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EJ&E: End of an era for railroad that bore Joliet’s name

A tracrosses over DivisiStreet EJ E railroad line Joliet. | File photo

A train crosses over Division Street on the EJ&E railroad line in Joliet. | File photo

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Updated: March 29, 2013 2:09AM

JOLIET — The Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway no longer exists as a separate operating company, the railway’s owner said.

The owner, Canadian National, has merged EJ&E’s operations with those of Wisconsin Central, another CN subsidiary. The merger became effective Jan. 1.

That day — New Year’s Day — was exactly 124 years after a milestone in EJ&E history. Historians cite Jan. 1, 1889, as the point when the railway began to operate officially as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern.

The years 1889 to 2013 were eventful for Joliet, with booms in population and heavy industry, followed by economic turbulence. Those years included World War I and the Joliet Steel Age, then the Great Depression; World War II and the post-war growth boom, then an era of plant closings in the 1970s and 1980s; and the housing boom of 1990 through 2005, then the current economic doldrums.

In the early 20th century, the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway connected the booming steel plants in Joliet and Gary, Ind., and moved steel and other products around the suburbs. Both Joliet and Gary saw rollercoaster rides of economic prosperity followed by decline. The EJ&E was there to weather the changes with them.

The EJ&E had another important purpose: It served as an outer-belt railway that allowed freight traffic to bypass downtown Chicago.

EJ&E and its successor have around 198 miles of track that encircle Chicago. The tracks extend from Waukegan on the north to Elgin, Aurora and Joliet on the west, and on to Gary on the southeast, as well as to the South Side of Chicago.

In Will County, the tracks extend through Plainfield, Crest Hill, Joliet, New Lenox, Mokena and Frankfort.

New merger

CN acquired the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern as a subsidiary in 2009. At the time, the EJ&E was owned by U.S. Steel through a separate company, Pittsburgh-based Transtar.

Today, CN is seeking efficiency with the new Wisconsin Central merger.

“CN expects the merger will lead to operational efficiencies and service improvements,” said Jim Vena, CN senior vice president for the Southern Region. “These merged railroads will continue all the existing operations of WC and EJ&E in the Chicago Terminal with a unified workforce, which will permit better management of crew staffing and more efficient and reliable rail service to customers throughout the region.”

When CN made the purchase, it integrated the EJ&E into its network. EJ&E has served as CN’s route around Chicago — a circular route that also links all of CN’s rail lines that originate from Chicago, said Patrick Waldron, a CN spokesman.

CN and its operating railway subsidiaries span Canada and mid-America, from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the Gulf of Mexico. CN’s subsidiaries include Illinois Central, its largest U.S. operating subsidiary; Wisconsin Central, its second largest; and Grand Trunk, Waldron said.

EJ&E beginnings

In 1887, two companies — the EJ&E of Illinois, and the EJ&E of Indiana — were incorporated for the primary purpose of building and developing a railroad that would encircle Chicago and extend into Indiana, wrote historian Robert E. Sterling.

Sterling writes extensively of the EJ&E in his book “Joliet Transportation & Industry: A Pictorial History.”

In fall 1888, the Illinois company acquired the Joliet, Aurora and Northern Railway, Sterling wrote.

That railway — the JA&N — had completed a Joliet-Aurora connection by 1886, said Bill Molony, president of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

“That was the predecessor railroad,” Molony said. “It was built from Joliet through Plainfield to Aurora, with plans in the future to extend northwest from Aurora to the Dubuque, Iowa, area. That never happened, but it was the original intent.”

Then, on Dec. 4, 1888, the Illinois and Indiana EJ&E companies were merged, according to Sterling’s book.

“Thus, by January 1, 1889, the initial take-over and consolidation process was completed, and the railroad was operating officially as the EJ&E,” Sterling wrote.

The Jan. 1 date also is cited as a beginning point on an EJ&E Railway history site,

Joliet, Gary steel

The EJ&E moved steel and other products around the Chicago area, connecting prominent steel operations in Joliet and Gary.

U.S. Steel was founded in 1901, came to own the EJ&E that same year, and owned Joliet and Gary plants during historic years.

