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Ride Around Chicago:  A City in Transition

Rising Out of the Fire
Elmer Whiting, a Chicago streetcar conductor, kept a detailed diary throughout 1894. That year Chicago still buzzed from the World’s Columbian Exposition, the world's fair held a year earlier. In these decades following the Chicago Fire of 1871, the city experienced great growth and transitions. Elmer’s diary is a window into that complex history.

Many of Elmer Whiting’s 1894 diary entries sound similar to this page taken from New Year’s Day. Although much of the diary relates to his work, Elmer enjoyed life, writing about family, bicycling, and current events.

Elmer and Lou Whiting, c. 1915

The Whitings lived on West Van Buren Street, Couch’s Subdivision in the East Garfield Park neighborhood for most of 1894.

On October 31, the Whitings moved to a rental home with "[m]odern [i]mprovements" on West Congress Street, shortening Elmer's trip to work.

For work, Elmer reported to a streetcar barn on Kedzie Avenue near this location. Today, a Chicago Transit Authority bus barn stands in its place.

A City in Motion
By the 1890s, Chicago had developed into a bustling “Middle West” metropolis. Elmer conducted his horse-drawn streetcar through busy streets shared with new cable cars and electric streetcars, buggies, cyclists, and pedestrians. This meeting of people, animals, and machines created new demands for efficiency, safety, and workers’ rights.

In 1894, Elmer conducted his horse drawn streetcar on Western Avenue. See the same street from a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus today.

Elmer’s days consisted of many daily “tripps” in his streetcar. He wrote about dangerous weather, unusual passenger flow, or accidents – like one June 15 when Elmer’s streetcar struck a horse.

Among many duties while conducting streetcars, Elmer probably punched tickets like this one.

From a store, Elmer purchased work pants like the ones shown in this advertisement in April. The following month officials reprimanded him for wearing those pants to work. He angrily wrote in his diary that his employer wanted a “stake” in uniform sales. He meant that the company wanted to make money from its employees buying its pants.

Elmer worked during the gradual transition from horse-drawn streetcars to cable and electric streetcars. This new machinery worked without the need for food or rest.

Horse-drawn streetcar

Listen to a former Chicago Transit Authority train operator describe a 1977 accident and her own experiences.


Accidents commonly occurred on Chicago’s busy and dangerous streets during the late 1890s. In November, an Italian American boy, "Toney," collided with Elmer's streetcar. Luckily, Toney was only knocked down.

Crashes and Collisions

Chicago experienced continual modernization and rebuilding in the late 1800s. Hoping to create a more efficient city, public transportation companies added new lines, dug tunnels under the Chicago River, and updated infrastructure like this Van Buren Street bridge.

Listen while a former Chicago Transit Authority train operator recalls the 2011 blizzard on the Purple Line in Chicago's northern suburb of Evanston, Illinois.

While these sleigh riders enjoyed their winter wonderland, Elmer wrote about the “worst snowstorm in years.” In February, 84 mile per hour winds forced transportation workers to harness “4 horses [rather than the usual 2] … on each car all day.”

Windy City Snow

Hear a retired Chicago Transit Authority train operator describe workplace friendships.

Streetcar conductors dressed with a sense of formality and neatness as employers required them to appear presentable. However, horses hooves often splattered mud onto horsecar conductors like Elmer. He couldn't avoid getting dirty.

Friends At Work

Elmer’s conductor wages, at least $700 in 1894, allowed Lou and him to live more comfortably than other Chicagoans. In 1910, for example, men and women tailors on average earned only $400 and $214, respectively.

Going “Down City”
For the hardworking Elmer, a day off meant time to enjoy what Chicago had to offer. He often wrote about taking in city sites from the seat of his bicycle or enjoying live entertainment like a baseball game or a magic show.

In this May 12 entry, Elmer describes Chicago and Louisville teams going head-to-head in a baseball game. Elmer enjoyed many events from baseball to magic to political debates.

Elmer and Lou watched magician Herrmann the Great perform at the Chicago Opera House in the spring. Herrmann’s show left an impression on Elmer, who described the magician as “a great [m]an.”

Elmer and Lou witnessed Herrmann the Great perform tricks, such as “The Escape of the Nihilist,” “The Mysterious Swing,” and “Modern Spirit Manifestations.”

