Group rides historic first downtown train from Skokie
Family and friends of the late Walker R. Allen gather Monday to take the first ride at the Oakton-Skokie Yellow Line station. Allen grew up in Skokie and planned to be there on this historic day. | Mike Isaacs~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:21AM
“Dempster-Skokie is next.”
The voice sounded throughout the train early Monday morning carrying about 40 riders who wanted to be part of history.
Long before the sun rose, they boarded the first train that pulled into the new downtown Skokie Yellow Line station before heading to the Dempster Street terminal, for years known as the Skokie Swift. Then they came back.
Many of those with an early wake up call Monday were Skokie or Niles Township officials, but not all of them.
Rebecca Rubin wanted others to join her in a historic first ride so she put out the call over social media.
Rubin found her own “corporate sponsors.” Downtown Skokie’s popular Sweety Pies Bakery agreed to offer pastries for half off and Gorman Restoration and Remodeling of Wilmette picked up the other half.
“I’m a Jewish mother,” she said, laughing. “I can’t invite people to an event without serving them.”
Rubin passed out pastries on the new platform as riders waited for the train.
Lucky Gorman, owner of Gorman Restoration and Remodeling, was among Monday’s first riders as well.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “I live in Wilmette but I take the Skokie Swift four times a week. I had to be here.”
Monday marked the first time a commuter could board a downtown Skokie train on its initial run since 1925 when the last Oakton Street station opened.
But that downtown station has been gone for decades and since then, Skokie leaders have fought for its return.
For some, the historic ride had even more special significance than just history.
The family and friends of Walker R. Allen, who died only this month, came for the downtown train’s initial run.
Friend Chuck Brahos said he and Allen, longtime Skokie residents, attended many of the village and CTA meetings leading up to the new train station. In fact, it was Allen’s idea that the train station be beige in color, he said.
“Our whole plan was to see this unfold together,” Brahos said. “His whole family is here because of Walker. It’s emotional. He was a great guy.”
His wife, Leslie, said Allen wanted to see downtown Skokie revived and was looking forward to taking the first downtown Yellow Line train.
“He would have been the first one here today,” she said. “He took a lot of pride in Skokie. He grew up in Skokie and there used to be a station when he was a kid so that’s all he talked about. He would say, ‘Thank God they’re bringing it back.’”
Cary Morgen, a former CTA employee who grew up in Skokie, waited for the station doors to open for the first time Monday.
“I remember when the Skokie Swift first started,” he said. “That was 1964 and to see a station here finally is important. Skokie residents have thought about this for many years. As a CTA retiree, I’ve seen this thing evolve from the beginning.”
The village is planning a grand opening ceremony June 24, but some like Rubin didn’t want to wait until then.
“The June event will be nice, but there will be hundreds or thousands of people there then and it won’t be the first time,” she said. “I want to be the first. It’s history.”
Rubin and her family have lived within a mile of downtown Skokie for seven years. Even when she first moved, there was talk about a downtown Skokie station, and she thought that would happen long before now.
“It’s been a long wait, but I’m very excited,” she said. “I just thought something should be done to celebrate such a big moment.”
Driving her daughter to school last week, she was reminded that downtown Yellow Line service was to begin soon so she called the village to see what was being planned.
When she learned the official celebration was two months away, Rubin got busy. She went onto Facebook and even tweeted for the first time to try to invite people to share the experience with her.
Many said it was a great idea, Rubin recounted, but she didn’t get too many commitments. She received 261 Facebook “declines.”
“They all said the same thing: ‘Great idea Rebecca, We’ll think of you as we turn over and go to sleep.’”
But Rubin didn’t mind. She brought a handful of friends with her Monday morning, and there was a festive atmosphere among the early risers. Scott Holtz, a downtown Skokie advocate, showed up in his historic Skokie Swift T-shirt.
Independent Merchants of Downtown Skokie President Randy Miles, Police Chief Tony Scarpelli, Village Trustee Randy Roberts, Niles Township Trustee Mark Collins and Village Engineer Fred Schattner, who worked tirelessly for years on the new station, were among the first riders as were other Skokie department leaders.
As the train pulled in from Howard Street just after 4:50 a.m., the small group applauded and then entered the empty cars for the short ride north.
Once arriving at Dempster-Skokie, a CTA employee led the riders across the tracks to the other side so they didn’t have to pay twice. A return train came soon.
Another train heading north pulled up to the new station as the early riders returned. A commuter took her bicycle off the train, looked around and said in surprise, “this isn’t Dempster,” before reentering the train.
No, it’s the new Oakton-Skokie station, and it may take some time for people to get used to a middle stop between Howard and Dempster.
But not the people who showed up before dawn Monday morning: They had spent years getting used to the idea of a downtown Skokie train station. The idea had finally become reality.