“The steel industry and the railroad industry were really each other’s best customers,” Molony said. “The steel industry needed the railroads to bring in ore, bring in coal and coke, and haul out the finished steel. But the railroad industry also needed the steel industry to acquire steel for rails, for locomotives, for cars, bridges. So really, the two industries were hand-in-hand for well over 100 years.”

By 1901, Joliet already was a steel producer. During World War I, Joliet had its great Steel Age — meeting a high wartime demand for the product. After setbacks in the Great Depression, Joliet made a steel comeback in the 1930s. This notable era lasted until 1979, when U.S. Steel shut down its Joliet wire mill, laying off hundreds of people.

Joliet’s largest housing boom began in 1990, and the surge would almost double the population of the city. The city grew from 76,800 in 1990 to almost 150,000 today. However, Joliet is still suffering from a weak national housing market plagued by foreclosures.

Gary, founded in 1906, also had a steel boom, surging to a population of 178,320 by 1960. The 1950s and the early 1960s have been called the heyday of the Gary steel industry. After that peak was passed, however, Gary suffered from economic decline, particularly during the steel industry downturn in the 1980s. The city suffered from crime, blight and loss of population. Gary’s population is now at an estimated 80,221, less than half of its peak number.

But Gary still has a presence in the steel industry. Gary Works, situated on the south shore of Lake Michigan, is U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant, the company said.

“Comprised of both steelmaking and finishing facilities, Gary Works has an annual raw steelmaking capability of 7.5 million net tons. Gary Works also operates three coke batteries, with annual production capability of 1.3 million net tons,” according to U.S. Steel’s website,

Step by step

The Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway grew from the Joliet area to encompass the Gary and South Chicago regions — and then up into the north suburbs, completing the Waukegan-to-Gary semicircle.

Molony showed an 1886 map, with only the southwestern Joliet, Plainfield and Aurora connection.

Then, an 1889 map shows an EJ&E route from Joliet eastward through Matteson and Chicago Heights, into Dyer, Griffith and Hobart, Ind.

By 1899, the map shows that the EJ&E had acquired the Chicago, Lake Shore & Eastern railroad to access the Gary and South Chicago area.

Also on this 1899 map, there is a westward connection from Will County into Grundy County — with a route moving southwest from Walker, in the Plainfield area, down to Caton Farm, Minooka, Carbon Hill, Coal City, Mazonia and beyond.

“They went down there to get access to coal,” Molony said.

Finally, the 1899 map shows growth through the north suburbs, with the railroad extending from Spaulding, which is north of Wayne, through Barrington and North Chicago to Waukegan.

Thus the familiar semicircle — sweeping around the suburbs from Waukegan to Joliet to Gary — was in place by 1899.

However, by 1909, the railroad developed a more direct line from Griffith to Gary, and then up along Lake Michigan into the South Side of Chicago, Molony said.

Important bypass

Through the years, the EJ&E was more than a steel line: It served as an outer belt, a “bridge route,” to carry other kinds of freight around Chicago, Molony said.

“For traffic passing through the Chicago area — that did not originate and terminate in Chicago — it really made sense for the long-haul carriers to use a railroad such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, to bypass downtown Chicago,” Molony said.

“The EJ&E — they were owned by the steel industry, but they were a common carrier for freight of all kinds,” Molony said.

“They were in the business of being a bridge between Eastern and Western carriers that didn’t want to take the time and expense of routing through downtown Chicago,” he said.

In Molony’s basement, his model train collection includes several EJ&E cars. One car bears a map of the suburban semicircle, with the slogan “Around Chicago — Not Thru.”

CN purchase

Several Chicago suburbs argued against federal approval of CN taking over the EJ&E in 2008-09, largely on grounds that increasing the number of trains on the EJ&E would cause traffic tie-ups at street crossings.

CN officials argued that the acquisition would decrease traffic problems in inner suburbs such as Des Plaines and Oak Park by allowing Wisconsin Central trains bound for eastern or southern destinations to go around the edge of the Chicago area instead of through the heart of it.

— Sun-Times Media contributed to this report.

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