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The story of The Bloomingdale Trail begins just after the Great Chicago Fire. In their efforts to rebuild the city, the Chicago City Council gave permission for the Chicago & Pacific Railroad to lay tracks down the middle of Bloomingdale Ave. (1800 N) on Chicago’s Northwest side. The move helped connect goods from outlying rail ports to the busy Chicago River, and supported Chicago’s burgeoning industrial growth.

Following the Fire, Chicago’s population boomed, and dangerous conflicts between residents and rail abounded — with rail often the victor. Between the 1870s and 1890s, thousands were injured or killed each year due to treacherous rail crossings at grade (ground level). In response, elevating the city’s rail lines became a political hot button and a critical issue for social reformers.

In 1893, the City Council passed an ordinance mandating that railroads elevate their tracks within six years. The Bloomingdale Line, now operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company, was one of the last to conform to the new ordinance, beginning work in 1910 and completing in 1913. In a testament to American and Chicagoan ingenuity, rail service continued uninterrupted throughout construction.

The embankments created by elevating the line are essentially enormous concrete bathtubs filled with soil, stones, and other drainage material — similar to French drains. Seven feet thick at the base, the walls have proved sturdy for 100 years, and form a firm foundation for the Bloomingdale Trail.

For nearly a century, the rail line served a small manufacturing district across the city’s Northwest side, with businesses churning out bicycles, bathtubs, adding machines, beer (including the Prohibition-era Stenson Brewing operation) and instruments such as Hammond Organs and Ludwig Drums. Trains rolled overhead until the 1980s when activity slowed to a trickle. By the mid-1990s, the few trains that used the corridor were re-routed, and freight service ceased almost completely.

While most of the manufacturing buildings were converted to residential uses below, nature reclaimed the former rail line above. Trees sprang up between the tracks, flowers bloomed, and animals moved back into former habitats. It was only a matter of time before the communities along the line rediscovered the space. And those who ventured up unofficially in the late 1990s early 2000s trod an impromptu nature trail with their feet and encountered a natural habitat with unmatched views of the city.

It was a special place — and those that knew about it felt compelled to share it with neighbors, friends, and the entire city. Official plans for converting the Bloomingdale Line into a public space actually date back to the late 1990s, when it was included in the City’s Bike Plan. In 2003, inspired by all those neighbors making their own unofficial trail, the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail (FBT) came together — a group of residents who would champion the project for the next decade, dedicated to making the vision become a reality.

Around the same time the City’s Department of Planning and Development held a series of public meetings to determine how to bring new open space to the City’s underserved Northwest side, ultimately recommending an elevated park on the Bloomingdale embankment. This would become the Logan Square Open Space Plan, which was adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission in 2004. FBT also participated in the New Communities Program, which created Quality of Life Plans for Logan Square and Humboldt Park, both plans supported the construction of a new greenway on the old rail line. In 2006 the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail reached out to the national nonprofit, The Trust for Public Land, which helped bring together a coalition of city and civic organizations to move the project forward.

Ultimately the Bloomingdale Trail’s transformation from freight rail to multi-use path would become a reality due to a confluence of decades of community organizing and city planning. From industrial beacon to impromptu nature trail, to innovative public space and alternative transportation corridor for the next generation, the Bloomingdale Line turned Bloomingdale Trail has been the site of innovation since its inception.

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