Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad

The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad (reporting mark CNSM), also known as the North Shore Line, was an interurban that operated between the Chicago Loop and downtown Milwaukee. The 85-mile (137 km) route of the North Shore Line utilized a combination of private rights-of-way and street running as well as trackage rights over the Chicago "L" network. In addition to operating passenger and freight trains, the company also provided streetcar and motor bus services throughout its history.

Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad
Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee logo.png
CNSM 700.jpg
CNS&M 700 along the Mundelein Route near Illinois Route 131 in Lake Bluff, Illinois, circa 1957.
HeadquartersHighwood, Illinois
Reporting markCNSM
LocaleNortheast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin
Dates of operation1916–1963
PredecessorChicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway
Track gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
ElectrificationOverhead wires, 650 V DC
Third rail, 600 V DC (Chicago 'L')

Originating in 1895 as an electric street railway in the city of Waukegan, the property was gradually transformed into what author and railroad historian William D. Middleton described as a "super interurban".[1]:30–31[2]:227, 402[3]:56 After a two-decade period of expansion, the nascent interurban was acquired in 1916 by business magnate Samuel Insull, who proceeded to reorganize the company and invest large amounts of capital into improving rail operations. During the "Roaring Twenties" the North Shore Line received industry recognition for its quality of service, and in 1941 the company debuted its streamlined Electroliner trains. After the Second World War, declines in ridership led to increasing financial losses, and despite protracted legal opposition from the remaining riders, the North Shore Line ceased all rail operations in 1963. Middleton would subsequently opine that this abandonment marked the end of the "interurban era" in the United States.[1]:37[3]:79

Several examples of North Shore Line rolling stock are preserved in railroad museums or private collections, and the former Dempster Street Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1964, the Chicago Transit Authority has operated the Yellow Line service over a short segment of the former main line.


North Shore Line
Menomonee River
National St.
Greenfield Ave.
Mitchell St.
Harrison Ave.
Austin Ave.
College Ave.
South Milwaukee Road
Oak Creek
Seven Mile Road
Six Mile Road
Five Mile Road
Four Mile Road
Birch Road
South Kenosha
State Line
Winthrop Harbor
Beach Station
Glen Flora Ave.
Edison Court
County Street
St. Mary's
of the Lake
North Chicago
North Chicago
Skokie Valley
Shore Line
Great Lakes
Lake Bluff
Lake Bluff
Lake Forest
Sacred Heart
Fort Sheridan
Vine Ave.
Highland Park
Beech St.
Ravinia Park
Hubbard Woods
Indian Hill
Skokie River
North Shore Channel
Skokie Valley
Shore Line
Howard St.
Wilson Ave.
Belmont Ave.
Chicago Ave.
Grand Ave.
Merchandise Mart
Chicago River
& Wells
Clark & Lake
& Wells
& Wells
Randolph & Wabash
& Van Buren
Madison & Wabash
& Van Buren
Adams & Wabash
Congress & Wabash
Roosevelt Road
South Park
Cottage Grove
Service abandoned
Service abandoned
prior to 1956

The North Shore Line of 1916 consisted of a main line whose southern terminus was at Church Street in Evanston, Illinois, somewhat north of the Chicago city limits. The line continued north through Chicago's wealthy north shore communities along Lake MichiganWilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, and Highland Park. The line continued through Highwood, location of the railroad's headquarters and main shops, and continued through Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, North Chicago, and Waukegan. From Waukegan, the line traversed Zion before entering Wisconsin and tapping Kenosha and Racine, finally reaching its northern terminus in Milwaukee. The entire main line in Illinois was double track, but pockets of single track remained in Wisconsin. While some of the line ran through city streets, most was on private right-of-way which, along with the paralleling line of the Chicago and North Western Railway bisected the business districts of the north shore communities as far north as Lake Bluff. There were some stretches of track where the train would reach a speed of 90 mph.[4]

At Lake Bluff, a branch diverged to the west to serve Libertyville and Area, now Mundelein. At North Chicago Junction, a branch led to downtown Waukegan via city streets.[4]


Early historyEdit

From street railway to interurbanEdit

In the early 1890s the city of Waukegan granted a franchise to the Waukegan & North Shore Rapid Transit Company for the construction and operation of a local street railway,[5][6] but this initial effort was thwarted by the Panic of 1893.[7]:14 At this time, the Chicago & North Western Railway was the sole provider of passenger rail service to the North Shore region, but residents reportedly desired the construction of "a new surface or elevated road"[8] to provide an alternative to the steam-powered North Western service.

