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Do El line colors mean anything?
October 29, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I'm old enough to remember when the CTA rail lines were all renamed with colors rather than proper names (presumably for riders so hopelessly illiterate that they can't read "Ravenswood" but can still recognize a brown stripe). But I do NOT remember how the colors were selected. Purple makes sense, as the Purple line runs to Northwestern University. And I remember when the schoolchildren voted for Pink. But how about the others? Was there any rhyme or reason to the choices of Red, Brown, Green, Orange, Blue, and Yellow? 

— Tim R. Mortiss, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board


Cecil replies:

I know, this is two train questions in a row. I promise I won't do it again. But this is a great story. It has everything: Psychological depths, selfless heroism, Faulknerian sweep — and if I can figure out a way to rope in that passion-on-the-Red-Line scene from Risky Business, it'll have sex, too.

No doubt you were inspired to ask this question by the possibly apocryphal explanation for the color coding of Boston's four subway lines. Supposedly the Beantown Red Line is so called because it once terminated in Cambridge, home of the Harvard Crimson. The Blue Line passes beneath the theoretically blue waters of Boston Harbor. The Green Line travels past the verdant parks known as the Emerald Necklace, and the Orange Line tunnels under what was formerly Orange Street.

If you want something as simple as that, my friend, I'm sorry. This is Chicago, where nothing is easy. 

It all started in 1946. (Well, maybe even earlier, but 1946 is the oldest map I have.) The Chicago Rapid Transit Company, predecessor to the CTA, needed a way to distinguish the Street Street subway, opened in 1943, from El routes on maps. Solution: depict the subway as a red line. Where the tracks emerged aboveground, the line switched to black, just like all the other elevated routes.

Why red? Here we get into the psychological depths. Science tells us that once primitive cultures begin to emerge from the swamps — this is a fair description of Chicago in 1946 — the first color they distinguish other than black and white is red. (You think I'm kidding? Read my disquisition on basic color terms.) In other words, the CRT's map scribes made that line red because their DNA said they should. In most cities where the train lines are named after colors, in fact, the Red Line is the oldest, busiest, or only heavy-rail line.

But mind you, Chicago's Red Line wasn't called that yet. In fact, it didn't even stay a (lower case) red line. In 1954, by which time the Dearborn Street subway had opened, CTA mapmakers ignored the call of their ids and showed both subways in blue.

In 1958 the rapid transit line in what was then the Congress Expressway opened. Trains now started at Logan Square, wound their way through downtown via the Dearborn Street subway, then headed out to the west side. The once-simple map of Loop El lines had become a tangle. To help the harried traveler trace out the routes, the CTA decided to show Dearborn subway in blue and the State Street subway in red. The El lines remained black.

Why blue? Why red, white, and blue on the flag? Some things just are.

Now it's 1969. The country is riven by strife, Richard Nixon has become president, and the Dan Ryan line opens. It heads north up Wabash Avenue over the Loop elevated, then makes a left turn and becomes the Lake Street El. To help the populace cope, the CTA puts maps above the doors in El cars. Some of the maps show the stops on that route only. Red and blue are already spoken for, so the Lake-Dan Ryan line, also known as the "West-South" route (nobody but the CTA ever called it that) is depicted in green, the obvious next choice.

You think we're making progress? It's an illusion. The above applies only to the maps in the cars. On the maps in the stations, the CTA has gone back to showing the routes in different combinations of black (or blue) and white. Red, green, and blue are used as the map background colors. Red background means "A" station, green means "B" station, and blue means "all stop" station. You never heard of "A" and "B" stations? Don't worry about it, they're history. You remember "A" and "B" stations, but never realized the maps were color-coded? I didn't realize it either. In fact, if you talk to CTA old-timers, you learn they sweated over a vast scheme of colors for maps, signs, and lights that nobody ever noticed. Another subtext of this saga: the vanity of human endeavors.

Back to our story. It was 1976 and the CTA was working on its first full-color map. Somebody decided to go back to assigning colors to lines. Jah be thanked, the map gurus didn't start all over, but rather stuck with red-blue-green as previously described. (I could make this tale really baffling and point out that the line then depicted in red was not our modern Red Line, consisting of the Howard and Dan Ryan lines plus the State Street subway. Rather, it was the Howard/State Street/Englewood/Jackson Park branches. Never fear, ain't going there.)

Anyway, the through routes having been addressed, the planners had to come up with colors for the branch lines: Ravenswood, Evanston, and Skokie. Somebody rummaged through the crayon box and came up with the following random assignments: Skokie=orange, Ravenswood=purple, Evanston=brown.

You notice two things: (1) These aren't the modern designations. I know, I'm getting to that. (2) There's no yellow. That's because, sunny and cheerful though it makes our world, yellow as a map color eats. It's too light and you have to outline it in black, and farsighted CTA management wished to economize. Farsighted, economical CTA management also realized: printing all the colors on this map is going to cost a wad of cash. Luckily, the RTA volunteered to do it and gave the job to Rand McNally, which was looking for something to do now that the gas-station map business had gone south.

For technical reasons that will remain my secret, because if I try to explain them we'll never get done, the RTA map was printed with a black background for the city, symbolizing the dynamic urban scene, with olive drab elsewhere, symbolizing the tedium of suburban life. A problem soon became apparent: if you print brown for the Evanston line on an olive drab background, it becomes almost impossible to see. The mapmakers concluded they'd have to switch brown with one of the other colors. But which, purple or orange?

Now for the heroic part. The decisive figure appears to have been CTA planner Howard Benn, now an exec with a transit agency in suburban D.C. (The old-timers disagree on some details, but I'm telling the story.) Attuned to the evocative power of color, and cognizant that Illinois license plate colors at the time were sometimes based on those of the state's universities, Howard realized the same might be done with the El lines. Northwestern's chief color was purple, so that was one obvious choice. Howard, however, had gone to the University of Illinois, which fielded one of the few teams NU in those days could reliably beat. Illinois's signature color was … orange. 

One imagines the Miltonian battle that raged in Howard's breast. (One has to imagine it, because he didn't tell me anything about it. However, I have the columnist's knack for seeing into a man's soul.) The good angels whispered: Make Evanston purple — NU fans have so little else to cheer them.  But the bad angels meanwhile snickered: Make it orange, and pimp those bastards good.

The good angels won. The Evanston line became purple, and the Ravenswood brown.

The rest of the story can be quickly told. In 1993, with the Midway line about to come into service, the CTA map team concluded: OK, we'll use yellow, but as little as possible. The two-stop Skokie Swift got the honor, and Midway was awarded orange.

Then, in October 1993, the final step: The lines were officially named after the colors on the maps. The old route names were kept for a time, but by 1995 they were gone, and today young people say, as one might speak of typewriters or eight-track tapes: Ravenswood? What's that?

As for the future, who knows? With the establishment of the Pink Line, all the obvious color choices have been claimed. One may object: gold! Or silver! The CTA hands tell me it's not that easy. Metallic colors aren't easily rendered on maps — gold turns into a muddy yellow, and silver becomes gray. My friend Dennis suggests aqua. (They bought pink, didn't they?) But then what — puce? Ecru? Luckily, given the CTA's speed in adding new service, I needn't be concerned: what we have will last my time.

(Thanks to Roy Benedict, Howard Benn, Dennis McClendon, and Dave Phillips.)

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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