Marker tracks electric line
By Ralph Zahorik
North Shore Railroad plaque ceremoniously unveiled
WAUKEGAN — A state historical sign on the Robert McClory Bike Path marking the site of the defunct North Shore Railroad's Edison Court station was unveiled and dedicated Sunday.
It is the only marker along the trail indicating the path is the old right-of-way of the North Shore Line, said Laura Hedien, a Waukegan firefighter and railroad history enthusiast who led a campaign to get the marker erected with the Friends of the North Shore Line and the Waukegan Historical Society.
About 60 people, including former North Shore workers and a representative of the Illinois State Historical Society, attended the dedication ceremony.
The electric railway linking Chicago and Milwaukee shut down in 1963 after more than 60 years of service.
The line was known in the 1940s and '50s for its sleek Electroliners that could hit speeds of up to 111 mph and carried passengers from Milwaukee to Chicago in under two hours. The line was called "America's Fastest Interurban," was known for its luxury dining cars and recognized for innovations, including piggy-back freight cars and road crossing warning systems.
But riders at the dedication Sunday afternoon recalled the convenience — and cheapness — of hopping on the train to go shopping and visiting, or to see a movie up or down the line.
The railroad closed because it couldn't compete with private cars and new highways after World War II, and its new owner, the Susquehanna Corp., was more interested in a tax write-off than running a railroad, said Hedien.
A group of ex-railroad employees still gather annually, as about 20 did Sunday at the Ramada Inn in Waukegan after the ceremony.
"We were a family," said Betty Oleson of Gurnee, who worked in the railroad's Highwood headquarters as a secretary. Oleson's father, Clarence Bess, and an uncle, Glen Watkins, both of Highwood, worked for the North Shore Line. She met her husband, Ed Oleson, a North Shore financial officer, in the Highwood office.
Ed Oleson's father, the late Richard Oleson, was a railroad worker, too.
"They didn't pay top wages but you had a job 12 months out of the year," he said.
"It was a different world then." said Betty Oleson. "Kids took the train to school. People took the train to buy groceries, go to the movies."
A round-trip ticket to Milwaukee cost $4.95 and the one-way fare between Waukegan and Lake Forest was about 40 cents in the North Shore's final years, recalled Ed Oleson. Passenger trains once ran every 15 minutes, he said.
"It's been 37 years since I last stood in this spot," said Dave Myers Jr., a Gurnee area resident who worked in the railroad shops as a young man and whose mother and father worked for the North Shore. "It was the last day of operations (Jan. 21, 1963), a cold night," he said. "I remember that last train disappearing. I never thought it would happen, but it did ... It was such an important part of our lives."
Myers commuted to high school in Evanston and to DePaul University in Chicago on the North Shore. His father retired as general auditor of the line after 40 years service. Myers became a printing company executive.
The Edison Court station and freight house "was a beehive" of activity, said Myers, who lived on Butrick Street in Waukegan. "You could get to the Loop in an hour or an hour and 10 minutes.
Hedien, 35, was not yet born when the North Shore went under. She said she became interested in the railroad when she started bicycling on the North Shore Trail. "My mother used to commute to work on the North Shore. She says she rode it to pick up sailors, too," she said.
Hedien and others at the dedication, including some of the dozen former railroad workers, said the McClory Bike Path's name should have remained "North Shore." The north-south Lake County portion of the trail was renamed for former 10th District Congressman Robert McClory in 1997 by the Lake County Board. McClory died in 1988.
"They did it without telling us," said Betty Oleson. "They should have named a golf course after McClory."
The North Shore Line might have survived "if it had hung on for a few more years, like the South Shore Line," said Hedien. Government started subsidizing mass transit after the North Shore closed, she noted.
The North Shore's best year was 1945, the last year of World War II, when it carried about 28 million passengers. In its last years, annual ridership was about 4 million.
The marker was placed in Waukegan because "it started here," said Hedien. The marker states the railroad's ancestor was the Bluff City Electric Street Railway Company founded in 1895 as a two-car electric railroad.
Eventually, the system grew to 89 miles of track between Milwaukee and Chicago, with a branch to Mundelein. Utilities tycoon Samuel Insull bought the line around 1912.
The bike path along the Lake County right-of-way was laid out in the late 1980s.
The cast aluminum marker, 44 by 51 inches square, is the largest used by the state, said Harry Klinkhamer, programs assistant with the Illinois State Historical Society in Springfield, who attended the dedication. He said his parents, "a young immigrant couple," rode the North Shore between Milwaukee and Racine.
The marker is along the McClory Bike Path on the south side of Washington Street, west of Edison Court and just east of Abbott Middle School and south of Booner's Place, a Washington Street tavern. The main Edison station was on the east side of the rail line, south of Washington Street, and had a loading platform on the west. A freight house was on the north side of Washington Street, said Hedien.
The marker was funded by contributions, along with donations of manpower and supplies by the Lake County Department of Transportation, the Waukegan Park District, Boller Construction and Waukegan Steel Sales, said Hedien.