the 1930s.
The history of interurbans in this country is a fascinating area of the railroad industry often forgotten, since many were shut down so long ago (most between the 1920s and 1940s). These electrified systems were truly the pioneers of today’s reborn “light rail transit” movement, providing commuters with quick, efficient transportation into and out of the city. According to George Hilton and John Due’s extensive look at the history of these operations (The Electric Interurban Railways in America), there were two periods of substantial growth: from 1901 through 1904 and between 1905 and 1908. Some were constructed as early as the 1890s but most were laid down during the periods mentioned above and were electric. The Chicago, Aurora & Elgin grew into one of the most impressive, providing high speed service to and from Chicago.
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The CA&E began from local streetcar operations serving Elgin and Aurora that dated as far back as 1876. During the 1890s, attempts were made to push these growing systems into Chicago. But it was not until the Everett-Moore syndicate of Cleveland incorporated the Aurora & Chicago Railway and Elgin & Chicago Railway in February 1899 that this prospect gained significant traction. Such syndicates were once common within the interurban industry and many helped fund or directly owned several around the country. Unfortunately for Everett-Moore, they were not the only group attempting to reach Chicago. The competing Pomeroy-Mandelbaum syndicate (coincidentally, also based in Cleveland) incorporated their own rivaling line: the Chicago, Wheaton & Aurora Railroad. Following this move, a flurry of activity ensued, with both surveying routes, acquiring franchises to operate through small towns, and incorporating more railroads.
Within a year, the two finally realized the inefficiency of their efforts and worked together to consolidate operations into a single entity known as the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway (AE&C) formed on April 10, 1901. Construction swiftly followed, and by July 1902, a line linking Aurora to Chicago was opened. Thanks to the financial backing of both syndicates, the AE&C boasted a high-quality route that far surpassed most other interurbans, with speeds reaching as high as 65 mph. During early 1902, money troubles forced Everett-Moore to sell its interest to Pomeroy-Mandelbaum, which continued to expand the interurban over the next few years. At that point, the AE&C operated a system running from Chicago to Wheaton wherein it split, with one line reaching Elgin and another serving Aurora. There were also spurs from these routes breaking off to reach Batavia and Geneva/St. Charles.
The history of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company begins during the early 1890s, when an interurban, using local and private capital, was established to provide north-south service along Chicago’s western suburbs. The first completed segment served Elgin and Carpentersville, while extensions continued in 1896, running southward along the Fox River to Geneva. In 1899, the route was opened to Aurora via Batavia. Finally, in 1901, a branch was completed from Aurora to Yorkville, which was around the same time that Pomeroy-Mandelbaum acquired control and renamed the interurban as the Aurora, Elgin & Southern. During 1906, the AE&S was merged into the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago, where it remained until the latter’s 1919 bankruptcy (it emerged in 1922 as the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin). At this point, the CA&E divested itself of the property, which was renamed as the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company.
According to Due and Hilton’s book, the Fox River lines were picked up the Western United Corporation, which contracted to Stone & Webster for operation of the AE&FRE. While the system used primarily private right-of-way and was not burdened with the stiff grades and sharp curves found on public highway property (usual interurban practice), it could never develop a significant carload freight business. In 1924, the line to Yorkville was abandoned, and severe storms coupled with declining traffic forced the northern Carpenterville-Dundee section into abandonment in 1933. Finally, all service stopped after March 31, 1935, although a short section to serve the Elgin State Hospital survived until the 1970s.
Illinois is home to several museums and excursion trains, including the Amboy Depot Museum in Amboy; Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum in Elizabeth; the Depot Railroad Museum in Rossville; the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin; the Galesburg Railroad Museum in Galesburg; the Historic Greenup Depot in Greenup; the Illinois Railway Museum in Union (one of the largest in the country); the Kankakee Railroad Museum in Kankakee; the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello; the Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad in Freeport; and the Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota.