21st Street

21st Street


Also known as "Alton Junction," 21st Street is perhaps Chicago's most historically significant rail location.

Located just east of Canal Street and north of Cermak Road (22nd St.) on the edge of Chicago's Chinatown, it can be reached from downtown by taking any westbound street to Canal. Turn left and proceed south about a mile and a half to 18th Street. Turn left onto 18th, then turn right at Wentworth Avenue. Turn right at 19th Street and take it about a block till it ends. You will be at the entrance to Ping Tom Park. Walk into the park; the crossing is at the park's west end. NOTE: parking can be difficult in this area.

From the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94), the least painful route is to exit at Roosevelt Road and head east to Canal. Turn right and follow the above directions.

The crossing may also be reached by rapid transit. From downtown, take the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line south to Cermak; Red Line trains use the subway on State Street. Walk west to Wentworth, then north to 19th then west to the entrance to Ping Tom Park. The walk is less than a half mile and takes you through the heart of Chinatown. It is highly recommended.

The Railroads

21st Street Now

Two double track lines cross here. The north-south line is Norfolk Southern's ex-CR, ex-Pennsy main line that runs across the south branch of the Chicago River to Union Station. Just before the huge lift bridge crossing the river, NS ownership ends. The tracks are Amtrak property for the remaining mile or so to the station. All Amtrak trains headed for east coast points and Michigan use this line, as do NS transfers connecting with the western roads. Just south of the diamonds is a switch leading to the former Chicago & Western Indiana route that parallels NS to the south. Freight transfers use this route, and UP movements are not uncommon. Part of the former C&WI is now owned by Metra, Chicago's commuter transportation agency, from here to 74th Street. Weekday-only commuter trains between Union Station and Orland Park use the line to 74th where they access the NS ex-Wabash main. South of 74th, the C&WI line is owned by UP; it's the same UP line that passes through Dolton Junction.

The east-west line through here is Canadian National's ex-Illinois Central line to Iowa, but CN/IC trains on the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio from Joliet — the same line that passes through Brighton Park — also use these tracks, as do a few Union Pacific freights (UP owns the GM&O route south of Joliet). The GM&O line, which was Chicago & Alton in earlier times, parallels the ex-IC Iowa line at Bridgeport, about two miles west of here. West of Bridgeport, Glenn Yard (on the GM&O) and Hawthorne Yard (on the Iowa route) are terminals for CN/IC trains. Trains from these locations run east through here and 16th Street; they then make a right turn at the lakefront and head south to Markham Yard and CN's intermodal terminal using the former IC main line.

In the northwest quadrant of the junction are two connector tracks carrying Amtrak's St.Louis trains to and from Union Station. Metra's "Heritage Route" (ex-GM&O/Alton) commuter trains to Joliet also use these tracks on weekdays during rush hours. A few CN/IC and UP transfers use these tracks as well.

This is a moderately busy junction, with heavy traffic during early morning and late afternoon when the commuters and most Amtrak trains can be seen. Augmenting the action is a recently constructed viaduct directly overhead that carries the CTA's Orange Line trains to Midway Airport. West of here, the viaduct uses the abandoned ROW of the Santa Fe, whose tracks once carried ATSF passenger trains to the junction where they connected with C&WI to Dearborn Station.

21st Street in Better Times

In all the world there may never have been a junction to rival 21st Street in its prime. It had at one time 26 diamonds, and well over 150 trains a day rumbled through it. On page 83 of his book, Track Planning for Realistic Operation, John Armstrong marvels at a photo of the plant: "Seven curved crossings on each track! Crossings right through turnouts! ... They're all here at 21st St. Junction in Chicago."

Back in the preeminent days of passenger trains, the Amtrak/NS tracks were the Pennsylvania main line and used by all Pennsy passenger trains. In those days, the C&WI route was a four-track main line that paralleled the Pennsy from the south. At the junction, the tracks crossed the IC and then curved northeast and crossed the Pennsy on their way to Dearborn Station (see above photo). Passenger trains of the Wabash, Erie, Grand Trunk, Chicago & Eastern Illinois and Monon — as well as C&WI's own commuter trains — used these tracks.

Entering from the west were the IC, Santa Fe and GM&O/Alton routes; the latter two fed into the IC west of the junction and crossed the C&WI and Pennsy rails using the IC tracks. GM&O/Alton freights used this route, but their passenger trains used the northwest connectors and took the Pennsy into Union Station. East of the junction, Santa Fe passenger trains crossed over to the C&WI tracks, and continued to Dearborn; their coach yards and engine facilities were located in an area east of the Pennsy/IC diamonds. The IC and GM&O continued east to the lakefront, where Iowa passenger trains tied up at IC's Central Station.

Passenger trains comprised more than 75% of the traffic through here, and the roster was staggering. Here's a very small sample: The Super Chief, The Broadway Limited, the Wabash's Bluebird to St.Louis, the C&EI's Dixie Flagler bound for Florida, the Monon's Thoroughbred to Louisville, the GT's Toronto-bound International, the Erie's Lake Cities for Hoboken/New York, the IC's Iowa-bound Land O' Corn and GM&O's Midnight Special to St.Louis. It's not surprising that 21st Street was sometimes described as "The Crossroads of the Midwest."

In addition to scheduled passenger trains, 21st Street also saw numerous C&WI transfer movements from Dearborn Station to the coach yards south of the crossing where Erie, Monon, C&EI, GT and Wabash equipment was serviced. Add to all this mail and express trains, as well as freight trains on the Pennsy, IC and GM&O, and the result is an amount of traffic that almost defies belief. The interlocking was not as complex as State Line Crossing, but 21st Street probably saw more trains than any other Chicago area junction. A tower in the northeast quadrant controlled movements through the junction and remained in service until spring of 2005. Originally a C&WI facility, it was owned and operated by Amtrak in recent years.

Most of this amazing interlocking is gone now. Only four of the 20-plus diamonds still remain. Northeast of the existing diamonds, there is now a nicely landscaped park instead of the four-track C&WI main. The ATSF tracks and passenger train facilities disappeared in the 1970's, and the GM&O tracks east of the junction have been torn up as well. The addition of the overhead CTA transit line does little to compensate for the losses.

Impact of Canadian National's acquisition of EJ&E

When CN finishes its restructuring of the former EJ&E, 21st Street may virtually disappear, with CN abandoning the line between 21st and 16th streets, meaning that the last four of the 26 diamonds that were once here will be gone. All that will remain is the double track connection to NS / Amtrak in what is now the northwest quadrant. What a sad end to an interlocking that once featured over 100 trains a day.

Thanks go to Kalmbach Publishing, John Armstrong and Wallace Abbey for the photo of 21st Street in its heyday. Thanks go also to Mark Bej for permission to use the above track diagram. It shows the junction as it was in 1948.


NS/Amtrak: 160.740, 160.800, 160.305
CN: 160.920


Ping Tom Park is nicely landscaped and occupies the old C&WI right-of-way at the northeast quadrant of the junction. Train watching is excellent here, but photography is hampered by a six-foot chain link fence separating the park from railroad property. However, Ping Tom provides a superb, unobstructed view of Amtrak's lift bridge over the river. The nearby neighborhood is Asian-American and is not a hazardous area.

For more on the NS Chicago Line, see Indiana Harbor, Porter, Willow Creek and Burns Harbor and the South Side (various) page. See also Pine Junction at Northwest Indiana (various).

For more on the CN/IC lines, see Brighton Park and Joliet for the Joliet line. For the Iowa line, see LaVergne. See also 16th Street, Ash Street and Hawthorne on the South Side (various) page and Argo on the West and southwest suburbs (various) page.


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