Chicago-New York Electric Air Line

On October 6, 2013 · 6 Comments

I have a fairly neutral opinion about trains and railroads, and readers probably wouldn’t confuse me with a railfan. I never really thought about them much, honestly. Sure, I’ve taken rides on scenic railroads once or twice and related geo-oddities make it onto 12MC occasionally, although that’s generally coincidental. I’m starting to grow more fond of them over time though. There’s plenty of weirdness on the rails.

Case in point, I talked about Bee Line railroads a few weeks ago. My interest was primarily the name; the railroad association happened to be tangential. Still, that led to an interesting comment from Dennis McClendon:

Some 19th century railroads preferred the term "air line"… An attempt to build a Chicago-to-New York Air Line foundered on this principle. Determined to built completely straight, they spent all the construction money on an embankment traversing the first few miles of Indiana.

I’d never heard of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad before. It seemed to be a topic with a sufficient mix of geography, history and weirdness worthy of 12MC investigation. I decided to check it out.


The proposed route map articulated the concept succinctly. I wish I could cite the original source of this image. Secondary sources purport that it came from an official 1907 railroad document. It appeared on the Intertubes in various places, so I don’t really know. I believe one can assume it was published prior to 1923 so the map would be in the public domain. I’ll leave it at that and I’ll tie it back to its source and cite it more properly if or when I can.

The concept involved a perfectly straight line (an Air Line) from New York City to somewhere near Gary, Indiana before angling up to Chicago. It was as if someone tore a page from an atlas, pulled out a ruler, and ran a red felt-tip pen directly between presumptive endpoints. The two green lines showed the inefficiency of alternate routes — existing routes — and the superiority of the proposal. Think of all the excess miles that could be shaved as long as one tamed or ignored topography. The Air Line would feature dual tracks, eliminate grade crossings, hold track elevation changes to no more than 0.5%, and provide connections to interurban lines along the way.

An historical marker (map) outside of La Porte, Indiana commemorated this audacious plan.

Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad. Proposed in 1905 as a 742 mile, straight-line, high speed route, without crossings; estimated ten hours travel time at a cost of ten dollars. Just under twenty miles, between La Porte and Chesterton, were constructed, 1906-1911.

That’s right, construction of the CNYEAL railroad actually began. It could have served as a model for high-speed rail in the United States decades before the movement rose again. The Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad as proposed in 1905 envisioned an average speed of 74 miles per hour (119 kilometres/hour). By contrast, the Amtrak Acela Express came online in December 2000 and currently operates at an average speed of 84 mph (135 kph) between Washington and Boston; nearly the same result a century later.

New York to Chicago would have taken 10 hours. Today on Amtrak that same trip on the Lake Shore Limited — a route without train transfers — takes 19 hours, 5 minutes.

10th Annual Convention of the League of American Municipalities: Held at Chicago September 26, 27 and 28, 1906… (Google eBook)

Promoters gathered piles of chash through stock sales. I found this advertisement included within the material for the 10th Annual Convention of the League of American Municipalities, 1906. It promised that "capital stock of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad is a safe and profitable investment." However it was neither safe nor profitable. Investors lost practically everything.

Construction began with great excitement, as described in recently by the La Porte County Historical Society:

The initial stage of the proposed trans-continental electric short line took place September 1, 1906, when a special Pere Marquette of a dozen coaches from Chicago by way of New Buffalo, landed its passengers near the picnic ground on the Hall Farm in Scipio Township. President Alexander C. Miller brought with him a silver spade which was used “to turn the first earth in the construction of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad.”

A 1921 map of Scipio Township identified the location of the William A. Hall Farm adjacent to the Pere Marquette Railroad. Guess what? It was located almost exactly where the historical marker was placed. I don’t know why the marker failed to mention that pertinent fact.

The air line only ever extended 19.6 miles "between La Porte and Goodrum, Indiana," a fraction of the proposed 742.

Yikes! Mountains!

Topography and mathematics killed the idea. The route would need to travel absolutely straight by definition so topographic features would have to be conquered rather than avoided. Design standards specified a nearly impossible one-half of one percent maximum grade. Those logical contradictions meant that any small hill, any minor creek bed would require monumental excavation, massive trestles or both.