On July 3, 1894, local businessmen Dewitt L. Jones, S. D. Talcott and Charles Whitney founded the Bluff City Electric Street Railway Company,[9]:14 and on April 15 the following year the Bluff City Electric received a franchise to begin construction.[9]:15 Revenue service began on May 30, 1895, initially provided by two single-truck streetcars.[9]:21 Shortly thereafter, the company began a program of expansion that would continue over the following two decades. On May 12, 1898, Bluff City Electric was acquired by the newly incorporated Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway Company, putting it under the control of businessmen George A. Ball and A. C. Frost.[9]:30 The new corporate identity of the railroad reflected its ultimate goals for expansion. The Chicago & Milwaukee Electric upgraded its facilities and purchased new rolling stock.[7]:21 By fall of that year, the railroad's electrification system had been modernized by electrical engineer Bion J. Arnold.[9]:37 In August 1899 the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric had reached the city of Evanston, constructing a southern terminus at Church Street.[7]:23 From Church Street, passengers could transfer to the Chicago & Evanston Line[10] of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway.[9]:45 With a rudimentary connection from Waukegan to Chicago then complete, the railroad turned its attention to the north.

The Insull yearsEdit

The drumhead from the Gold Coast Limited, on display at the Illinois Railway Museum.
Hat pin from motorman on the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee railroad.

The original arrangement at the railroad's southern terminus in Evanston was for Chicago-bound passengers to transfer to the Northwestern Elevated (one "L" company) there. Following the railroad's acquisition by Samuel Insull, limited-stop North Shore Line trains began connecting with special "L" trains (also controlled by Insull) that ran express to the Chicago Loop. In 1919, the North Shore Line obtained trackage rights over the Northwestern Elevated and modified their cars with third rail equipment, giving them direct access to the Loop. The following year, a new terminal in Milwaukee was dedicated, and in succeeding years, the remaining single-track in Wisconsin was eliminated, with the exception of a one-half-mile stretch of single-track in southern Milwaukee that remained a minor bottleneck until the railroad's end.

During the early 1920s, the railroad instituted a number of named, limited-stop trains, some carrying deluxe dining and parlor/observation cars. One of the railroad's most distinctive named trains, inaugurated in 1917, was the Gold Coast Limited. The North Shore also created a network of motor coach (bus) lines to feed on potential traffic from territory not directly served by the company's trains.

Construction of the Skokie Valley routeEdit

The growth of the north shore communities provided good traffic levels for the railroad, but the increasing congestion of these communities' business districts impeded the railroad's desire to remain competitive with the competing steam railroads for longer-haul passenger business, in particular the Chicago-Milwaukee traffic. The North Shore therefore sought to build a new bypass line through the Skokie Valley – what was then undeveloped rural land approximately four to five miles west of the lake shore route.

The needed real estate purchases and financing were arranged in 1923 and 1924, and construction of the new line began in April 1924. The new line diverged from the Howard Street "L" station located at the boundary between Chicago and Evanston, ran west into the village of Niles Center (now Skokie), continuing to the north-northwest from that point through marshy countryside, paralleling the Skokie branch of the Chicago and North Western Railway. At South Upton, the new route ran eastward along the North Shore's Mundelein branch until just west of Lake Bluff, at which point a new connection diverged to the north onto what had been a freight-only branch which connected to the original main line at North Chicago Junction.

An arrangement was made with the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, wherein local "L" service was begun over the new line to the Dempster Street station in Niles Center in 1925. It had been anticipated that the opening of the new "L" line would help launch a real estate boom in the area as it had decades earlier in other parts of the Chicago area. The Great Depression put a damper on the area's growth, and Niles Center (by that time renamed Skokie) didn't really begin to experience a surge of growth until the 1950s.

Though the Niles Center elevated service failed to prosper, the transit operator benefited from the construction of new shop facilities on vacant land along the southern part of the Skokie Valley line. This spacious facility relieved older, more crowded facilities on the "L" system and remains to this day as the Chicago Transit Authority's primary maintenance facility for its rail system.

The remaining portion of the North Shore Line's new Skokie Valley line entered service in 1926. The new route consisted of 18 miles (29 km) of new double-track railroad, and the route was a mere 2.5 miles (4 km) longer than the old main line. Because it traversed mostly rural area, higher speeds could be sustained for a longer distance. In conjunction with the completion of the Skokie Valley route, the railroad had improved the Mundelein branch, building a new terminal and double-tracking the branch. Mundelein had previously been served by shuttle service connecting with main line trains at Lake Bluff; with the opening of the new Skokie Valley line on June 5, 1926, North Shore inaugurated an hourly Chicago-Mundelein local suburban service, interspersed with the hourly Chicago-Milwaukee limited-stop trains. Diversion of the Chicago-Milwaukee service onto the Skokie Valley line brought a reduction in travel time of 20 minutes.

