There are many factors that affect the growth of a neighborhood. Many people think that the availability transportation is one of them. The purpose of this paper is to see if the Ravenswood Elevated Train Line (now the Chicago Transit Authority’s Brown Line) really did affect the growth of the Albany Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. The specific time period being examined is between 1890 and 1920, with the L line starting speculations in 1907.
The area including the Albany Park neighborhood (originally from Montrose north to Devon and Crawford (now Pulaski) east to the North Branch of the Chicago River5, but now the northern boundary is at Foster) was annexed by Chicago in 188910. Before the Ravenswood L was built, it was rural and undeveloped. A report written in about 1936 described it as "fertile prairies with flowers in spring and reaping rich harvests in autumn. Women in their shawls digging and singing folk songs."2 The only things there were truck farms and two harness racetracks, the Diamond and Rusk. The Rusk Racetrack ran from Spaulding Ave. to Albany Ave. and Lawrence Ave. to Argyle, and was owned by Richard Rusk. The Diamond Racetrack ran from Kedzie Ave. to the North Branch of the Chicago River and from Montrose to Eastwood, and was owned by the Ravenswood Association2. Both of these racetracks were in the east part of what is now Albany Park, the rest was sparsely populated.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the only way to get around in Albany Park was to walk down the mud holes that served for roads. The nearest streetcar line was on Lawrence and Clark, two miles to the east2, so the area was cut off from the center of the city8. Even the building of a streetcar line out Lawrence, in 1896, did little to stimulate growth16. The area also lacked city water and gas lines. As is apparent, there wasn't a lot there, except for the racetracks.
Building the Northwestern Elevated Line
In 1893, Chicago was bustling with activity because of the World's Columbian Exposition. Work on the first elevated train (L) line had begun in 1890 and operations on it had started in 1892, with trains running from Congress St. south to 39th. By 1895, 3 L lines operated south and west from the center of the city, but none went north8. A northside L line, the Northwestern Elevated Line was incorporated in 1893. The new Northwestern line would eventually run north from the loop, into the north suburbs, where it would connect with the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad. However, work on the Northwestern line was slow. The L line didn’t begin its first operation until 1900, with trains running from the Loop to Wilson18.
The businessmen who founded the Northwestern Elevated Company were interested in bringing people to the Diamond and Rusk Race Tracks, and saw potential for development of land on Chicago’s north side. These men, and others, including Charles Yerkes (who owned most of the streetcar lines in Chicago), John Mitchell (of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank family), Clarence Buckingham (the principal owner of the Northwestern Elevated), and De Lancey Lauderback (also with interest in street car lines), got together and formed a group called the "Northwestern Land Association." In 1893, they purchased 640 acres running west from Western Ave. to make the Albany Park neighborhood. Lauderback was to be the principal developer of the area. The name "Albany Park" came from the fact that Lauderback came from Albany, NY, and the area looked park-like2.
Since the developers of the land were also the developers of the elevated line and streetcar lines, promoting the growth of the Albany Park neighborhood would provide ridership on their trains. The trains, however, were necessary before people would move into the area.
In 1903, the Northwestern Elevated Company was granted a city franchise to build an elevated line into the newly developing Ravenswood neighborhood, located east of the North Branch of the Chicago River, and east of Albany Park. Work on the Ravenswood line, as it was called, was also slow. It took a while to get approval for the line from the City Council because the Northwestern Elevated Company had heavy debts18. On May 18, 1907, service began on the Ravenswood line from Belmont to Western. The first rider was P. F. Feldman of 401 Addison Ave. He "had waited anxiously all morning"1 to pay the initial nickel, but was almost pushed aside by Clarence A. Knight, general attorney for the L line.
The Albany Park development was slow to take off. It was met with antipathy for the first decade; not much happened in the Albany Park neighborhood due to poor transportation5. Clearly, additional transportation connections to the area were needed. It wasn’t until 1905 that Lauderback began selling lots in the area from Montrose to Lawrence and Kedzie to Kimball. To improve the draw of the neighborhood, the Northwestern Land Association got the Northwestern Elevated Company to commit to extend the Ravenswood line to the area. The Northwestern Elevated Company wasn't convinced that the line would be profitable. The property owners in the Albany Park neighborhood guaranteed to compensate for all of the operating losses5. Seven months later, the branch was completed to Kimball, finally providing convenient transportation between Albany Park and the Loop. It had taken 14 years for this to happen.
On the Ravenswood trains, there were advertisements for plots of land in the Albany Park neighborhood. Pictures on the car ad showed the great extent of development that had taken place around the Western Ave. Station as a result of the L line. The ad urged people to buy "for a home or an investment" saying "NOW is the time to buy property." The completion of the line to Lawrence and Kimball in December of 1907 "spurred housing construction, and lots were widely sought after in the area"10. Despite the growth, for several years there weren't enough riders to meet operating expenses, so the property owners had to make good on their pledge to meet the deficit5.
