As Forest Park prepares to celebrate its centennial this summer, another anniversary in the midway point of the community’s history has come to pass. 50 years ago yesterday, the end of an era in transportation history occurred at the old Desplaines Avenue transit station.
Up until July 3, 1957, the Desplaines station wasn’t a terminus, but just another point on the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin railroad commuter system that connected downtown Chicago with Westchester, Broadview, Maywood and points as far west as Wheaton, Aurora and much of the Fox River Valley.
But on July 3, that service came to a sudden-and for some 3,500 to 6,000 commuters-distinctly inconvenient halt.
For 50 years, the electric CA&E trains ran over the Garfield Park Elevated tracks that went from downtown Chicago to Forest Park, traveling at speeds of up to 75 mph. In 1952 the CTA sold its right-of-way for those tracks between Racine Avenue and Sacramento Boulevard and agreed to the destruction of its elevated structure as part of the planned Eisenhower Expressway.
The situation became problematic when Cook County later moved in court to condemn the right-of-way it controlled between Austin Boulevard and the Des Plaines River. The city of Chicago had plans to eventually build the Garfield elevated rail system in the middle of planned expressway, then allow the CA&E to transfer service to those rails. No money was committed to the project, though, and the privately owned CA&E board of directors balked at the massive losses the likely years-long delay would cost.
The CA&E petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission to abandon all commuter rail service, beginning a five year court fight to keep the service going. On July 3, 1957, after numerous injunctions and challenges, the company pulled the switch on its commuter service-unbeknownst at the time to some 5,000 commuters who used the service to travel to work that morning.
Julie Johnson, now 65, was a 15-year-old Wheaton resident when she headed downtown to the Chicago library with a friend that morning.
She would miss the final full length run by a CA&E train by just a minute or two. When her train pulled into Forest Park around 12:20 p.m., she was greeted by a posted notice and an apologetic station master.
“They just said, ‘We’re sorry, but the railroads been shut down,'” Johnson said remembering that day 50 years ago.
Johnson was one of the lucky. She and her friend took a cab to the Marion Street Northwestern station in Oak Park and caught a train home to Wheaton, Ill. For thousands of other commuters returning home later that afternoon, their once routine trip turned into a mob scene as trainload after trainload arrived in Forest Park only to find their means of going home no longer existed.
Unfortunately, CA&E officials reportedly didn’t notify CTA officials of the shutdown until 5 p.m., by which time an estimated 3,500 riders had arrived at the station.
Officials at the Leyden Motor Coach company, which was planning to pick up the slack when the CA&E eventually ended service, were also caught unprepared. The West Town Bus Company in Oak Park sent four to transport people to train stations in River Forest and Elmhurst. Other people took cabs, if they could get one, or called home to arrange for a car to pick them up.
In the meantime, as more and more people realized they were stranded, things took an ugly turn. There were reports of benches and other equipment on the platform being thrown on the tracks by angry commuters.