Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Charles Tyson Yerkes and Street Railways
Charles Tyson Yerkes and Street Railways

Charles Tyson Yerkes and Street Railways

A street railway and financial speculator from Philadelphia, Charles Yerkes came to Chicago in 1882 to pursue his business interests. Over the next 15 years, he would not only amass a fortune of almost $30,000,000, but also arouse a civic crusade to depose him.

Chicago's Street Railways in 1890 (Map)
Yerkes played a crucial role in modernizing and integrating the city's public transit system. After gaining control of two of the three main street railway companies covering the North and West Sides, he converted the horsecar lines first to cable and then to electric traction. The advent of rapid transit allowed him to extend the tracks from less than 75 miles to 575 within a decade. In 1897, he built the elevated loop around the central business district.

At the same time, however, Yerkes was gaining the unenviable reputation as Chicago's most notorious “robber baron.” He cheated his stockholders and partners, insulted newspaper editors, bribed city officials with impunity, and retaliated against customers who complained about inadequate services and broken-down equipment. As public opinion mounted against him, he attempted to force a bill through the state legislature in 1897 that would give the transit companies a 50-year extension on their franchises. This issue formed the first common cause among civic-minded groups in Chicago. Uniting Yerkes' opponents, the battle for municipal reform was fought in the state capital and the city hall over the next two years. Finally defeated, the traction magnate sold out, went to London, and helped build its subway system.