In February 1851, the same month the ancestor of today’s UP North line was chartered, the State of Illinois chartered the railroad that would evolve into today’s UP Northwest line. That charter authorized the Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad to lay tracks between McHenry County and a point on the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (today’s UP West line) in Cook County.
The line opened with passenger train service in 1854, with one train daily leaving a depot near Canal and Kinzie at 9 a.m., serving stops at Jefferson, Canfield (Edison Park), Des Plaines and Bradley and arriving at Deer Grove at 11 a.m. The return trip left Deer Grove at 4 p.m. and arrived in Chicago at 5:40 p.m.
Some of those stops are unfamiliar to us today. Bradley, for instance, was an early name for Arlington Heights. Early settler William Dunton offered some of his land to the railroad to make sure it came to the area. The route plotted by the railroad ended up passing through the living room of his two-story house, which he had to move. When a town grew around the depot, he named it Bradley, after a friend. But since there already was a Bradley in Illinois the name was quickly changed to Dunton. The name of Arlington Heights was suggested by real estate developers trying to lure Chicagoans to the suburb in the 1870s, and the name became official in 1887.
The Deer Grove station didn’t last long. When farmers around the station objected to selling land for a town to be developed there, the railroad put the station building on a flatcar and moved it two miles northwest, where settlers around what is now Barrington were more accommodating.
In 1855 the Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad merged with Wisconsin’s Rock River Valley Railroad to form the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad. By March 1857, the number of daily passenger trains had increased to two each way between Chicago and Janesville, Wis., and they were making additional stops at towns like Palatine, Cary, Crystal Lake, Woodstock and Harvard. In the early years the railroad also had to convert the original strap-rail (metal straps nailed to wooden ties) to metal rails.
Crystal Lake residents had believed the railroad would connect to them without any local investment. They were wrong, and the tracks were placed a mile north. At about same time, the Fox River Valley Railroad was being built through the area north from Elgin and Algonquin, passing through Crystal Lake on the way to McHenry and Richmond. (The two track gangs actually attacked each other and the bad blood didn’t end until the Fox River Valley agreed to bridge over the intersection.) A town named Nunda developed at the intersection. Nunda and Crystal Lake were rivals for five decades until they merged to form present-day Crystal Lake in 1914.
Today’s McHenry branch of the UP Northwest line is a remnant of the Fox River Valley Railroad, and it’s also a remnant of passenger train service that once extended to Lake Geneva.
Like many other railroads, the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac did not survive the financial panic of 1857. The railroad went bankrupt and in 1859 it was reorganized into the Chicago & North-Western Railway, with former Chicago Mayor William B. Ogden as president. That was the start of a company that would play a significant role in the history of U.S. railroads and Chicago for more than 100 years. Five years later, in 1864, came the “Great Consolidation” with the older Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, creating a huge network that took the C&NW name.
Commuter service developed as suburbs sprang up in the years after the Civil War, aided by the Chicago fire, which made suburban living more desirable, as well as the same economic and demographic trends that fueled the growth of all suburbs. When the little area of Brickton, named after a brick factory that had built the local train depot in 1856, decided to incorporate in 1873, they gave their town the more appealing name of Park Ridge. The change – suggested by town’s first president, a refugee from the fire – symbolized its transition to a commuting suburb.
By 1874, there were eight trains in each direction operating every day. You could buy an annual pass from Palatine to downtown for $95. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $2,200. Monthly passes from Palatine now cost $2,520 a year.)
In 1892, a second track was added to the line. And by 1898, the C&NW had completed elevating the tracks of the Northwest line between Clybourn and Mayfair, a 4.6-mile segment, to meet a city requirement. By 1899, a third track existed from the downtown terminal to Mayfair and was extended to Barrington by 1930.
Most of this information is from a history of the C&NW that was issued by the railroad in 1910 and the online Encyclopedia of Chicago. UP Northwest timetables use “Viking Yellow,” for a color used by C&NW and from the name of one of its trains.