Ask Geoffrey: 4/2

"L" Cars, Catalpa Avenue, & Melody Mill Ballroom

Geoffrey Baer tells us what's at the end of the line for old "L" cars and more in this week's edition of Ask Geoffrey.

"L" car shed conversionWhat happens to old “L” cars? I remember as a kid in the '50s riding the spur into the Stock Yards and the cars were the old wooden ones.
Peter Gilmour, Rogers Park

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There was a time when the CTA and its predecessor, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, would repurpose old cars by converting them into sheds or putting them into work service as an inexpensive way to make ends meet. The purchase of rail cars often entails the use of funds from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) which has guidelines for disposal of rail cars at the end of their useful life – a minimum of 25 years. If the fair market value of each rail car is less than $5,000, the CTA is free to retain, sell, or otherwise dispose of them – and most get scrapped.

But there’s good news for rail fans: several cars have been preserved in railway or history museums and we found a number of them!

Chicago “L” car #1 – the first rapid transit car to be put into service – has been restored and is on display at the Chicago History Museum. You can even go inside of it!

6000 seriesRecently a pair of 2200-series cars, built in 1964, was acquired by the Illinois Railway museum in Union, Illinois. They’ve added it to their collection of other historic “L” cars.

CTA also has two cars from 1923 that are maintained by a group of employees and volunteers. Public operation of these historic “L” cars is extremely rare.

And in one case, a city bought “L” cars to be put back into service in a new home. In the 1980s, 14 6000-series cars built in the 1950s were sold to the Philadelphia transit system. They ran there, rechristened “Liberty Liners,” for about a decade. Hard to believe these days, but on this series of cars, you could actually crank the windows up and down.

We also learned that three old “L” cars went on to the Department of Homeland Security to use in incident response training.

Jungle Jim'sThere have been a few less conventional “L” cars reused as well. Back in the 1970s, a rail car was sold to a McDonald's in Crystal Lake, which used it for many years as a dining room. The building was demolished in 2006 and parts of that rail car were donated to the Illinois Railway Museum.

And, the CTA just sold two cars in an auction: one of them to the famously offbeat Ohio grocery store Jungle Jim’s International Market. Jungle Jim’s plans to use it as a cigar shop at their Fairfield location! Odd, because as we all know smoking is not permitted on the “L.”

Thanks to the CTA and to Bruce Moffat for their help in tracking this information down.

Melody Mill ExteriorHave you ever done a story on the Melody Mill Ballroom in North Riverside? I would love to see old pictures of the place!
Joseph Boals, Elmwood Park

The Melody Mill was one of the many ballrooms built in the Chicago area during the big-band era of the 1920s and 1930s. It had a trademark windmill on the roof. (Why a windmill? No one knows for sure.) It was located near Des Plaines Avenue and 22nd Street, which is now Cermak Road in North Riverside.

It originally opened in 1930, but within just a couple weeks of opening, it was the target of an arson attack. The attack necessitated costly repairs, so the owners defaulted to the builders Ben Lejcar and his wife Elsie. The Lejcars took over and reopened Melody Mill in time to ring in 1931 at its first New Year’s Eve party, which quickly became a Melody Mill tradition. But the fireworks didn’t end there – in 1932, a dynamite bomb was thrown into the lobby from a car speeding by. No one was hurt because no one was there at the time. Police suspected owners of rival dance halls, jealous of Melody Mill’s success.

Band playingBen and Elsie were able to recover again to run the business as a family affair. They employed their children and grandchildren to help run the enormous dance hall – and there was a lot to run. Inside, a grand staircase led to the 15,000 square foot wooden dance floor with space for a 13+ piece orchestra. There was also a soda fountain, a roller rink and a cocktail lounge. Befitting the impressive surroundings, as many as 3,000 dancers graced the floor in gowns and suits while famed bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey played.

The house band was Tiny Hill’s Orchestra, who recorded the “house tune,” a foxtrot called “Moonlight on Melody Mill.” The song was written by Henry Cramer of Peoria, who moonlighted as a musician and songwriter. His daughters sent us a recording of it, and you can listen to it here in its entirety.

Eventually, ballroom dancing declined in popularity throughout the ‘70s and dancers slowed to a trickle at Melody Mill. In the 1980s, the Village of North Riverside won the right to buy the Mill’s lot, and in April 1984, Melody Mill’s ballroom saw its last waltz.

Of course, Melody Mill survives on in the memories of many, but it also lives on in ghost lore. According to Ben Lejcar, Sr.’s telling of the legend, in the fall of 1934, a gentleman named Wally met a young blond woman in a white gown at the Melody Mill. After a night of dancing to Buddy Stone and His All-Star Band, they were on their way home when the woman asked to be dropped off near Woodlawn Cemetery, just north of Melody Mill. A week later, when Wally went to pick up the woman at her home, her mother told her that her daughter had been dead for three years. Over the years, there have been periodic sightings of a blond woman, in a white gown, wandering along highways near the cemetery. Others claim to have seen a wandering girl in white as well – cabbies and police who have driven the girl home from the ballroom say she simply vanished.  (Sound familiar? It’s eerily similar to the more famous tale of Resurrection Mary, who supposedly haunts the Resurrection Cemetery in nearby Justice.)

Melody Mill sign stored in public works yard, 2006The land where the Mill stood is now the site of the North Riverside Police Department and Village Commons. All that was saved was the old neon sign, which had been left to rust in a storage lot until a successful fundraising effort was launched to restore the Melody Mill’s neon sign. According to North Riverside Historical Society President Bryant Rouleau, a second fundraiser is planned for August 9 to raise money for its installation on the town commons sometime next year. For more information, contact the North Riverside Historical Society at [email protected] or (630) 258-7088.

Lincoln AvenueAt a party, some friends and I were talking about how wide Catalpa Avenue is between Western and Lincoln. Why is that?
Earl Strassberger, Chicago

The three-block stretch of Catalpa Avenue between Lincoln and Western was part of a citywide program to widen roads and open new ones in the 1920s, which was motivated by growth in auto traffic. An ordinance to widen Chicago arterials was passed in 1926 and completed in 1928. This part of Catalpa was designed as the connection between the newly widened Lincoln Avenue to the north and the newly widened Western Avenue. Lincoln Avenue couldn’t be widened south of Catalpa because Lincoln was already too heavily developed. So Catalpa Avenue was widened to provide a convenient place for traffic coming from the south on Western Avenue to cross over to the northern part of Lincoln Avenue, which is also part of US Highway 41. At the time, Highway 41 was the major thoroughfare into and out of the city from the north, particularly Milwaukee.

1929 MapAs the 1929 map demonstrates, much of Chicago north of Catalpa was undeveloped, so it was relatively easy to widen the streets there. Once the streets were widened and traffic increased, development began to spread.

But, a lot of streets had to be widened in areas of the city that were already developed. Historian and cartographer Dennis McClendon created the “arterial map” to show the streets that were widened for this project in purple, and the newly opened streets in red.

Arterial Map; click to view larger versionOf course, many arterials that were part of the widening project were in developed areas, which led to some odd building modifications. Parts of several buildings on Ashland Avenue were literally sliced off when this project got underway. One of the most dramatic examples is the massive Our Lady of Lourdes church on Ashland south of Lawrence. It was moved across the street, rotated to face Leland Avenue, cut in half, and expanded by 30 feet! Think about that the next time your living room feels cramped.

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