Since 1882, The Belt Railway Company of Chicago has been an integral part of railroad operations in the Chicago Gateway. The Belt Railway began as the idea of real estate promoter John B. Brown, who recognized in the late 1870s the need for a terminal railroad in Chicago.
Brown and his associates chartered the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad, the original parent company of the Belt Railway. During a four-year period, they constructed a series of connecting railroads that formed a “belt line,” which linked every major railroad in the city and also served the industries in the South Chicago and Calumet districts.Five railroads-the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railway, Chicago & Atlantic Railway, Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway, and Chicago & Grand Trunk Railway- executed leases to use the tracks and terminal as tenants.
The Belt Railway grew along with the city of Chicago, adding to its facilities, elevating part of its tracks, and making other improvements in order to do a better job handling its business. As the years went along, it became apparent that the growth of the city would force the railroads to construct their large terminal classification yards outside the city limits and away from congestion.
In 1910, the Belt Railway began a study of enlarging its facilities and as a result seven additional railroads-the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad, Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Chesapeake & Ohio Railway-joined the original five as stockholders. These twelve railroads leased the Belt Division from the Chicago & Western Indiana starting in 1912. The Pere Marquette Railway also joined as owner in 1924.
Due to mergers over the years and the bankruptcy of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, the Belt Railway is now owned by six major Railroads. Ownership affiliations consist of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Corporation and Union Pacific Railroad.
The history of the Clearing Yard is interesting and is found in a fascinating story of a practical railroad dreamer who lived in the days of empire builders. His name was Stickney and he was president of the Chicago & Great Western Railway, whose line reached Chicago in 1886.
He conceived an enormous Clearing Yard for the ever increasing flow of freight which he foresaw for Chicago when its distribution facilities had been exploited. His first thought was location and his first requirement was a site outside the city where the burden of taxation could not eat away the economical advantages of his Clearing Yard.
In 1889 he proceeded with the construction of his conception of a clearing house for railroad cars. This was a four track circle, a mile in diameter, into which he proposed to have the railroads feed their freight trains at different intervals, dropping off cars destined for other railroads into radial tracks and shunting those for industries upon tangent spurs.
Stickney called it his Clearing Yard and thus gave the name Clearing to the industrial district which was to be its ultimate successor. This circle ran from 55th Street on the north to 79th Street on the south and from Harlem Avenue on the west to Cicero Avenue on the east.
The plan was found to be impractical and never reached a tryout stage. So Stickney passed out of the picture and his circle went back to nature.
Then for years, 4,000 acres lay idle, but not forgotten. H.H. Porter, another of the empire builders, a railroad president and banker, picked up where Stickney left off. In 1898 he laid out a car sorting yard employing the hump gravity principle for the first time on a large scale.
The yard commenced operation on April 1st, 1902, and Mr. Porter invited the railroads to come and use it. Despite his position as chairman of the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, he was unable to convince his fellow railroaders of its practicability or to agree to its cooperative use. The Yard remained in general operation for one month only, but continued to handle some switching business on a small scale until August 1912. In order to fit into Belt Railway plans of terminal operation, it was necessary to tear out, salvage, rebuild and enlarge. It took the years 1913, 1914 and part of 1915 to do it.
~ Ray Hurd, The Belt Railway Company of Chicago, Speaking before the Clearing-Cicero Traffic Conference, April 17, 1952