Friday, February 20, 2015

SCAL: St. Charles Air Line Railroad Overview

Carlos Ferran posted, used with permission
Taking to the air once again, but this time in the core of downtown Chicago.
The stretch of track between 16th St. Tower and McCormick Place has always fascinated me. I found it wild a former double tracked mainline snaked through the high rises of downtown. Sadly, getting it from the ground isn't exactly legal (unless you're ballsy enough to go up the bridge embankments). CN L536 was closing in, so I decided to drone it coming around the corner at Mark Twain Park.
Naturally, 2 CPD officers noticed and asked for my drone registration and whatnot. To their surprise, I produced it to them, commenting I was the first one they encountered who had legit paperwork.
Taken 1/2/2020
[The commentsindicate they removed one of the two tracks in the Summer of 2019. They could use only one track at a time anyway because of clearance issues. (There are also several comments about the CPD checking for drone registration papers.)]
Andrew Shafer Plan is to make this permanently single track... the track will be centered between the previous two tracks, the curves broadened all through Ping Tom Park and through 16th St. All the track will go from 10 MPH to 25 MPH... a huge improvement.
David Daruszka

(2019 Update: It sounds like Canadian National has given up on the CREATE P4 Project being funded because they plan to rebuild the bridges on this route. "Some bridges on the St. Charles Air Line were built in 1899. In total, CN plans to spent $85 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2019 on bridges." [csanders429] That will disappoint the condo owners along the route that want it turned into a trail. Chicago has a lot of overpasses around the century mark because Chicago forced the railroads to elevate their lines at the beginning of the 20th century to relieve traffic congestion.)

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. [DeBruler] (The still existing South Leg wasn't built until 1968.)

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

Brian Marra posted the question: "who is the Current owner of the St.Charles Air line?"
Jon Roma CN is the railroad that operates the Air Line. They have 50% ownership, and BNSF and UP each have 25%. (The original owners were Illinois Central, Michigan Central, C&NW, and CB&Q.)
Jon Roma The bridge next to the St. Charles Air Line is owned by CSX, successor to the Baltimore & Ohio and Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal railroads.
John Iwanski Jon Roma - the railroad has to own and maintain a bridge it can’t tear down. Pretty incredible when you think about it!
Jon Roma I'm not sure if they are unable to demolish it, or if it would simply be cost-prohibitive to remove it entirely. Another possibility is that the B&O and St. Charles Air Line bridge are structurally dependent on one another, and they can't tear one out without the other. I've heard conflicting stories.

David Koyzis So some railways are calling themselves airlines? Stealing passengers from O’Hare?
Bruce B. Reynolds The term Air Line has been used by railroads since the 19th century to indicate a route that is straighter than competing routes. It was first used on a New York to Boston line which ran through Connecticut rather than along the Long Island Sound shore. Although the route was not "straight as the crow flys" it was substantially shorter than the shore line. It became part of the New York & New England, but was absorbed by the New Haven. The New York-Chicago Air Line was to be a straight run of an electric railroad, but only about thirty miles were ever built.

Charlie Vlk The line from the west bank of the Chicago River to the IC tracks at Lake Michigan and 16th Street is an 1855-ish extension of the Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi Air Line. It was a line being built paralleling the Galena & Chicago Union (C&NW). It failed with the urging of the G&CU and they bought the line and its it’s extensive terminal properties and river dockage in Chicago. The line was connected at Harlem (Oak Park) and was used to relieve the congested Galena mainline. It was extended across the river to connect the G&CU, CB&Q, MC, and IC. When the CB&Q built their own Aurora - Chicago line it was cut back to Western Avenue. Much later the abandoned ROW was used by the CGW & CA&E. I imagine that CSX, CN , BNSF and UP inherited ownership. An “air line” refers to a railroad with a mostly straight ROW.

Jon Roma While we're on the topic of the St. Charles Air Line, CN is currently single-tracking it in order to do demolition and replacement of some of the deteriorated bridges along the route. These bridges date to the grade separation that took place in 1900-02, so they've been in need of some attention for quite some time.
My understanding is that when the new bridgework is in place, the remaining track over the old structures will be removed, and the Air Line will henceforth be single track using the new bridges.
Giuseppe Orsolini Jon Roma single tracking cuts down on their property taxes.
Randy Bosma Jon Roma- At one time I recall reading that the CREATE project was going to eliminate the need for the StCAL. The redevelopers of the South Loop area were hoping that they could be rid of the flanges squealing as trains came around the curve at 16th & Prairie.
Jon Roma When Mayor Richard M. Daley was in office, he wanted the Air Line gone because he could hear train noise from his condominium. CN's acquisition of the EJ&E reduced the Air Line's importance, but it's still used by CN trains and Amtrak's three daily round trip trains to Champaign, Carbondale, and New Orleans.
As I recall, the CREATE solution was to build a connector from the NS to the CN at Grand Crossing (where the Nickel Plate connection was), but this would involve adding more traffic to an already-overburdened route – in any event, this hasn't been done!
Randy Bosma Jon Roma - Yep, that's the way I remember it. The advantage for Amtrak was the elimination of a back-up move and changing ends to get the trains in/out of Union Station. The 24 timetable miles from Homewood to Union Station allow 75 or more minutes, a blistering 20 mph.

David Koyzis Why the name? Was it intended to go to the city of St Charles?
Michael Riha David Koyzis Chartered as the Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi Air Line Railroad...didn't quite make it that far.
David Daruszka Michael Riha The Air Line being defined as the straightest short route.
Charlie Vlk The actual track laying only got as far as the Des Plaines River. The G&CU owned the timber lands from their mainline south to almost 22nd Street and refused to allow the CStC&MAL to cross. They did start construction of the masonry piers to cross the Fox River at St. Charles but did not complete them....and they were reused by the road that eventually became the CGW. They aimed to cross the Mississippi at Savanna, IL.

Dennis DeBruler I guess CN has given up on the CREATE P4 Grand Crossing Project ever happening.

Another post about the history and rehabilitation of the Air Line. A lot of good comments.

Dennis DeBruler commented on Brian's post
I've noticed that CN still uses this route. For example, I caught a train in Ping Tom Park on May 13, 2015, while I was taking photos of the lift bridge.
Where they unable to obtain the land needed for a southwest quadrant connection at Munger Junction?,-88.../data=!3m1!1e3
David Koyzis I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nicely landscaped railway yard.


  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.

  4. To correct the narrative the G&CU "South Branch" was not cut back to a new connector north to the C&NW line along Kinzie Street until 1864 coincident with the CB&Q opening their own line to Aurora. The abandoned Chicago, St.Charles & Mississippi Air Line ROW was partially used by the Chicago Great Western and the Chicago Aurora & Elgin. The foundations of the Fox River Bridge at St. Charles were utilized by the CGW.