The original main line – now designated by the railroad as the Shore Line – continued to host Chicago-Waukegan service, which consisted of limited-stop Chicago-Waukegan service as well as all-stop local service, each operating at roughly 30-minute headways.

The Great DepressionEdit

Initially after the stock market crash in 1929, business went on as usual, but as the depression deepened and as the Insull public utility empire began to crumble, the railroad entered receivership in 1932. The dire economic conditions and high unemployment caused ridership (and hence revenue) to plummet. A labor strike in 1938 precipitated by a 15% reduction in wages kept the railroad from operating for seven weeks.

In spite of the difficult conditions during the 1930s, the North Shore was able to undertake a major grade separation project along the Shore Line. The North Shore had for nearly a quarter century sought to eliminate the hazards and operating costs associated with running a busy railroad through the business districts of one built-up suburb after another. Prior to the Depression, grade separation projects had been funded by the railroads' private capital, and neither the North Shore Line nor the paralleling steam-operated Chicago and North Western Railway were in a financial position to undertake such a venture even before the stock market crash in 1929.

However, in 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes (a Winnetka resident), announced a Public Works Administration program to "prime the pump" of the American economy. This timely program allowed the railroads and the communities of Winnetka and Glencoe to obtain federal funding for the grade separation of the two railroads through their business districts. The project was complicated by the need for construction work to take place under traffic – the two railroads combined operated more than 200 daily trains. The grade separation was completed in late 1941 – just nine weeks before the United States went to war – and cost $4.3 million.

Modernization: Green Liners and ElectrolinersEdit

To meet the competition of modern streamlined trains operating on the steam railroads connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, the North Shore in 1939 embarked on a program to modernize a portion of its steel coach fleet for both commuter and intercity service. Some 15 coaches dating from 1928 were modernized, practically from the ground up. All-electric heating was installed with a new ventilation system, new flooring, new interior decorations and fittings. The cars' exteriors were painted green with gray and red trim, and were dubbed "Greenliners". These cars were regularly assigned to Skokie Valley limited-stop service.

North Shore public timetable dated February 9, 1941, introducing the Electroliners

The most significant component of the passenger equipment modernization program was the purchase of two articulated streamlined trainsets. The trainsets consisted of four cars semi-permanently attached. The two end units included operating cabs and smoking and non-smoking coach seating. An additional car provided more coach seating, and the tavern/lounge car rounded out the four-car consist. These trains were dubbed Electroliners and were the railroad's premiere service run as fast as 90 mph between Dempster Street and North Chicago Junction on the North Shore's excellent track and roadbed. Entering service on February 9, 1941, each trainset was scheduled to run five one-way trips in Chicago-Milwaukee service every day. The Electroliners continued in service until the end of the railroad's operation in 1963. The Electroliners were sold to the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company and were renamed Liberty Liners and run between 69th Street Philadelphia and Norristown. The Liberty Liners were retired around 1979.[11]

Wartime rush and post-war declineEdit

The outbreak of World War II caused the railroads of the United States to see a sharp rise in traffic. Even before the imposition of rationing of fuel and rubber made auto travel difficult, the North Shore saw its freight and passenger traffic rise to record levels, in part due to the railroad serving important military facilities: the Army's Fort Sheridan just north of Highwood, and the Navy's Great Lakes Naval Training Station, just south of North Chicago. North Shore saw its traffic increase to the extent that the railroad was forced to borrow equipment from the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and fellow interurban Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, both former Insull properties.

Wartime earnings were high enough that the railroad's bankruptcy trustees were able to pay some of the company's outstanding debt and submit a reorganization plan. After the plan was approved, a new corporation (with a different corporate name from before) assumed the property in 1946.

The failure to resolve a wage dispute taken to the National Mediation Board in 1948 led to a 91-day work stoppage that spring. The dispute was resolved by increasing both fares and wages, though the company's employees continued to earn less than their counterparts at other area railroads. Simultaneously, a decline in rail travel began as initial postwar shortages of automobiles ended. These national trends—coupled with the lost revenue from the three-month strike and the effects of the strike-settling wage increase—created serious passenger revenue losses for the line. In 1949, the railroad sought to curtail some of its more unprofitable services. Dining car service (other than that on the Electroliners) was dropped, service (particularly on the Shore Line) was reduced, and the railroad applied unsuccessfully to drop Shore Line service altogether.

