New Book Revisits Chicago's History as Cable Car Capital

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano on January 24, 2013 2:34pm 

CHICAGO — Chicago, circa the early 1880s: the men are sporting handlebar mustaches, the women are in corsets and everyone wears a hat.

There isn't a CTA but there is public transportation — cable cars.

Author and historian Greg Borzo picks it up from there.

"There's a lady who gets on the cable car one day, and she looks across the aisle, and sees a lady wearing a dress that was recently stolen from her house," Borzo said.

The cops are summoned. The train is halted. The thief is arrested.

And the lady? Well, she "gets her dress back," Borzo explained.

It's a favorite tale from Borzo, uncovered while writing his latest book, Chicago Cable Cars.

The book, to be formally released at a launch party at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Harold Washington Library's Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, details how Chicago's 1882 launching of its first cable car created the city's first mass transit system.

Borzo's history of Chicago's forgotten transit system, which shut down in 1906, features hundreds of previously unpublished archival photos and newly-created maps. Cable cars, a forerunner to trolleys, were pulled by a moving, below-ground cable that ran for miles.

Chicago was the third municipality to launch a citywide system  —  after New York and San Francisco. Its cable cars were the source of downtown's nickname, "The Loop," Borzo said.

"In San Francisco, at the end of the line, the cars go on these turntables to reverse direction: all the passengers have to get off, and they only run one car at a time," Borzo said.

"Chicago said, 'That's expensive, it's time-consuming, it's inefficient.' So we ran the tracks in a circle through the city, adding miles of service with what were known as 'cable car loops.'"

One remnant of the city's cable car past is the building at LaSalle and Illinois streets, a huge red brick structure many Chicagoans remember as the former home of Michael Jordan's Restaurant. The powerhouse that moved the cables that pulled cars through the Loop was once housed inside.

 Greg Borzo, an award-winning journalist and author of several books on Chicago's history, signs a copy of "Chicago Cable Cars," his newest publication.
Greg Borzo, an award-winning journalist and author of several books on Chicago's history, signs a copy of "Chicago Cable Cars," his newest publication.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

As Borzo sees it, the cable car also launched a new kind of public space — one that continues today on L cars.

Recently while riding the L, Borzo noticed another rider who happened to be reading the same book as Borzo was. The two chatted and ended up attending each other's book clubs.

Chicago had "this new common space that's created by the cable cars, that's continued by the trolleys, and that you experience every day on the 'L,'" Borzo said.

"That's either great, or weird, depending on your perspective, but you don't see that in your living room. It's a public space, and it was first experienced in a cable car," he said.

The book was a labor of love for Borzo, a former Field Museum writer and spokesman who now freelances to pay the bills and pens Chicago history books on the side.

"Even if I sell tons of books, you lose money on a project like this," said Borzo, a South Loop resident. Each of the hundreds of photos in his book cost upwards of $80 for publishing rights, all of which Borzo paid out of pocket. "But no one knows the story, and I wanted to know the story."

At Thursday night's event, Borzo will sign copies of the book, which sells for $24.99. Chicago History Museum President Gary Johnson will also be on hand.

 

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