Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Metra's 1965 Ravenswood Corridor (Repost from 6/5/14)

Metra Overpass at Greenleaf, looking North

I take the UP-N Metra train to work every morning and home every evening.  It may possibly be the best and easiest commute in the universe.  While I'm waiting for the train sometimes I notice things from the platform, like these standard 1960s apartment buildings flanking the west side of the embankment.

Ravenswood is split by the train line, so there's a Ravenwood Avenue on either side south of Lunt.  But at Lunt the west side of Ravenswood ends abruptly.  At that point a series of condo buildings occur between Lunt and Touhy, located in the same strip where Ravenswood would have continued through.

These brick buildings (shown in red above) are nearly identical, with low pitched roofs and simple geometric ornament. Some of them are bigger than others, which basically means that a few more units have been tacked on.   A quick check of the Cook County Assessor's website shows that all of them are dated to 1965. 

I'm guessing it's not a coincidence.  That strip of land had been owned by the railroad (at that time the Illinois Parallel Railroad Company) since its incorporation by the Illinois Legislature in 1851.  Passenger service to Waukegan began in 1854, with service to the North Shore beginning in 1856.  By 1869 there were seven trains each way daily.  In 1896 work began to elevate the tracks above grade in an effort to eliminate crossing accidents.

Sanborn Map above and Chicago Zoning Map below
Public rights-of-way have enormous value, even just from a standpoint of square footage.  Railroad rights-of-way were granted to private industry because they had the capital to develop them for public (and private) benefit.  But what happens when the railroad doesn't have a need for as much land as it was given? Does it return that land to the government?  In this case it appears to have been sold off for residential development.

To the right is a Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1937, showing the previous ownership structure for the area.  The train platform on the west side of the tracks is clearly outlined.  At first I thought that perhaps the railroad bought this land, but if that were the case the alley would extend through.  Instead, I believe this area was part of the granted right-of-way, and was used to provide access to the Rogers Park station.  It also provided a buffer between the trains and the nearby single family homes.

But sometime after 1937 it was determined that this land no longer served the interests of the railroad.  Perhaps the train platform was reconstructed to take up less space. Or perhaps the railroad needed to raise funds.  Regardless, the areas adjacent to the tracks were developed into multi-unit buildings.  North of Touhy the railroad has retained ownership, possibly because the slightly westward angle of the route made the lots less viable for development. 

To me the front facades look a bit like drunken robots.  The developments also created an uncomfortable relationship between the train embankment and the new buildings.  The area in between is a dark, overgrown strip which frequently fills up with trash.  Perhaps not the best land planning, but a good example of how developers maximum the value of undesirable lots.   As if we needed more of those examples...

Metra posts some history about their train lines here, which provided some of the detail and dates above.


  1. I'm old enough to remember what was there before. It was a private street for the railroad between Lunt & Greenleaf, but just a path farther north.
    The C&NW removed the westernmost track in 1995 & when you go farther south, it's obvious why. The embankment was collapsing on the west side, which is why Metra is pending millions to rebuild it to reestablish Track 1, which they're currently calling Track 0 as Track 1 is the former center track. They have also shored up the east side of the embankment between Foster & Berwyn Avenues.
    Go along the east side of the embankment in places & you can see small wooden structures that also shore up the embankment.
    The bridges in Rogers Park & Evanston are all from 1907-08, except the massive ones over Ridge & Lincoln, plus the one at Elgin Rd in Evanston. They're from about 1960. Peterson Ave is newer than that, but I don't know the year.
    All the bridges from Rosehill south, with the split limestone abutments are from about 1903, except for Addison/Lincoln, which again, is about 1960.
    If you look at the embankment just south of Peterson, you can see the gradual slope of a former siding that went to grade at Peterson, but I don't know where that ended up. There's another one just south of Balmoral.
    South of Belmont, there are several bridges that once had four tracks & one with five tracks, which were all sidings going to the factories of East or West Commercial Avenue, the original name for Ravenswood Ave.
    The condo building on the South side of Diversey, on the east side of the tracks has preserved the right of way & placed gravel where the siding into the Luetgert Sausage Works was. That condo building was the main part of the sausage works.
    Adolph Luetgert was infamous for disposing of his wife as part of his sausages in the early 1890s.

    There was also a private street running along the west side of the tracks from Devon, north to Columbia Ave. It was closed off sometime in the 1960s by the railroad & wasn't a straight street, but zigzagged around, what were mostly empty lots. We used to ride our bike through there as kids & the block sized fields of tall grass were filled with rabbits.
    S&C now owns all of it, including what were Honore, Wolcott & Columbia Aves, which had at least a dozen small factories, an enclosed ComEd substation at Wolcott & Pratt, plus a Bowman Dairy, which sent double trailers all night down Ravenswood on the east side of the tracks at 40MPH all night! Try that now on that parking choked street!

  2. Thank you for your recollections! amazing how difficult it is to document these changes just a few decades later.

  3. Great post. I've often wondered about the curious arrangement of those townhouses. There's something very ad hoc about the parking spaces and means of access to them. They're definitely rammed up tight against the embankment, and I wonder how their occupants sleep at night with the diesel roar of Metra trains going by every half hour.

    Also, I've been meaning to do a post on the folk art accretion which has been growing by the west Lunt stairs since around 2011; should get around to that one soon...

  4. The "folk art" is getting creepier by the day. But maybe not as creepy as the dozens of over-sized plastic ladybugs installed on the catalpa tree a bit further west.