When the franchise held by the North Shore subsidiary operating streetcar service in Waukegan expired in 1947, the company felt that a renewal was not justified, the company replaced its city operations there with bus service. Shore Line trains that used the streetcar tracks to reach downtown Waukegan were simultaneously cut back to allow the tracks to be abandoned. The subsidiary city streetcar service in Milwaukee was discontinued in 1951 but the tracks remained, as they was used by main line services to access the North Shore's Milwaukee terminal.

Right-of-way and trackage between Leland Avenue in Chicago and Linden Avenue in Wilmette was sold to the CTA in 1953, though the Shore Line continued to operate.[12] In turn, the railroad received $7 million USD in CTA revenue bonds.[13]

The railroad repeated its petition to abandon the Shore Line in 1954. Though rush hour traffic levels remained strong, off-peak ridership had declined sharply, leading to further losses. The remaining street running and numerous stops eliminated many of the advantages of rail transportation on this route. Travel time on the Shore Line was roughly twice that of the slightly longer Skokie Valley route. The completion of the Edens Expressway through the Skokie Valley in late 1951 caused mounting ridership losses reflected on the railroad's earnings statements. Though the abandonment proceedings garnered strong opposition in the communities affected, the railroad was successful in proving its case and was authorized to end service on the Shore Line. July 24, 1955 was the final day of service on that route. A short portion of the line was retained to provide access from North Chicago Junction to the railroad's shops in Highwood. The rest of the line north of Linden Avenue in Wilmette was removed, much of the right-of-way becoming automobile parking spaces for commuters who switched to the suburban trains of the parallel C&NW North Line.

End of rail serviceEdit

With its transportation holdings proving increasingly unprofitable, the Susquehanna Corporation, a Delaware-based holding corporation formed after a 1953 reorganization,[14] moved to cut its losses; in 1958, the railroad filed with state and federal regulatory authorities for the authority to discontinue all service and abandon the entire property. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) examiner handling the case recommended abandonment, but the Illinois regulators recommended the continued operation of the railroad. For the time being, ridership remained fairly stable, but the completion of the Northwest Expressway (now the Kennedy Expressway) in late 1960 provided a link between the Edens Expressway and the Chicago Loop. The North Shore Line's passenger traffic began to hemorrhage at the rate of 46,000 passengers per month.

The Chicago Transit Authority researched the possibility of continuing truncated rail service between Waukegan and Howard Street in Chicago, with buses assuming operations between Lake Bluff and Mundelein.[15] The report, released that October, revealed that passenger service had dropped to an average of 14,000 daily riders, and that the line was in dire need of modernization. The report recommended that the CTA only assume operations under the conditions that the acquisition of the railroad's property and modernization of the fleet could be achieved without cost to the agency, and an operational subsidy would be provided. In February 1961, an updated study was released, revealing that patronage had become even lighter than it had been when the initial study was conducted. Ultimately, no action was taken as a result of the study, as none of the recommended conditions could be met.

That February, the railroad requested expedited action by the ICC on its abandonment petition, citing its mounting losses. On May 17, 1962, the request was approved under the condition that no buyer stepped forward within 35 days. Both the Illinois regulators and an association of commuters opposed the action, the association offering to buy the railroad at salvage value but ultimately failing to raise sufficient funds to buy the property. That November, the state of Illinois ruled in favor of the ICC, and prevented the commuters association from having the abandonment postponed any further. The last full day of service came on January 20, 1963, with the final trains reaching their destination in the early hours of the following morning. Sporadic freight movements continued into the next week, as the remaining cars on the line were collected from various points on the system.


Most of the rails were removed in the succeeding two years. The Chicago Transit Authority purchased the southernmost portion of the Skokie Valley line between Howard Street and Dempster Street, Skokie, and in early 1964 obtained federal funding for what turned out to be a successful mass transportation pilot project, dubbing the new non-stop service as the "Skokie Swift." That same year, the Skokie Valley Transportation Council was formed by the towns of Glenview, Northbrook, Northfield and Skokie, with the goal of reviving rail service by funding an extension of the "Skokie Swift" further north.[16] This was prevented, however, by the sale of the trackage between Dempster Street and Lake-Cook Road to the Chicago & North Western Railway for use as a freight line.[17] The Union Pacific (into which the North Western was merged in 1995) continued to operate the line until 2001, and it was dismantled in 2004–05. CTA is studying possible extension of the Yellow Line along the North Shore right-of-way as far as Old Orchard Road, opposite the Old Orchard shopping center.

