Friday, June 14, 2019

The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Bloomingdale Line (a.k.a The 606)

The 606 is undoubtedly the most famous abandoned rail line turned linear park in the Chicago area, but it's far from the only one. The Illinois Prairie Path, Great Western Trail, Major Taylor Trail, and the under-construction El Paseo Trail are examples as well.

What sets the 606, otherwise known as the Bloomingdale Trail apart from the rest of these, however, is that it sits on former elevated right of way, more resembling the High Line in New York City. In fact, both railroad lines have a similar beginning, in the sense that both were surface lines before being raised due to safety concerns. What we're left with is a wonderful park to bike or jog in, safe from cars.

The 606 Bridge over Milwaukee Av, looking east.
One thing that is different about the 606 compared to the High Line is that the 606 is much more geared toward cyclists than those looking for a nature walk. I'm no cyclist, so it took me awhile longer to visit this park than other rail trails in the area. That said, with the fact that Divvy bike stations exist on either side of the park, and a couple spots in between, it was pretty accommodating for those of us who don't bike constantly, and a much more unique experience on the trail as a result.

Here's the station at Ashland Av on the right, with the piers of the line still intact. This used to cross under I-90/94 and then over the river. I really hope the 606 expands Eastward, as that would be gorgeous to see.
But before I discuss my experience riding the trail, let's take a look at how it got there in the first place. The right of way dates back to 1872, when it was constructed by the Chicago & Pacific Railroad to connect Chicago to Elgin. West of the park, this line is still in service, owned by today owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and part of Metra's Milwaukee District-West Line. The C&P became part of the Milwaukee Road shortly thereafter, and remained such until the Milwaukee's 1980 bankruptcy. The Soo Line was Milwaukee's successor, and while the Soo was a CP subsidiary, it wouldn't be until the early 2000's that CP consolidated their subsidiaries and took control of the line.

The Bloomingdale Line undergoing elevation work. Image: Universal Bulletin, No. 123, Aug. 1914, pg. 144 via Forgotten Chicago
The Bloomingdale Line got its name from the fact that it originally was a street-running operation along Bloomingdale Ave. Unlike the High Line, there were no "West Side Cowboys" or flagmen patrolling the line when trains were on the move. By 1915, 35 at-grade crossings were eliminated, and the line became a much safer operation as a result.

In spite of the safety issues before the elevation project, the line transformed the neighborhood, bringing jobs and manufacturing to the North Side of Chicago, although many area residents revolted against the line from its inception.

The line continued service for over 100 years in spite of these objections, although passenger service dwindled significantly during the 1940's. Freight service along the 2.7 mile corridor that did not become part of Metra continued until the early 2000's, despite the City of Chicago first studying the feasibility of converting the line to a linear park or greenway as early as 1997.

A Soo Line Caboose at Chicago Ave in 2006. Image: Flickr
The line still had regular freight service as of 2001. Freight cars, like the image above, were still on the line at least as of 2006. By 2009, Collins Engineers was selected to begin construction and design on the linear park conversion, which would become the longest linear park in the US. Groundbreaking began four years later, and in 2015, the line had opened for pedestrian traffic, with the conversion from rails to trail complete.

It took me four years to visit this place, and honestly I'm glad I waited a little bit, because the greenery has grown in nicely around the trail, and there are some trees that could not possibly have grown as big as they are within four years. I started at Walsh Park, just west of Ashland Ave, using a Divvy Bike (and good thing I had the app, as the station's machine was malfunctioning).

Bridge over Marshfield Ave. Parking is free after 10:30am for non-permit holders. Good luck finding a spot. I got lucky
Once you get on the trail, you'll notice bike lanes and a walking shoulder on each side, which was nice. There was a significant amount of traffic on the trail, but not enough that it ever caused an issue. Gardeners were honestly the hardest obstacle to navigate through. I could cruise as fast as I wanted on the bike. (Which wasn't terribly fast, as I'm not an experienced rider)

This is how a majority of the 606 looks. Well hidden away from the rest of the city below by trees.
At no point on the trail did I feel unsafe, as police were visible on either end, and probably other places as well. Still, crime has occured on the trail overnight, although I would not label the trail 'unsafe', considering the amount of traffic it receives.

Going under the CTA Blue Line.
The 606 labels how far you've traveled in each direction on the pavement. Thus, the photo below is near the halfway point of the trail.

While I didn't stop, there are water fountains and places to set your bike down to rest and enjoy the scenery.
There is public art along the trail, just like the High Line, but given the 606 is much longer and geared toward cyclists, it is less and more sporadic.

In parts of the trail, the walking and cycling paths diverge. Side note, I could not have asked for a nicer day to ride.
The area's industrial history is still alive and visible behind the trees as well.

Factory building. Notice the foundation for a water tower.

And there's plenty of new developments and construction for those who can afford to live in the newly gentrified neighborhood.

Once again crossing under the CTA Blue Line, this time heading west and looking south.
West of here, the line is still the very active Metra MD-W, but the greenery obstructs most of the view. No railfanning here.

I wonder if this was part of the old bridge in its railroad days, or if this was built to make it look like that.

A lawn along the path allows walkers to picnic and hang out for awhile if they want to.
I really do like the greenery, but right here it needed to be trimmed a bit for walkers/joggers.
Again, there's no way these trees are only four years old.
While I really did like biking this trail, I still give the High Line the win here if we're comparing the two. But honestly, The 606 has more in common with other rails to trails projects even if it is an urban, elevated park, given its length. 

If you're going to visit, I highly suggest renting a Divvy Bike for an hour (It's $3 every 30 minutes), or bringing your own. Overall, I'm glad I can finally say I visited this Chicago gem!

Thanks as always for reading!

2 comments:

  1. Yes, that was once the railroad bridge, and that lawn was once a small rail yard. I walked the trail right of way in the summer of 2011, before construction of the bike trail started. Also, this article gives more detail about the history of this part of the line. https://forgottenchicago.com/features/the-bloomingdale-line/

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    1. Thanks for the comments and good to know. I've linked to the Forgotten Chicago article in this blog, it is a fantastic history of the line!

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