Illinois Prairie Path History


At a Glance

Name: Illinois Prairie Path
Length: 62 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Cook, Du Page, Kane
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete, Crushed Stone
State: Illinois

A Brief History

The Illinois Prairie Path follows nearly the entire right-of-way of the former Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad (CA&E), once a prominent and important interurban serving the western suburbs of the Windy City. The CA&E was affectionately known as the “Roarin’ Elgin” or “Great Third Rail” and had humble beginnings dating back to the late 19th century. During the next few decades, it grew to serve important cities such as Aurora, Elgin, and Wheaton where it operated a high-speed, electrified system. The road relied heavily on commuter traffic, and as the years passed, particularly after World War II, patronage declined sharply when commuters abandoned trains for cars. A new highway in the 1950s doomed the CA&E, and it abruptly ended service later that decade, forcing commuters to find other means of travel.

The history of the Great Third Rail begins in the towns of Elgin and Aurora, where between 1876 and 1882 small, horse-powered streetcar lines sprang up to serve these communities. As time passed, service branched out across the Fox River Valley; by the 1890s, promoters were eying a direct, electrically operated route into Chicago. But lack of funding hampered these efforts until the Everett-Moore syndicate became involved during 1899. This group had been developing interurbans in Ohio since the mid-1890s and set their sights farther westward. During February of that year, they incorporated the Aurora & Chicago Railway as well as the Elgin & Chicago Railway. Competition quickly arose from the Pomeroy-Mandelbaum syndicate (also based in Ohio), which had incorporated its own system known as the Aurora, Wheaton & Chicago Railway intent on also connecting Chicago with its suburbs.

During the next few years, the two groups purchased land, surveyed routes, and incorporated more railroads (five in all) until, realizing the futility of these efforts, they combined their properties into the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway (AE&C), incorporated on April 10, 1901. On July 1, 1902, the line to Chicago was officially opened, reaching the Windy City via Elmhurst and Wheaton, the latter of which became the primary terminal and shops of the AE&C. Thanks to the considerable financial backing of both syndicates, the road was constructed to high standards—much higher than most other interurbans. It was capable of speeds reaching 65 mph and was predominantly double-tracked. Moreover, much of the property used third-rail running for electrical-pickup via a 650-volt DC system, thus gaining its nickname as the Great Third Rail, instead of the more traditional overhead caternary.

Unfortunately for Everett-Moore, the group lost its control of the AE&C when it sold out to Pomeroy-Mandelbaum in early 1902 following financial issues. The latter continued to expand the AE&C over the next few years, and by the second decade of the 20th century, operated a network stretching from Chicago to Wheaton. At Wheaton, it split to reach Elgin in the northwest and Aurora in the southwest. Spurs also branched from these lines to serve Batavia and Geneva/St. Charles, as well as a few other cities farther west, reaching Mount Carmel and West Chester. Finally, there was the north–south line between Carpentersville and Yorkville that the AE&C acquired in 1901; today, most of that right-of-way is the Fox River Trail.

The Fox River lines were only part of the AE&C for less than two decades. In 1919, it fell into bankruptcy and emerged in 1922 as the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin. Subsequently, this spun off the Fox River properties, which went on to become the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company. In 1925, Samuel Insull acquired the CA&E. Among his many other business interests Insull was a one-time major interurban tycoon, owning such famed lines as the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee (the “North Shore Line”); Chicago, SouthShore & South Bend (as spelled, it was also known as the “South Shore Line”); Chicago Rapid Transit, and others. Following Insull’s involvement, the CA&E remained relatively unchanged over the next several decades, providing some freight service to complement its regular half-hour passenger service. A few cutbacks did occur during this time, however, including the abandonment of the Geneva-St. Charles branch as well as the line to Mt. Carmel via Bellwood.

The road used interurban cars from many of the typical builders of the era, such as G.C. Kuhlman, Niles Car & Manufacturing, St. Louis Car Company, Cincinnati Car Company, Jewett Car Company, John Stephenson Car Company, and others. Its freight motors were acquired from a variety of manufacturers, including Baldwin and General Electric, while a few were secondhand units purchased from the Oklahoma Railway. Unfortunately, the Roarin’ Elgin was never able to develop much freight; as the years passed, this issue made it increasingly difficult for the road to sustain a level of profitability. Surprisingly, though, it maintained its property to high standards through the early 1950s. The constructed of the west side freeway system in Chicago considerably hurt the CA&E’s passenger business despite the fact that the highway was intended to complement the interurban by using the medians. The CA&E found this setup untenable primarily because it did not wish to carry out street operations (proposed by the city until the highway project was finished), citing safety concerns. This left trains operating no farther than Chicago’s outskirts, which further hurt ridership.

Despite strong public backlash and city/government officials attempting to find some sort of resolution to keep the CA&E open, the company petitioned to stop service in 1956. The request was granted on June 3, 1957, and management infamously ended all service on noon that day, stranding angry passengers. For a time, the CA&E continued providing freight service to remaining customers through the summer of 1959. Finally, during 1961, the road shut down entirely, and most of the right-of-way was later converted into today’s Illinois Prairie Path.

Illinois is home to several museums and excursion trains, including the Amboy Depot Museum in Amoby; 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.

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