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Regular afternoon trains at Ardmore Avenue, Villa Park ca. 1956 - 1957.
For a little boy growing up in Chicago's western suburb of Villa Park just after the war, the old 'Ror'n' Elgin was the main feature of any visit to either of Villa Park's two downtown districts. Crossing bells were always ringing as the gates went up and down all day long. Local trains stopped only briefly; express trains regularly raced through town at speeds in excess of sixty miles an hour, air whistles screaming.
Villa Park probably would not have been founded when it was except for the convenience of train service to the Loop. The CA&E was a promoter of the town site. When deciding on a move to the village in 1929, my parents even considered the security that if the C&NW could not get Father to work in the Loop, the CA&E surely could. The station at Villa Avenue was only completed later that year.
Like the rest of the electric lines, the CA&E was a relative late comer to rail transportation in Chicago. Service began in 1902 as the Aurora Elgin and Chicago, but did not reach downtown until rights to operate over the elevated lines were obtained in 1905. In 1925, the railroad became part of the huge Insull utility and electric railway empire. That company failed in 1932. Many people, including employees of the various Insull companies, lost a great deal of their saving. In my youth, the name, Insull, was still spoken with much contempt in the Chicago area.
My first train ride was on the blue and gray electric cars of the line. My mom started taking me on an occasional shopping trip from suburban Villa Park to the Chicago Loop when I was barely old enough to climb the steps into the cars. In fact I had to be helped a bit to clear the way for impatient regulars; I had been idly inquiring as to what the little sign on the steps said. Someone responded, "Watch your step", but I stubbornly demanded, "Yes, but what does the sign say?"
The time was during or shortly after World War II. We could buy little locally, so once or twice a year, Mom went to the Loop to shop. We usually transferred to the L and rode around to Marshall Field's huge department store.
Socially things were quite different then. Everyone dressed up to ride the cars. Men wore suits and hats -- there were few women or children aboard. Our neighbor, who worked in a factory, put on a three-piece suit for his daily commute and coveralls when he got to work. Mother hushed me after we climbed aboard. Then I noticed that nobody talked or looked out the window. Instead, everyone sat in silence reading his scientifically folded morning newspaper. To a small boy, the atmosphere seemed oppressive.
I remember the cars swaying side-to-side and how you could see the cars ahead swaying differently through the end windows. And I remember wondering how people could ignore the ever-changing sights out the window - I still can't.
Leaving Chicago, there was always a selection of trains to ride - CA&E ran local and express trains so you had to be careful which you boarded at the Wells Street Terminal in Chicago or your train might streak through Villa Park at about 60 miles an hour without stopping. Mom always made a point of looking for the steel cars when we caught our train. She knew that they were safer in a collision. Many of the cars, until the end of passenger service, were first generation wooden cars.
Even then, the wooden cars were antiques. They creaked when in motion, and the lights would flicker as the car lost contact with the third rail at road crossings, but they were a credit to the cabinetmaker's art both inside and out.
In September 1953 came the first serious threat of abandonment. The west side elevated structure to the Loop was to be torn down for major freeway construction. The CA&E was left with alternatives of running at street level into Chicago or ending at Forest Park and transferring passengers to the CTA which, of course, also had to run at street level. I remember riding just before the L was taken down and seeing the destruction of surrounding buildings in a wide swath on either side of the tracks. To me, it looked very much like a WWII photograph of a bombed out European city.
Of course, shutdown was inevitable after the "temporary transfer" at Forest Park was established. Passengers deserted in droves for the parallel and now much more desirable C&NW single seat service. Suspension finally occurred at 12:15pm on July 3, 1957. All cars immediately returned to Wheaton leaving angry, stranded passengers to find their own way home. Freight service continued until June 9, 1959.
Central Electric Railfans' Association special westbound at Villa Avenue on a rainy October 26, 1958. The end was near: I believe there was only one passenger operation after this one.
The last days of freight operations were interesting. One day I watched as the crew switched the Ovaltine spur. Since only a few of the very most senior employees were still working, it was truly a slow motion affair.
I was standing on the Villa Avenue platform, camera in hand, when the very last CA&E train came through: the "clean-up-train" run to pick up all remaining freight cars on the line. That was June 17, 1959.
The end: the last train through Villa Park. A Leyden bus is crossing at Summit Avenue.
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