History’s twists and turns lead to new downtown station
This photo was taken during the inaugural test run of the Skokie Swift line. The name Skokie Swift has now been retired with the new downtown station. | Photo courtesy of the CTA and the Village of Skokie
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:21AM
When the first Yellow Line train motors to a stop early Monday morning at the new downtown Skokie station, it will be carrying nearly 100 years of history with it.
Momentous twists and turns along the way — as winding as the el tracks are themselves — have finally brought Skokie the downtown station leaders have coveted for well over a decade.
In 1903, the Northwestern Railroad built a branch line through Skokie — then called Niles Center — which really laid the groundwork for the rail transportation that would follow.
The first downtown station was built at Oakton Street just west of Skokie Boulevard, a short distance away from where the new station opens Monday.
The original opened in 1925, a year before the Dempster Street station was built. A new Skokie Swift Dempster station was constructed in 1993, but thanks to preservation efforts by the Skokie Historical Society and others, the original station there was saved and moved east where it currently is occupied by a Starbucks.
The line has connected commuters between Skokie and Chicago’s Howard Street for decades.
The Chicago Transportation Authority describes the original Oakton station as “nearly identical” to that landmark Dempster station but smaller and “set between the tracks with a single high-level platform projecting from the rear of the station house.”
After assuming operation of the el system, the CTA closed stations and lines that it saw as unprofitable and having low ridership. The Niles Center Line was replaced by bus service.
In 1963, the CTA converted the Skokie Valley Line as far north as Dempster to a new rapid transit line. The CTA resumed el service as a nonstop shuttle between Dempster and Howard. It was dubbed Skokie Swift and opened in 1964.
But the original Oakton station stopped operations long before and was demolished in the ‘60s.
According to the CTA, village leaders and citizens began talking about an expanded Skokie Swift line years ago. But real momentum in seeking an expansion came later.
In 2000, Skokie leaders were hoping that a visit from U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin would eventually help them advance plans to expand Skokie Swift operations.
In 2002, the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) was looking for ways to cut down on delays the average worker spends in traffic. At a public hearing at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines that year, one of the ways seriously discussed was expanding the Skokie Swift line.
But that didn’t mean just the return of a downtown station; local leaders also pushed for the line to extend north of Dempster to the Old Orchard area, a plan that grew more controversial in subsequent years.
In 2002, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen met with then U.S. Speaker of the House Denny Hassert to work on drafting a proposal for federal funding to extend the line north and add at least one stop at Oakton Street.
A study commissioned by the village and completed in 2003 recommended establishing a stop at Oakton as well as expanding the line north of Dempster. A public hearing about the plan that year drew about 50 Skokie residents, some of whom lived north of Dempster and complained publicly for the first time about expansion north.
“I am concerned with what it could do to my neighborhood,” said one resident. “I live right on Terminal (Avenue) right off Golf Road and this will run in my backyard.”
Those concerns were echoed over the years by others who lived north of Dempster.
In 2009, as plans for the downtown station moved forward, the CTA released details of an expansion plan calling for a terminus to be built in the Niles North High School parking lot. Opposition grew larger and protesters became more mobilized, culminating in a raucous CTA-sponsored public hearing in the fall.
Expansion plans to the north of Dempster remain unresolved today with the CTA stating it doesn’t have money to pursue a project of that scope right now anyway.
But the downtown Skokie station was always a different story.
The Illinois Science + Technology Park’s arrival downtown and more successful measures to reinvigorate the area made an Oakton station essential to the village.
Throughout the $20 million project, the village received important outside grants that helped pay for the majority of work. The village’s portion is being funded through a tax increment finance fund.
The village also began eminent domain proceedings to acquire some properties near the site, which were needed for the station and related components.
The groundbreaking ceremony marking the beginning of construction took place the first day of summer in 2010. The name “Skokie Swift” was soon retired and became part of the line’s history.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 10 years to be exact,” said Van Dusen at the ceremony. “We thank you for your presence here today, but also for your patience and perseverance as well as for your participation in the process of making this dream a reality.”
The truth though was that the dream wasn’t quite a reality yet. A high-pitched train whistle that sounded that day and was heard by many dignitaries in attendance marked only a major advancement of the village’s longtime dream — not its completion.
That’s not the case anymore.
The first train will pull up to the Oakton Street Station before 5 a.m. Monday and the village’s longtime dream will finally and truly become reality.