It’s easy to take the El for granted. Trains rattle by, interrupting our hungry thoughts as we head up Church Street on the way to Bat 17. On the train, the car trudges along at a snail’s pace—or often, stops moving altogether—and while transferring at Howard, the Purple Line to Linden feels like it’ll never arrive.
But within those rickety rails and dilapidated stations lie rich backstories intertwined with a uniquely Evanstonian identity. The suburb-transit relationship has been and continues to be antagonistic at times, with persistent disputes over fares, safety and service levels, but the El’s presence has no doubt shaped Chicagoland’s metropolitan development. Here are snippets of the Purple Line’s varied, century-long history.
Nestled among Wilmette’s tree-lined brick streets, mom-and-pop bakeries and lakefront views, the Linden station appears sweet and gentle. But in 1912? Not so much. Central was the Purple Line’s northern terminus at the time, and affluent Wilmette suburbanites, fearing exposure to city dwellers, fiercely opposed a northern transit extension. Nevertheless, Northwestern Elevated Railroad—the company that owned today’s Purple, Brown and northern Red Line stations—snuck onto Linden Avenue the night of April 1 to hastily build a working platform, commencing rail service the following morning through what is now Linden station. An April 1912 Chicago Tribune headline read, “Night Raid Puts ‘L’ in Wilmette.” Happy April Fools’ Day indeed!
Landmarks: The Bahá’í House of Worship, one of seven in the world and the only one of its kind in the United States.
Noyes Street was named after Henry Sanborn Noyes, Northwestern ‘s first mathematics professor and its second and fourth president.
Landmarks: Noyes Cultural Arts Center, an elementary-school-turned-landmark that showcases Chicagoland talent.
Since its 1908 establishment, the Davis station has undergone multiple dramatic renovations, but the most recent—and groundbreaking—development occurred in 2005 when the CTA installed seven Dunkin’ Donuts kiosks around the El system. Davis became the only Purple Line stop to boast in-station pastries.
Landmarks: Tina Fey’s first post-college employer, the McGaw YMCA.
This station opened in 1931 to replace the nearby, seldom-used Calvary Cemetery station, now demolished. The move offered easier, less spooky access to local commuters, doubling ridership over the following decade.
Landmarks: Calvary Cemetery, one of Chicago’s oldest Catholic graveyards.
Built in 1912 on largely undeveloped land, Isabella’s ridership was always sparse. Alas, despite impassioned opposition from local commuters, the cash-strapped Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) discontinued the stop in 1973 just months after the stock market began to crash. Before demolition, Isabella was the El’s final remaining “flag” station, on which waiting passengers pulled a special rope to signal their presence to the incoming driver. Painted signs guided riders through the process: “TO STOP TRAIN PULL AND HOLD SIGNAL ON PLATFORM UNTIL MOTORMAN ANSWERS BY BLAST OF WHISTLE.”
The Central stop was rebuilt in 1931, along with the Noyes and Foster stations, as the final part of a 20-year project to elevate the Purple Line from street level traffic. The station also once housed additional ticket booths to accommodate swarms of Northwestern fans on game day, but these were removed in favor of automated fare machines in the late 1990s.
Landmarks: Ryan Field and Grosse Point Lighthouse, the latter of which was built pre-El during the postbellum period under supervision of Orlando Metcalfe Poe, a Union brigadier general and engineer for several Great Lakes lighthouses.
With consistently meager ridership since 1908, Dempster was one of many stations proposed for shutdown during the 1991 budget crisis. Now, however, it’s part of the CTA’s Red-Purple Modernization Project, introduced in 2009 to repair and streamline existing stations north of Belmont.
Landmarks: Evanston’s first and only Trader Joe’s, outside of which residents and Northwestern students camped for nearly 12 hours before it opened this fall.
First established in 1908, the Howard stop stood at ground level until 1922, when Northwestern Elevated Railroad recovered from the World War I materials shortage and completed track elevation. These renovations transformed Howard into the major transfer site it is today: In 2012, over 2 million riders entered the stop, according to the CTA.
Landmarks: A sprawling 659-space Park and Ride, plus a Target.