The ‘L’ – Roots of a Chicago Landmark

The ‘L’ system is the centerpiece of Chicago’s mass transit system. From the tight corners and subways of the Loop to the farthest terminus stations, the ‘L’ ties Chicago together. According to the Chicago Transit Authority, the total system is 102.8 miles long and carried 238.45 million fares in 2014. That makes it one of the largest and busiest train systems in the country. Despite its everyday familiarity, the origins of the ‘L’ may be cloudy for many Chicagoans.

Charles Yerkes the 'L' Chicago Loop
Charles Yerkes used bribery and graft in order to connect all the ‘L’ lines in the Loop.

Private Lines and the World’s Fair

The first section of what would eventually become the ‘L’ opened in 1892. It ran above alleyways from Congress Street downtown to 39th Street on the South Side. Some of this original elevated track is still in use by the Green Line today. By the next year, the system was extended all the way down to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. This route became one of the most popular methods for reaching the fairground.

Like the massive transcontinental railroads of the 1800’s, the Southside ‘L’ was a private enterprise. In fact, most of the ‘L’ system was built by private companies. As our guests on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour have learned, constructing the ‘L’ was a very corrupt business. A shady tycoon named Charles Yerkes used graft and bribery to pave the way for his company to construct downtown’s Loop in the 1890’s.

Centralization and Public Takeover

By the 1920’s, the ‘L’ was a staple of the city’s infrastructure. A Tribune article from 1997 describes the early days of the ‘L’ as a system “…in which discounted fares are not grudgingly offered but enthusiastically marketed, conductors are positioned in each car to assist passengers and service is so frequent that stations are empty for only 15 seconds between rush-hour trains.” Customer service was such a priority that funeral trains could be commissioned. Some stations even had lifts for caskets.

Quincy Station 1897 CTA the 'L' the Loop
The Quincy station in the Loop dates to 1897. It is one of the oldest left on the ‘L’. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The handful of companies that operated the ‘L’ were under financial strain, and ended up being consolidated in 1924. Samuel Insull, an electricity tycoon, bought out the four separate ‘L’ companies. Their lines and operations became part of a centralized corporation called the Chicago Rapid Transit Company. This cut out the cost of competition. It also made transfers and fare purchases easier for customers.

The arrangement limped along until 1947. The city of Chicago and state of Illinois combined the city’s transit systems into a new public agency: the Chicago Transit Authority. That agency remains the operator the ‘L’ to this day. Many route closures, expansions, and realignments have happened since, but the core of the system has remained largely the same since it was built over a century ago.

-Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


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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.”
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