By James Johnson

Originally printed in the Woodstock Independent
Oct. 29, 2003

An earlier column mentioned that Chester Gould commuted into downtown Chicago on the Chicago and North Western train. He rode this line for many years, beginning in 1935 when he purchased the farm in Woodstock. An August 14, 1944 article in Life Magazine said he normally arrived at his Tribune Tower office at 8:15 a.m. Allowing for transit time from the Canal and Washington Street terminal to the North Michigan Ave. Tribune building, he must have departed Woodstock around 6:15 a.m. I wonder if express trains operated then (does anyone have a C&NW commuter train schedule from the 1930′s?).

The trains were pulled by steam locomotives in the early days, with diesel power being introduced in the 1950′s. With diesels, it was easier to provide power from the unit into to the passenger cars. This allowed push-pull operations and construction of the modern heated and air-conditioned bi-level cars. The bi-levels were bought by Ben Heineman early in his tenure as head of C&NW, with an aim of providing the best possible commuter service. The first cars were built by the North American Car Company in St. Louis and delivered in the late 1950′s; later versions were built by Pullman-Standard. Regular commuters may recall that the North American cars (which had the small windows) always had the coldest air conditioning. The cars were rebuilt several times, but few, if any, are still in service. The Pullman cars were phased out by newer cars bought by Metra. Pullman was a part of Americana that has disappeared. It began as the legendary Pullman Palace Car Company in the 1800′s and also built freight cars at plants in Butler, Pennsylvania and Birmingham, Alabama, but no longer exists as a separate company.

Some aspects of rail commuting never change. Life Magazine said Chester Gould played cards, usually seven-card stud, on the trip home. Commuters know that card games are long-running affairs, with regular players and often lots of enthusiasm. They’re most common on the evening outbound runs. Typically a group of four will balance a board on their knees, sitting at two facing, fold-over seats. Sometimes the conductor provides a “loaner” board. Kibitzers will hang over other seats or even stand in the aisle to watch. Quite a few hands can be dealt before the first player departures as the train pulls in to Park Ridge, Arlington Heights or wherever. Poker is difficult; loose change isn’t compatible with the jolts of the train. Bridge, hearts and pinochle seem to be the staples. Many games were played in the old bar cars. People could usually balance a beer or cocktail along with their cards. Most commuters chat in the vestibule, doze, read or do paperwork, but the card players remain loyal each day to their group, often for years.

Perhaps Chester Gould’s card group continues on Metra’s Northwest Line even today. The players would have gradually changed and changed again, but technically it is still the same game. It’s like the story of Abe Lincoln’s ax for sale in an antique store. The proprietor told the prospective buyer that the handle and head had each been replaced several times, but it was still Abe’s original ax.

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“He thought he could make crime pay. It did, ten dollars and a cheap suit at the end of 20 years.”
- Chester Gould
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