A Forgotten History: Chicago Cable Cars

Greg Borzo, author of Chicago Cable Cars (The History Press, 2012), joins the blog for a guest post today:

When most people hear “cable car” they think “San Francisco.” Yet for 25 years the largest cable car system the world had ever seen operated in Chicago, transporting more than one billion riders.

Photo Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

I discovered these facts and when I mentioned them to others, I was surprised to be frequently shot down. “Chicago never had cable cars,” people told me. So I persisted and went digging for more documentation, but most Chicago history books skip right over cable cars and move straight from horse-drawn streetcars to electric trolley cars. When I found an old colorized postcard in which an artist had converted the images of cable cars into trolley cars, I realized that cable cars had not only been ignored but in some ways had been erased from historical records.

Why Did Chicago’s Cable Cars Get Forgotten?

Why would anyone care enough to cover up a means of transportation? By the 1890’s cable cars were considered old-fashioned and rickety. They did not match the modern image Chicago boosters and developers were trying to project of Chicago as a technologically advanced metropolis.

Also, cable cars have just been overlooked because many historians do not study transit history thoroughly enough to recognize the significant differences between various forms of streetcars—and why they matter. And it’s been hard to pull attention away from San Francisco, which seems to have a market on the cable car story.

Cable cars were important to Chicago because they provided residents the best transit available anywhere in the world; helped the city grow and develop; stimulated the economy with an investment of $25 million ($600 million today); and generated civic pride. To find out how, you’ll just have to check out my book!

An Ideal System for a Booming City

Photo Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Chicago proved that cable cars could carry huge numbers of passengers on flat terrain, even in a cold climate, and they kept expanding the cable car system. Other cities quickly followed suit, and by 1893, a total of 29 cities had cable car systems. Despite tremendous enthusiasm for this new mode of transit, the electric trolley—with its overhead electrical wires—unceremoniously eclipsed the cable car. It simply was far cheaper to build.

Chicago’s cable car era ended in 1906. In its 25 years of operation, Chicago established itself as the city with the world’s most advanced transit system.

While the history of the rise and fall of Chicago’s cable cars seems all but forgotten, you could tour Chicago to uncover remnants, including former powerhouses, car barns and even a waiting room. No Chicago cable cars were preserved, but two replicas exist—one at the Museum of Science & Industry and one at the Illinois Railway Museum.

chicago cable car history book greg borzoJoin me for a presentation of my new book at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 28, 2013, at The Book Cellar, a great independent bookstore ( 4736 N. Lincoln Ave). I’ll be presenting historic images, and you’ll learn how important Chicago’s cable cars were to the city, and of course you can indulge in wine, beer, coffee, soup or dessert.

— Greg Borzo, author (Guest Blogger)


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!