What is now the UP West line started as the Galena & Chicago Union in 1848, the first railroad in Chicago. The two other UP lines had different origins in the 1850s. Chicago & North Western owned all three for most of their existence. These lines passed to UP ownership when the C&NW merged with UP in 1995. UP now operates and dispatches trains from Omaha, Nebraska. The trains run on the left-hand side, thought to be a function of how the first track and depots were situated when a second track was added. The UP West line was extended to Elburn in 2006. UP West timetables are “Kate Shelley Rose,” named for a girl from Iowa who saved a train from disaster in 1881.
The Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, which would become Chicago’s first railroad and eventually form the Union Pacific West Line, was chartered in 1836, when U.S. railroading was still in its infancy and the population of the new town was only about 4,000 people.
Backers of the railroad sought a connection to the mineral-rich lands of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. As with capital projects even to this day, a lack of funding held up progress. The Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression dried up funding sources, and the project languished for a decade.
The push for the railroad was renewed by a group that included William B. Ogden, who had served as Chicago’s first mayor from 1837 to 1838, and real estate developer Walter Newberry. They not only believed in the commercial promise of the railroad, but also thought if they built its Chicago terminal on the north side of the Chicago River, it would boost the value of land they owned there and halt the domination of commerce by owners of land to the south of the river.
They obtained the charter in 1847. But obtaining the funding was still difficult. Eastern investors were slow to back the railroad, and support from communities along the proposed route fell far short of the amount necessary to complete the entire length. The decision was made to build what they could afford to build and hope the remaining funding would come through as construction progressed west. That plan succeeded.
Work began in the summer of 1848 and by that fall track had been laid as far as the Des Plaines River. On Nov. 20, 1848, a small second-hand locomotive named the “Pioneer” – which arrived in Chicago by boat, since there was no rail connection to the east – made a publicity run to what is now Oak Park pulling a couple of cars fitted with about 100 seats. On the way back, two passengers bought some wheat and hides from a farmer and the first goods arrived in Chicago by rail. (The “Pioneer” is now at the Chicago History Museum.)
The Galena & Chicago Union progressed west from the Des Plaines River to what is now West Chicago, where it turned northwest to Elgin, opening for business there in January 1850. The railroad was completed to Huntley, Marengo and Belvedere in 1851, Rockford in 1852 and Freeport in 1853. (The G&CU never made it to Galena.)
Some towns that were narrowly bypassed by the Galena & Chicago built their own branch lines to connect to that railroad. For instance, a branch was built from Aurora and Batavia to what is now West Chicago. That branch evolved into the BNSF line. In 1854, the G&CU was already working on a second mainline from the West Chicago area to Geneva, DeKalb and Fulton.
The G&CU’s first downtown station in 1848 was near Canal and Kinzie, west of the north branch of the Chicago River. By 1853, there was a new depot at Kinzie and Wells, fulfilling the goal of having a terminal north of the Chicago River.
By 1855, the railroad started building a second track, which was completed to West Chicago by the end of 1857. The construction of the second track is thought to be responsible for the left-hand operation of the line. When the line was built, most of the depots were north of the tracks. When the second track was added, it therefore had to go south of the existing track (or else the depots would have had to be moved). The track closest to the depots naturally became the inbound track, because most people waiting in the depots are heading downtown, and you don’t want them to have to cross a track to board a train.
In 1864, the Galena & Chicago Union merged with the Chicago & North Western. Among the reasons for adopting the C&NW name for the combined company was that it more accurately described the range of the consolidated company – plus the fact that no part of the combined railroad reached Galena.
There was passenger service on the line almost from the beginning. The first passenger coach, built in Chicago for $2,000, arrived in 1849. But true commuter service evolved over the years, influenced by events such as the Chicago Fire in 1871 (which made suburban life more appealing) as well as economic and demographic trends that factored in the growth of all suburbs.
Most of this information is from an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society by Patrick E. McLear, a history of the C&NW issued by the railroad in 1910, and David M. Young’s 2005 book, “The Iron Horse and the Windy City.”