discarded early 20th century chicago rivet head sparks curiosity into the creation of chicago's "l"

the chicago "l" dates back to the late 19th century, when the privately owned south side elevated railroad company was incorporated in 1888. the first four miles - much of which is still used in chicago's modern day "loop," opened in 1892 and ran from the congress terminal (near the present day site of the harold washington library) to state and pershing. by the mid-1890's, the elevated railroad continued to expand outward from the city center, when the lake street elevated railroad, northwestern elevated railroad company) and the metropolitan west side elevated were established in 1895 (parts now forming the green, brown, and blue lines).

tycoon and entrepreneur charles tyson yerkes pursued the unification of chicago’s trolley cars - and later, the railways - resulting in several more miles of new track that integrated the existing lines with downtown's loop and it's many stations. the majority of the towering, riveted and welded joint steel and iron elevated infrastructure was constructed during this expansion. these new lines were impressive feats of engineering, in both the political and mechanical arenas, as yerkes was known for his heavy-handed diplomacy, often bribing or bullying his way into construction permits.


















the newly-built tracks were exceptionally well-built, with heavily riveted steel beams used in the formation and reinforcement of the colossal columns and cross beams designed to support hundreds of tons of train and foot traffic every day. the "l" underwent further changes well into the 20th century when samuel insull managed to consolidate the numerous disparate rail lines into the chicago rapid transit company in 1924. by 1947, the city of chicago took control and since then it has been known as the chicago transit authority or simply "cta."

chicago's "l" is no doubt heavily researched and well-documented, but i was inspired to assemble a brief historical timeline to give context to a  discovery i made related to this facet of the city. after salvaging terra cotta from a victorian-era pipe organ factory built long before the "l" arrived- i found a "severed" rivet head near a gusset plate. the iron rivet was likely replaced and left behind during a repair to one of the support columns just south of evergreen street.

this nicely weathered fragment of chicago's past was likely forged in a local foundry, purchased by yerkes's company, riveted in place by a newly unionized riveter (likely a first generation american), and contributed to supporting the weight of thousands of streetcars before ultimately being replaced this year. the collusion of political, personal, and physical forces that move objects, and the life histories or stories these seemingly mundane objects contain, are just a few of the factors i find most appealing. sure, you can learn about history in books or museums, but to discover and truly feel the "history" in these objects that witnessed and carried it forward is by far the most rewarding experience.


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