The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad: The Roarin' Elgin


The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad is perhaps more well known by its nicknames, the "Roarin' Elgin" and "Great Third Rail", than its actual history as a railroad. The CA&E brings to mind other similar lines like the Illinois Terminal Railroad and the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H) in that it operated extensive passenger services. However, it is perhaps most closely related to the IT due to its many branch line interurban railroad services. In any event, while the CA&E had a relatively short lifespan it is probably most famous for its extensive use of third rail electric railroad operations.  The road gained significant notoriety in the late 1950s when it abruptly ended passenger service during the middle of the day.  After years of low profits the CA&E finally called it quits in the early 1960s.

By the date of this photo, taken on July 6, 1962, the CA&E had been shutdown for five years and its equipment is stored in Wheaton, Illinois at the old company shops.

The "Roarin' Elgin" is perhaps a railroad that should have never been built due to the fact that several large granger Class I railroads already provided passenger/commuter railroad services to the Chicago metro area. In any event, the CA&E began life as the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway in 1902 connecting 52nd Avenue in Chicago with the suburb of Aurora. What is most unique about this railroad is not so much the fact that it was electrified but that it was energized using the third rail application.  Common over short distances for passenger safety and tight spaces (like in subways) third rail (whereby a third rail runs parallel to the two railroad rails near the ground and the locomotive picks up power via a "shoe" that contacts it) is extremely rare to see it used over such a distance, in this case covering the nearly 48 miles between downtown Chicago and Aurora.

A panoramic view of what remains of the CA&E's shops and stored equipment in Wheaton, Illinois during the summer of 1962. Five years after the road shutdown the equipment had still not been disposed of.

The AE&C reached its peak length of 68 miles by 1930 along with 8 miles of trackage rights on two different interurbans (the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Company). Along with connecting Aurora the AE&C also connected the suburbs of Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia.  The CA&E came about following a reorganization of the AE&C in 1919, which it emerged from in 1922 becoming the classic system known today. In 1926 the railroad came under the control of utilities mogul Samuel Insull.   Insull was successful in turning around two nearby interurban railroads and it would have been interesting to witness what he could have done with the CA&E if it were not for the Great Depression which hit at the end of the decade. 

The railroad again entered bankruptcy in 1932 and could not emerge for nearly 14 years until 1946 although traffic from World War II allowed the CA&E to upgrade its motive power fleet (which consisted primarily of motorcars along with a small fleet of Baldwin-Westinghouse B+B electric freight locomotives).  With the constant encroachment of highways, automobiles and other modes of transportation the CA&E found it more and more difficult to stay profitable so in an attempt to improve services it began abandoning some light branch lines. However, it found that it simply could not profitably compete for passenger traffic any longer and in a very abrupt move which became famous and left commuters stranded, the CA&E ceased all passenger operations at 12 noon on July 3, 1957.

Seen here is an uncommon snow plow used for interurban operations, seemingly built from a freight motor. The maintenance-of-way machine withers away in Wheaton, Illinois on July 6, 1962.

Motorcar and Locomotive Fleet

Motorcars

#10 - 28 (even): Built by the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company in 1902 these motors were the first owned by the then Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway.

#30 - 58 (even), #101 - 109 (odd): Built by the Stephenson Car Company in 1902.

#201 - 209 (odd): Built by the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company in 1904.

#400 - 419: Built by the Pullman Company in 1923.

#420 - 434: Built by the Cincinnati Car Company in 1927.

#451 - 460: Built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1945.

Freight Locomotives

The CA&E owned six freight electric locomotives, all built by Baldwin-Westinghouse and included #2001, #2002, #3003, #3004, #4005 and #4006.



A Roarin Elgin' interurban car built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1945 rusts away in Weaton, Illinois on June 7, 1962.

After the cessation of passenger service in mid-1957 freight service lasted only a few years longer and by 1963 the railroad had totally shutdown with the CA&E's freight motors being scrapped. Today, nothing remains of the "Roarin' Elgin" although sections of the right-of-way are now a walking trail known as the Illinois Prairie Path. The CA&E may not have been a very large railroad or profitable one but it is yet another one of the many lesser remembered fallen flag railroads that have endeared through the ages and those which remember it in operation certainly will not forget its flashy and catchy red and white livery adorning its motorcars and locomotives.

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