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Chicago Tribune Getting Around column
[December 31, 2012]

Chicago Tribune Getting Around column

Dec 31, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Public transportation became an absolute necessity for Chicago around 1860, when the city's population had ballooned to more than 112,000 from about 30,000 only 10 years earlier.

About 7,000 horses were pulling transit vehicles in the city by the 1880s. Horsepower provided mobility to the burgeoning metropolitan area, but it also deposited millions of pounds of manure and countless gallons of urine on the streets each year, creating health hazards that included the tetanus virus carried in horse feces.

A cleaner, faster, smoother and more reliable form of transport was urgently needed.

Between the transitions from the horse-drawn omnibus (from Latin for "all," and later shortened to "bus") in the early 19th century to horsecar street railways, and later, electric trolleys in the 1890s, one of the largest cable-car systems in the world operated in Chicago.

Chicago historian and transportation author Greg Borzo has chronicled that forgotten era, which lasted not quite 25 years (1882 to 1906), in his new book, "Chicago Cable Cars," published by The History Press.

These horseless street railway cars were pulled by the quiet, invisible force of continuously moving underground cables that crisscrossed the city, starting on the South and West sides and Loop district and leading to a nationwide cable-car boom in almost 30 cities, according to Borzo.

The cars moved forward by gripping wire cable that weighed 8 tons per mile, and stopped by releasing the cable and applying brakes. Powerhouses kept the cables moving.

Chicago's system, which carried more than 1 billion riders, overtook the model created to serve the steep hills of San Francisco, in terms of ridership and equipment, Borzo said.

Chicago's longest single cable, 5.3 miles, was on Chicago City Railway's Cottage Grove Avenue line, Borzo wrote.

His research revealed that the cable-car experience, which debuted Jan. 28, 1882 on State Street, from Madison to 21st streets, became "a rich part of the very fabric of everyday life" in Chicago and led to people from different ethnic and economic classes rubbing shoulders, if only for the duration of a ride.

"Being much larger and more popular than horsecars, cable cars enlarged and expanded upon this shared public space that transit creates," Borzo wrote. "Thus, riding in a cable car had a humanizing and democratizing effect on the populace. Everyone could and almost everyone did ride; when they did, they became more aware of and familiar with their fellow city dwellers." Cable cars reached speeds up to 14 mph -- the fastest that many people had ever traveled on city streets, Borzo said. Accidents did not occur often, but when they did, fatalities rarely occurred, in part because of the speed and passengers' inclination to jump from cars if they anticipated danger, he said.

The Tribune reported that in spite of the expectation that the cable cars "would jump off the tracks, it was agreed universally that they were the airiest and most graceful vehicles of the sort ever seen in Chicago or anywhere else." But like riding on today's CTA buses and trains, encountering thieves and pickpockets on cable cars was a common problem, Borzo wrote. In one case, a cable car ride solved a residential burglary when a woman spotted a fellow passenger wearing a dress that had been stolen from her home, he said.

Borzo's 192-page book contains dozens of historical photos as well as maps of cable-car lines. He delves into the technology of the cable car and the Chicago politics and economics that helped spur both its realization and subsequent demise because of obsolescence and the benefits of the electric trolley, which was a more comfortable and profitable transportation mode.

Borzo, who has written three other books about Chicago, said he took on his latest project because history books about the city either confused cable cars with trolleys or skipped over cable cars in describing the timeline from horsecars to electric trolley cars.

He said he hopes the book will foster a wider recognition of Chicago's cable-car history, perhaps in the form of a monument, a plaque or, better yet, construction of a short cable-car line.

"A statue of Chicago cable-car czar Charles Tyson Yerkes or an honorary street named after him would be extremely appropriate and is long overdue," Borzo wrote in the book's closing page. "In the meantime, I'd settle for a worn piece of cable car or a rusty pulley unearthed by the next street renovation project." Contact Getting Around at or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at Read recent columns at

___ (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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