During rush hour at Ogilvie Transportation Center downtown, the platform to get on the Union Pacific-North Line up to the northern suburbs can get a little claustrophobic. Masses of people huddle outside of closed doors of every train car, waiting for them to open and the mad dash to grab a seat begins. Unless, of course, you’re a dues-paying member of car 553, the last remaining private club commuter car in the United States. In that case, wait for the crowds to pile onto the train and stroll up to the first car behind the engine, a vintage single-level car, unmistakably different from the usual two-level silver Metra cars, and climb the steps into the quiet solace of a private car for Lake Foresters and Lake Bluffians.
The private commuter car has been running the rails between Lake Forest and downtown since 1929. Officially called the “Deerpath,” but colloquially referred to as “the Millionaires’ Special,” the private car used to include a plush interior, buffet, and private porter named Lester Green, who would stay with the car during the day to accept package deliveries for members. Early members were titans like Noble Judah, Phillip Armour, and William McCormick Blair.
The 553 is an entirely different beast. The distinct, matte look of the car comes from its origins as a 1950s mid-train lounge car with a faded brown stripe running its length, marked simply with its car number, 553, next to the door. There’s an abundance of comfortable seating as original parlor car chairs line the windows. Through a doorway at the front of the car is the lounge—four tables where members can work on laptops or play cards. Back in the heyday of the Deerpath, word is nail-biting bridge tournaments were the distraction of choice. Today, there’s no buffet or porter, but there is a fridge where members stock flats of bottled water and a few six packs of beer for the occasional happy hour. It’s a quiet place to ride in peace and a chance to socialize with neighbors. Yearly dues buy you plenty of room to ease into your morning if you catch the 7:50 a.m. train out of Lake Forest and unwind on your way home with the 5:03 p.m. train coming back. It may not be the lap of luxury it used to be, but it’s peace of mind and a welcoming community.
“We’re a consumer cooperative,” says Richard Norton, chief mechanical officer for 553, and a member since 1971. “The only thing elite about this car is that our conductor wears a tie. We’ve been kind of a stealth car. Everybody knows about Deerpath, but nobody knows about this one.”
That all changed one Friday in May, when the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society offered everyone a chance to ride from Ogilvie to Lake Forest on the 553. Not one chair remained empty as the assembly rode in the historic car, hearing wonderful presentations on the commuter rail system from John Pierson, the archives chairman for the Chicago & North Western Historical Society, and the history of the commuter cars from Richard. Commuter club service resumed for one day as the historical society handed out packed lunches from Wisma and red and white wine in cups. You could see who the regular members were by the Pabst Tall Boys in their hands and their amused expressions as they took in the tourists.
“I moved here about six years ago and a friend of mine said, ‘You should join the train car. It’ll change your life in a way,’” says TK Gore of Lake Bluff, a member for five years. “It’s a great community of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff people. It’s been great for networking, meeting a lot of good people. There’s so much history in the car that people embrace, it’s been really good.”
Once there were as many as 18 private commuter cars throughout the nation, and, at its most popular, there were three private cars lined up for the morning and evening commute from Lake Forest. Now, the 553 is the only one left. Raising costs associated with keeping a privately owned car on the tracks and the nebulousness of people’s modern work schedules have made the current members of the 553 a rarified group. Back when the Deerpath first started, the Chicago & North Western Line needed a guarantee of 65 members to keep a private car on the tracks. Now, the group is 37 members strong, composed of both men and women, but most days there are only around 10 to 15 people taking the ride.
“I don’t think it takes much to see how our work habits have changed,” says Richard. “People used to sit in the same chair, back and forth, every day to their same desk at the bank. We were much more fixed in our occupations then.”
Still, the thrill of hopping onto the private car was palpable on the day the historical society invaded—the feeling of taking that exclusive ride that’s been operating for 85 years. People sipped their wine and watched the suburbs slide by through double-paned windows that were fogged with the wear of riding the rails for 40+ years. They smiled at each other across the aisle and hung on every word of the men holding the microphone, spilling the secrets of the 553. The Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society hopes to host another ride coming up in the autumn, so you better keep your eyes on their website.
-Jake Jarvi // Photography by Jim Prisching