Former site of Chicago Opera House, c.2015

Elmer and Lou listened to lectures by Robert Ingersoll and William E. Mason at the Auditorium Theatre. Attending these events allowed the Whitings to stay up-to-date on current issues, like the annexation of Hawaii and international trade.

Exterior of Auditorium Theatre, c. 2015

Elmer mentioned more than one fire in his diary, including this one at the former World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds on July 5.

Elmer participated in a "Turkey raffle" on Thanksgiving eve at a local saloon. Unfortunately, Elmer returned home at three in the morning empty handed.

Time Off From Work

Much like these people in Lincoln Park, Elmer and Lou ventured into new parts of Chicago on their “wheels” after Elmer purchased bicycles in August.

Riding With Friends

Many sites that Elmer and Lou explored on their bicycles appear on Chicago's "40-Mile" bicycle map, including city parks and suburbs.

In autumn, Elmer and his family passed through these gates to visit Waldheim Cemetery in west suburban Forest Park, Illinois. Elmer was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which had a large monument at the cemetery.

Elmer and Lou probably saw this monument to the Haymarket Martyrs on their visit to Waldheim Cemetery.

In October, Elmer, Lou, and other family members rode their “wheels” to the Union Stock Yard. After seeing Chicago's industrial might on display, they returned home weary around 9 o’clock at night.

Although Elmer did not mention garbage dumps near the stock yards, the meat packing industry severely damaged the environment.

Elmer rooted on May 12 while the Chicago White Stockings (also known as the Colts) defeated Louisville at West Side Grounds. Later that season, he saw Cleveland defeat Chicago.

Rooters Cheer

An excited Elmer watched Adrian "Cap" Anson direct his team to victory during the Chicago-Louisville game on May 12.

In 2008 — more than a century after Elmer watched games there — several groups erected a commemorative plaque at the former site of West Side Grounds.

Many Chicagoans loved horse racing in the 1890s. Thousands flocked to Washington Park Race Track to root for their favorite horses. In June, Elmer wrote that the American Derby race brought “heavy rideing” on his streetcar.

Call To Post

As excited passengers on Elmer's streetcar rode home following the American Derby horse race, tickets like this one fluttered off their coats and littered the streetcar floor.

A City Progressing
Chicagoans, in the late 1800s, confronted economic depression mixed with urban and industrial booms. Elmer joined philanthropic and fraternal organizations aimed at solving problems created by these developments. Some solutions were peaceful. Others fueled prejudice and ended in violence.

Sometimes Elmer used his diary for political commentary. On March 8, he expressed dismay with the release of Dan Coughlin who had been convicted of Dr. P. H. Cronin's 1889 murder.

In 1889, former Chicago police detective Dan Coughlin murdered Dr. P. H. Cronin of the Irish-American organization Clan-na-Gael. Despite Elmer's membership in the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic society, he disgustedly declared Coughlin’s 1894 prison release “a shame to Cook County."

Despite rumors, Elmer claimed Chicago's first Irish American mayor would not "dare" raise an Irish flag over the courthouse on St. Patrick's Day. Elmer believed Mayor Hopkins would avoid such an overt sign of favoritism.

On July 4, Elmer described the crowd of 1,500 at the People's Institute cornerstone laying ceremony as "very noisey." He also mentioned politician William E. Mason's speech praising the People's Institute.

Elmer believed President Cleveland’s "funny work," sending troops into Chicago during the Pullman Strike, was unnecessary. His entries also mentioned the "terrible times" of violence between law enforcement and strikers.

Although Elmer made his usual “tripps” on July 2, the Pullman strikers’ decision to "tie off" railroad traffic disrupted Chicagoans' daily routines.

While enrolled in a public history course at the Chicago History Museum, these seventeen DePaul undergraduate students compiled much of this exhibition's preliminary work.

Credits: Exhibit

Curatorial Team – Madison Higgs, Sarah Howard, Kira S. Light, Joseph Magnelli, Derek Potts, and Peter T. Alter

Curatorial Assistant – Pieter de Tombe

Editors - Emily H. Nordstrom and Jill M. Walker

Rights and Reproductions – Angela Hoover and Sarah Yarrito

Photographers – Joseph Aaron Campbell and Stephen J. Jensen

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.