By 1910, in the middle of the first building boom, ridership was up sufficiently to begin a full schedule of trains. For example, when the Damen to Kimball section opened in late 1907, there were only about half a million riders that year (an average of a little less than 1400 riders a day). At the end of 1808, there was about 0.75 million riders. By 1910, there were about 1.1 million riders. By 1916, there was 3.25 million riders that year (almost 9000 riders a day on average)8.
Even as late as 1915, there were still large cornfields in the Lawrence/Kimball area5. Between 1910 and 1920, however, population increased rapidly from about 7,000 to almost 27,000 and it further more than doubled between 1920 and 193010. By the time things slowed down again, almost all available lots had buildings on them10.
By comparing maps in "Land use in Chicago" with the Sanborn Insurance Survey maps of 191313, one can get an estimate of the amount of growth that took place in Albany Park in the last half of the 1910’s. Map data from "Land Use in Chicago"7 shows that between 1913 and 1919, most blocks near the L station nearly doubled their number of buildings. The average number of lots per block was forty, and the average increase was 20 homes/buildings per block. For example, in the first full block east of the L station, there were 18 buildings in 1913, and in 1919, there were 38. In the first block west, there were 13 buildings on 38 lots, and in 1919, there were 34. On the block north of Lawrence, and between Sawyer and Christiana, in 1913, 11 of 36 lots were occupied, and in 1919, 36 were. In that same block in 1913, none of the blocks facing Lawrence were occupied. By 1919, all of them were. The heaviest early growth was a few blocks away from the station. The highest growth was usually south of the L station, toward the Old Irving Park area, which was one few communities in the northwest side before 1893.
Three photographs of the intersection at Lawrence and Kimball show the rapid building growth. The most recent one, looking east on Lawrence from Kimball in 1916, shows a prosperous business area with substantial buildings. This shows that people were willing to invest in Albany Park. Another picture, taken in 1909, shows Kimball Ave. looking north from just south of Lawrence. But, Kimball is still unpaved, with deep ruts down the middle. There are only three building you can see, and one is the L station. The other two buildings are across Kimball, and aren’t on the Sanborn insurance map of 191313. One is modeled like the L station, and the other is small and box-like. From the photo, you can’t tell what they are, but both appear to have been torn down to make way for a larger commercial building shown on the 1913 Sanborn map. There aren’t any sidewalks except a board walkway running across the middle of Kimball. The final picture is from circa 1912, looking southeast across the Lawrence and Kimball intersection at the L station. This picture shows that Kimball had been graded smooth, sidewalks had been put in, and a train platform had been built.
Also, the number of houses of worship increased after the arrival of the L. The following table shows the first churches and temples in the area:
The Albany Park area was largely unsettled before the Ravenswood L was built. The L allowed a building boom because it offered transportation, and there was a lot of available land to build on. The building was so rapid that by the end of the period of L line growth, there were almost no vacant lots left in the area. This would appear to show that the building of the Ravenswood Elevated Line spurred the growth of Chicago’s Albany Park Neighborhood.
Anonymous (1907, May 19) New ‘L’ Line Operated Chicago Tribune Sec. 1 p. 9.
Anonymous (1936?) Untitled Manuscript on file at Sulzer Regional Library, Used in A Study of the Von Steuben High School Community (n.d.)
Anonymous (After 1936) Interviews of Old Settlers Manuscript on file at Sulzer Regional Library
Anonymous (1949, March 27) Mayfair Chicago Herald
Beardsley, H. (1922, April 29) Albany Park Growth Regarded as Marvel Chicago Daily News p. 13
Bjorklund, D. (1976, July 4) North River, Where the Indians Lived Lerner News
City of Chicago (1943) Land Use in Chicago Vol. II Chicago: Chicago Land Use Survey
Davis, J. (1965) The Elevated System and the Growth of Northern Chicago Evanston: Northwestern University
Mofat, B. (1995) The "L", The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System City Unstated: Central Electric Railfans Association
The Chicago Fact Book Consortion (1990) Local Community Fact Book, Chicago Metropolitan Area 1990 Chicago: Department of Sociology at UIC
CERA (n.d.) Chicago’s Rapid Transit, Vol. I: Rolling Stock 1892-1947 City Unstated: Central Electric Railfans Association.
Sanborn Insurance Company (1894) Sanborn Insurance Atlas Chicago Vol. A
Sanborn Insurance Company (1913) Sanborn Insurance Atlas Chicago Vol. 19
Vandervoot, Bill http://members.aol.com/chictafan/companies.html
Vandervoot, Bill http://members.aol.com/chictafan/crtnw.html
Marin, Elen Rooney (1997, Jan. 18) Hotspot: Albany Park immigrants give neighborhood a worldly texture Chicago Tribune Sec. "New Homes" Pg. 1
Garfield, Grahm http://www.nslsilus.org/graham/CTA/history/history/4line.html (now at http://www.chicago-l.org)
Garfield, Grahm http://www.nslsilus.org/graham/CTA/history/stations/kimball.html (now at http://www.chicago-l.org)
This paper was originally written by me (Ian Feldman) back in 1999 as my 6th grade History Fair Project, just in case anyone was curious.