B&O’s Original Chicago Entry
by Jacob Kaplan

On the Southeast Side, a long abandoned grade level railroad line lives on in the gentle rise of the streets it once crossed.Along the former route, there are several right-of-way remnants and examples of infill housing. Called the Brookdale Spur, it was built by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad (B&O). Though the B&O is one of the nation’s oldest railroads, it was extended west to Chicago much later than most others, in 1874. This abandoned line forms part of the B&O’s first route into the city. The line originally connected to the Illinois Central (IC) tracks near 71st Street for the trip downtown. Once the IC tracks were elevated in the area around the turn of the 19th Century, a connecting ramp was not built for the B&O line, which was then relegated to industrial branch line status until its closure in the 1970s.

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The B&O’s main route into the city from the southeast became much more confusing and convoluted once its connection to the IC was severed. It involved using the Rock Island and Chicago & Northern Pacific (later to become the B&O Chicago Terminal Railroad) to access Grand Central Station from the west.

Cervin Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS ILL,16-CHIG,18-1, 1963.

Grand Central Station was B&O’s Chicago terminal from 1891 until 1969 (from 1969 until the end of passenger service in 1971, North Western Station was used). Designed in 1890 by Solon S. Beman of Pullman fame, it was torn down in 1971 to make way for new high-density housing which has yet to be fully realized. River City has been built over the former lead-in trackage; the land on which the station itself sat has remained vacant since it was razed.

 Left: USGS aerial survey, 1937.

Left: The B&O yard and neighboring IC South Chicago Branch coach yard near 86th and Burley in 1937. The B&O yard was scaled down in size when 87th Street was extended across it sometime in the 1950s. To date, much of this land has not been built over after having been abandoned for nearly half a century. Nature has taken its course and most of this swath is now covered with trees and brush. The roundhouse visible at the right of the image was removed in the 1940s.

Right: A well-rusted, nearly illegible ‘No Trespassing’ sign located at the edge of the yard.


Left: A view of the remains of the B&O freight yard, facing west from Burley Avenue near 86th Street. Note the old streetlight in a neighboring parking lot, also abandoned. It served the huge neighboring U.S. Steel South Works mill, which the railroad also serviced.

Right: A view of the adjoining electrified IC South Chicago Branch coach yard, which remained in service until the 1970s. The two railroads and yards paralleled each other in the area, though there was no connection between them.


Left: This part of the right-of-way near 83rd and Muskegon is still apparent as it hasn’t been built over.

Right: Starting in the 1970s, infill housing has been built over much of the former right of way.

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These infill houses are curiosities as they are oriented horizontally along the old right of way instead of facing the street on which they are located. This is especially apparent in this aerial view.


The positioning of these images corresponds to the alignment of the aerial view. The houses in the left image, located to the west of Colfax, orient north-south along a diagonal alley. The houses in the background of the right image are located east of Colfax, and run directly parallel with the former rail line. Also, the two-story houses at left are newer than their more diminutive counterparts at right, having been built in the 1990s.


Perhaps one reason the branch remained for so long after being disconnected from a mainline railroad at its north end, is that it served many industries. A building materials yard was served at its north end near the IC embankment. Soon after crossing 71st street, the railroad served a coal yard. A sewage pumping station near Stony Island and 73rd also received coal deliveries from the line.

Most significantly, a Solo Cup factory was served by the line. This factory was known as the Paper Container Manufacturing Company in 1951. Interestingly, the same site (and likely the same building) was being used as an ice factory in 1923, also served by the railroad.


Left: An old sign on the side of the Solo Cup factory. Here we see an odd juxtaposition of an old phone number for the factory (the POrter exchange) and a modern 7-digit number shown for the South Shore Chamber of Commerce on the same sign.

Right: A view of the former (now paved over) right-of-way behind the Solo Cup plant.


Farther down the line, another large coal yard was served on Euclid south of 75th Street, on what is now Rosenblum Park. The park opened in 1953, and was bisected by the B&O line until this portion of track was purchased by the Park District in 1980.

The right-of-way is still visible and undisturbed at 75th and Constance. These are views northwest (left) and southeast (right). Rosenblum Park, formerly bisected by the line, is visible in the image at right.


Left: A view of the right-of-way facing southeast toward the intersection 76th and Jeffery.

Right: The B&O route facing northwest to Stony Island from 74th and East End. A sewage pumping station was formerly located on some of this land.

Another building materials yard on Jeffery near 75th was also served by the line. This yard was owned by the Chicago Fire Brick Company, which also operated an architecturally notable factory on Elston Avenue that still stands today. The proliferation of building material yards along the line was a likely result of the rapid development of the South Shore area in the 1920s, a time when many bungalows and apartment buildings were being built. This particular building materials yard was later built over with a post-World War II housing development. Several other coal yards, building materials yards, and small factories were served along the route.


Along 72nd Street west of Stony Island, new housing was recently built on the right-of-way. The gentle rise in the grade, a remnant of the right-of-way, is clearly visible in the left image.


The route ends here, just short of the IC embankment near 70th and Kenwood. This area, known as Brookdale, is where the spur takes its name from. A ramp was never built to the IC tracks when they were elevated around the turn of the 19th Century; the grading shown at left is likely for maintenance-of-way vehicles to access the embankment. The tunnel under the IC embankment was never used by the B&O line; it was built for the IC South Chicago branch, and it still used for Metra service on that line.

There are several reasons for the abandonment of the Brookdale Spur. The route ran at grade level at an angle to most streets, resulting in numerous grade crossings. While this may not have been a great concern in the early history of the line, once the South Shore neighborhood was built up it was likely a tremendous annoyance and safety hazard for local residents. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, the line was relegated to branch status early in its life, and was dependent on industrial customers to survive. Once the neighborhood was built up, most building materials yards had little reason to stay open. Also, the use of coal for heating purposes declined rapidly in the 1950s, resulting in the closure of coal yards served by the spur. Without these two customers, which proliferated along the line, the old B&O route became obsolete. These factors contributed to its decline and eventual closure in the 1970s.


Special thanks to Adam H. Kerman and Bob Lalich for their assistance with this article.

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