Road crews discover century-old street car tracks in Elgin

Road construction workers in Elgin unearthed streetcar tracks dating back more than a century, a legacy of the city's early days as a thriving urban center.

The steel tracks spanned two blocks of Lovell Street from Douglas to Grove avenues in the historic Northeast neighborhood, said Mike Pubentz, the city's senior engineer for capital projects. They were discovered about a month ago and the last section was removed today, he said.

Finding old streetcar tracks in Elgin is rare but not unexpected, Pubentz said.

"It's interesting for the people on the project," he said. "It's things you just don't see anymore, especially if you're building new roads."

Elizabeth Marston, director of the Elgin History Museum, said she asked the city for a section of the tracks to create a possible outdoor display that might even include a scenic design of a streetcar.

"There would be all kinds of concept-building and permission-granting to put this into effect," she said. "I think it would be very cool to have a piece of the track so you could show what it was like."

Streetcars were a form of transportation running within cities, different from interurban lines that connected, say, Elgin to Carpentersville and Aurora, Marston explained.

Elgin first used horse cars - a type of streetcar drawn by horses on tracks - in 1878. The first electric street cars in Elgin began carrying passengers in 1890, before Chicago and most other cities in Illinois, according to the museum's historical information.

With the advent of the automobile, streetcar passengers steadily declined through the 1920s, and streetcar lines were replaced by buses beginning in 1931. The final two lines in Elgin were abandoned in 1934.

Fountain Square downtown was a major meeting point for streetcars, Marston said. "Over the years since the 1930s, they have dug and dug and dug all those downtown streets, so I would assume there is nothing still under there."

The resurfacing on Lovell Street is part of $2 million in work this year in the Northeast neighborhood. The streetcar track discovery set back the project by about two weeks, and the work is expected to end in mid-November, Pubentz said.

There was enough money budgeted to cover the additional $150,000 removal cost, thanks to built-in contingencies for items such as patching, he said.

"It worked out really well," Pubentz said. "It was a bit of a time delay, which is never fun. But this one was fairly easy to manage."

Most of the $150,000 expense comes from the need to dispose waste at various sites, including Rockford, he said.

"When we do excavation like that, we have to test for contaminants in the soil," Pubentz said. "We didn't come up with anything terrible ... basically petroleum-based chemicals, which makes sense because sometimes the (railroad) wood ties are soaked in preservatives. There is no health hazard to the people living there, but it requires special handling and disposal."

Street projects starting next month in Elgin

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Elgin's first electric streetcars began carrying passengers in 1890. Pictured here is Fountain Square around 1892. courtesy Elgin history museum
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