Amtrak's Hiawatha Service currently serves the passenger rail market between Chicago and Milwaukee. Metra Union Pacific / North Line commuter trains serve the market between Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Also, Metra's Milwaukee District / North Line and North Central Service now serve Libertyville and Mundelein, respectively.

The former North Shore right-of-way from the Illinois border to Milwaukee was sold off piecemeal to numerous private interests. In Illinois, extension to the Skokie Swift into the now-fully-developed territory in the Skokie Valley is discussed periodically. In other places, parts of the North Shore right of way have been turned into paved and limestone recreational trails, such as the Green Bay Trail, as part of the rails to trails program.


Preserved North Shore Line Electroliner trainset 801/802 at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois

Electroliner trainset 801–802 is preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois; the museum's holdings also include 15 other passenger and freight cars from the railroad. Both Electroliners saw use on SEPTA's Norristown High Speed Line in Pennsylvania from 1964 to 1980 before being retired. The other Electroliner set, former 803–804, still painted in SEPTA "Liberty Liner" colors, is stored at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania. Other museums that have North Shore Line cars preserved include the Fox River Trolley Museum, in South Elgin, Illinois; the East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy, Wisconsin; the Shore Line Trolley Museum, in East Haven, Connecticut, and the Seashore Trolley Museum, in Kennebunkport, Maine. The Iowa Terminal Railroad, in Mason City, Iowa, also owns former North Shore Line equipment. Unrestored North Shore Line equipment is also in storage at several other museums.

The Dempster station has been preserved, although moved 150 feet to the east. Both the Briargate and Kenosha stations also survive, currently housing commercial operations.

Abandoned and overgrown sections of track exist between Dempster Street and Lake Cook Road in the former Skokie Valley right of way.


  1. ^ a b Middleton, William (1963). "North Shore in Sunset". Trains. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing.
  2. ^ Middleton, William D. (1961). The Interurban Era. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0890240035.
  3. ^ a b Middleton, William D. (1964). North Shore. San Marino, California: Golden West Books. ISBN 0915348411.
  4. ^ a b Route of the Electroliners: Bulletin No. 107. Chicago, Illinois: Central Electric Railfans' Association. 1963. ISBN 0-915348-07-1.
  5. ^ "The Street Railway Revue" (Volume 1). Chicago, Illinois: Windsor & Kenfield Publishing Company. 1891. p. 465.
  6. ^ Halsey, John J.; Tracey, C. Chamberlain (1912). A History Of Lake County Illinois. Salem, Massachusetts: Higginson Book Company. p. 391.
  7. ^ a b c Campbell, George V. (1980). North Shore Line Memories. Northbrook, Illinois: Quality Books, Incorporated. ISBN 0-89196-074-0.
  8. ^ "Waukegan Wants Another Road". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. February 4, 1894. p. 38. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Tobin, Edward W. (2008). Before the North Shore Line: The Early Years 1894-1916. Chicago, Illinois: Central Electric Railfans Association. ISBN 0915348411.
  10. ^ "Northwestern Elevated (1893-1924)". Retrieved May 26, 2017.
  11. ^ "Route of the Electroliners", Central Electric Railfan's Association, CERA Bulletin 107, Chicgao, IL.
  12. ^ "CTA will buy 'L' segment and asks bond bids." Chicago Daily Tribune. 1953-10-10.
  13. ^ "Rail buys CTA bonds, sells 'L' right of way." Chicago Daily Tribune. 1953-10-17.
  14. ^ "North Shore Line: 1950-End". Laura Hedien. Archived from the original on March 12, 2017. Retrieved March 31, 2017.
  15. ^ "Plan for the CTA to Assume Services of the North Shore Line Interurban".; Shore Line Interurban Historical Society (1988); and Chicago Transit Authority (1958, 1961). Retrieved May 22, 2017.
  16. ^ "Ask 7 Suburbs To Join Council". Chicago Tribune. November 11, 1965. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
  17. ^ Dombrowski, Louis (March 10, 1965). "C.&N.W. Buys Right of Way from N. Shore". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 1, 2014.

Further readingEdit

  • Central Electric Railfans' Association (1962). Interurban to Milwaukee. Chicago, Illinois: CERA.
  • Central Electric Railfans' Association (1963). Route of the Electroliners: Bulletin No. 107 (1st edition). Chicago, Illinois: CERA.
  • Central Electric Railfans' Association (1975). Route of the Electroliners: Bulletin No. 107 (2nd edition). Chicago, Illinois: CERA.

External linksEdit

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