Friday, February 20, 2015

SCAL: St. Charles Air Line Railroad

In 1852 the Chicago, St. Charles and Mississippi Air Line Railroad was chartered to run from the South Branch of the Chicago River to the Mississippi River at Savanna via St. Charles. (An "air line" route meant a straight or direct route.) This plan got the attention of the UP/Chicago & North Western/Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU). In 1853, G&CU reached Freeport, IL, when they stopped construction towards Galena. In 1854 they started on the Dixon Air Line route, which they completed in 1855. This more direct route to the Mississippi is the route that UP now uses to carry the traffic from their original transcontinental route to Chicago.

Since the St. Charles route would be a direct competitor, the G&CU bought it on April 10, 1854. It stopped the construction at 9 miles by connecting it to the G&CU mainline at Harlem (today's Oak Park).  On January 1, 1856 the G&CU finished a north-south cutoff along Rockwell Street and the Harlem connection became one of Chicago's first abandoned railroads.

Early in its history, Chicago had three routes into downtown, each carrying two railroads.
  • UP/CNW/G&CU and its tenant BNSF/BN/CB&Q/Chicago&Aurora(1852)/Aurora Branch(AB)
  • Rock Island and NS/NYC/Lake Shore & Southern Michigan/Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana(MS&NI)
  • CN/IC and NS/NYC/Michigan Central(MC)
But there were no connections between these railroads. Boston capitalists led by John Murray Forbes had backed both the MC and the Aurora Branch, so they extended the St. Charles to the east, including a bridge over the South Branch, to the IC+MC. This new route between G&CU+AB and IC+MC was also known as the St. Charles Air Line even though the eastward extension never was owned by the original company of that name. After the extension was finished in 1856, G&CU and AB briefly used the IC's Central Station. (America's Rail Capital, pp. 17-18)

Initially the four terminus railroads, G&CU, AB, IC, and MC had an equal 1/4 share. The MC sold its interests to the IC. So now the ownership of the line is CN/IC 50%, BNSF/CB&Q 25%, and UP/CNW 25%. (Wikipedia) Since the eastward extension crossed the RI+MS&NI to get to the IC+MC, the St. Charles Air Line (SCAL) connected all of the railroads and was thus Chicago's first belt railroad.

When the CB&Q built its own access to Chicago in 1862-64, it initially connected to the SCAL and continued to terminate at Central Station. But it then joined the tenants of the original Union Station and built tracks and passenger train yards to the north on the west side of the South Branch. When G&CU joined C&NW, they built a series of stations in the Wolf Point area and also quit using the SCAL for passenger service.

The St. Charles tracks were elevated in the late 1890s. Below are excerpts from a 1901 map.



There was a short, and thus rather steep, ramp going down to the Central passenger station. And a longer ramp that delivered freight trains to the freight yards further north by the Chicago River.

The 16th-Street corridor between the South Branch of the Chicago River and Western Avenue was joined by B&OCT/Wisconsin Central on the north and CB&Q on the south. The B&OCT and CB&Q grew so much that the connection between the SCAL and C&NW was a very low priority by 1938. If you access the link in the caption and zoom in on the viaduct west of the lower bridge, you will see the viaduct terminates on the ground on the north side of CB&Q's yards.

It continues along the northern edge of the CB&Q until it comes to the "white triangle with black lines." This is the C&NW's Wood Street Yard. The yard east of Wood Street is B&OCT's Robey Street Yard. The yard to the south is CB&Q's Western Avenue Yard. Note that the B&OCT and CB&Q yards have impressive roundhouses.

I finally found a map that clarified the intersection of the Western Avenue Corridor with the 16th Street Corridor.

Plans are in progress to make the St. Charles Air Line obsolete.

John David Mitchell Jr shared
The date is September 2, 1968 and the location is 18th Street Chicago. Photographer Bob Coolidge snaped the image of Illinois Central switcher 200 moving some coaches to Central Station.
John A. Fostik, MBA
Randy James Newly completed St. Charles air line in the background.
[I learned from another post that IC had to buy this land from NYC because this is where Michigan Central's original passenger engine servicing terminal was located.]
Jack Ferry Looks like these cars are returning after a bath in the wash rack.
Dave Durham shared a link to History of the St. Charles Air Line Railroad in Chicago : owned ... St. Charles Air Line Railroad (Chicago, Ill.)
Bob Lalich Never mind. I found the same book on Google books and downloaded it there.
Charlie Vlk HathiTrust has many interesting journals and books not available elsewhere. You can copy a page at a time and download into Word or some other program. Also there is a free download called Hathi Download Helper which will automate the page by page downloading and reassemble them into a pdf book which can be saved on your computer. It takes time to download but can work in the background and get you works that are otherwise unavailable.
Charlie Vlk It is interesting that the Official History does not mention that the "St.Charles Air Line Railroad was in fact and in early years referred to as the "Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi AIr Line RR EXTENSION". I believe this is because the G&CU helped force its potential competitor into bankruptcy and obtained its ROW and valuable Chicago terminal and riverfront properties at a bargain price. They built a short connector from the G&CU at Harlem down to the CStC&MAL RR track which had been denied crossing the G&CU lands on the east bank of the DesPlaines River which contributed to its bankruptcy. It became the "South Branch" of the G&CU and CB&Q trains were diverted on it to help relieve traffic congestion on the G&CU main. The South Branch was cut back to Western Avenue and a connector built north to the C&NW west main when the CB&Q finished their own line to Aurora in 1864. The CStC&MAL RR ROW laid dormant for years until reused in parts by the CGW and C&AE.
Dennis DeBruler Since CSX/B&OCT has declared the segment between BRC and the Western Avenue corridor OOS, it struck me that this route has now been abandoned twice. I wonder if it is the only route in the Chicagoland area that has been abandoned twice. Maybe even in Illinois or the USA.

Dave Durham posted five photos with the comment: "St. Charles Air Line, 1899 IRR&WC Report."
David Daruszka The CN will be rebuilding the airline to single track including new bridges. Sorry condo owners, your realtor lied about the trains going away.
Dennis DeBruler Why didn't CN build a connector in the southwest quadrant of Munger,,-88.2382024,500m/data=!3m1!1e3, and route their freights on the former EJ&E instead of continuing to run them into downtown Chicago?






Jeff Ayersman commented on Dave's post
It used to actually go north around Central Station, but a long term legal battle to address the sheds/warehouses on Indiana Ave around the St. Lukes hospital complex required them to reconfigure the tracks to what you see today. 
Found this in hospital year book.
Here is view looking south in Indiana toward 15th/16th
David Daruszka And the old Michigan Central Roundhouse is still there in this photo.

Jeff Ayersman commented on Dave's post


  1. Mississippi is the route that UP now uses to carry the traffic from their original transcontinental route to Chicago.เช็คตั๋วเครื่องบิน

  2. The wood st. yard was the distribution point for SP originated California produce. Produce was unloaded from PFE refers for whosale snd retail distribution in the Midwest.

    1. Indeed, I have learned that the Wood Street Yard was the "potato yard" for all of the railroads in the Chicago area. I updated this posting to put a link to the Wood Street Yard posting I have since written.

  3. This is outstanding work! Hard to believe now that Wood St. is Global 1, which is quite busy and 100% intermodal.