Consider a 100 metre hill (and I think metric measurements make this easier to demonstrate because I’m math-impaired; maybe someone can double-check this): The route could climb at most one metre of elevation for every 200 metres of distance covered (rise over run) to avoid exceeding a 0.5% maximum grade. That’s 5 metres per kilometre. A 100 metre hill would require 20 kilometres of anticipation — or equivalently, a 328 foot hilltop would require 12.4 miles to build up to it. Either that or the route would require tremendous road cuts through dirt and stone. Imagine what would have happen once they hit the mountains of Pennsylvania. My quick eyeballing of a straight line would have brought the railroad through Pennsylvania somewhere very close a series of parallel ridges near the confluence of the Susquehanna River and its West Branch. These are significant barriers that would make a cut like Sideling Hill in Maryland look insignificant, and they would need to be done over-and-over in a lengthy procession.

Proponents and investors learned that sad fact pretty quickly once they emptied their coffer in the first few miles. The Indiana County History Preservation Society described one of the efforts, at Coffee Creek near Chesterton (approx. location):

The biggest job undertaken was the fill across Coffee [formerly spelled ‘Coffey’] Creek Bottoms, which was to extend nearly two miles. A temporary trestle here, 50 feet high at its tallest point, carried construction trains out to dump their fill. The Coffey Creek fill, while only 30 feet wide at the top, measured 180 feet in width at the bottom after the earth assumed its natural incline. A million feet of timber formed the temporary trestle, which would eventually be buried within the fill…One could stand between the rails, gaze toward the horizon and see them meet in the distance without the slightest deviation from a straight line.

The Chicago-New York Electric Air Line failed to materialize beyond its initial twenty-mile proof of concept. A segment survived for awhile although it never amounted to anything more than a tiny part of an interurban network. Soon enough, air lines actually flying through the air rather than hugging the rails would fill the high-speed niche between Chicago and New York.

I’ll keep Electric Air Lines in mind as people talk about the possibility of hyperloop trains. The CNYEAL could serve as a valuable object lesson.

On October 6, 2013 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “Chicago-New York Electric Air Line”

  1. Reid says:

    If you’re interested in road cuts, US 163 and Utah 95 through Comb Ridge are very impressive. There are even signs on 95 saying not to stop and gawk.

    There’s also the nearby and itself impressive Moqui Dugway.

  2. George Gauthier says:

    Why lay out the route along a straight line between the cities rather than the great circle joining Chicago and New York City, which would be shorter.

    • James Dowden says:

      The great circle route would also pass through two of the Great Lakes.

    • January First-of-May says:

      Because they tried to make sure that they won’t have to make a ridiculous bridge (both across Lake Michigan and Lake Erie). I mean, as it is, they had to curve to avoid the former – and had they used this method, they would’ve had to curve around the latter as well.
      That said, considering what sort of detours they expected to make elsewhere, I suspect a bridge across Lake Erie would’ve been the least of their worries 🙂

      Fun unrelated-ish fact:
      The railroad between Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, in Russia, is/was so ridiculously straight as if (or so the legend went) the Emperor just put a straight line between the two cities on the map, and the route was made along that line.
      There was one major detour, however; the legend went on that this was the place where the Emperor’s finger crossed the ruler, but looking on the map, it was very much too tiny (less than ten miles, IIRC – as compared to slightly over 500 miles of the entire route).
      Flash-forward to the late 2000s, when this tiny detour was finally cut through (IIRC it was more of a bridge sort of cut) – so that the super-high-speed Sapsan trains could travel the entire route without having to slow down on tiny curves. Made the whole straight-railroad idea kind of lucky 🙂 (though it did help that there weren’t any major hills in between… at least nothing that looked like major hills compared to the Appalachians).

  3. Peter says:

    The northerly green line on the old map, going along the Lake Erie shoreline, is the New York Central’s “Water Level Route.” By avoiding the steep upgrades through the Appalachians it allowed for a faster NY-Chicago travel time than the Pennsylvania Railroad’s southern route despite being a longer distance. The advent of diesel locomotives ended that speed advantage, as diesels handled upgrades better than steam locomotives.

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