Greg Borzo believes, and rightly so, that much of our city's history "hides in plain sight."
There is, for instance, the small building in the accompanying photo, Borzo standing near it.
Sitting prominently at 5529 S. Lake Park Ave. in Hyde Park, indeed serving as headquarters for the Hyde Park Historical Society, this building is seen by thousands of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians every day.
How many of them know what it is, or more important, what it was?
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A very informal survey of a couple of dozen people passing by one early April afternoon was not surprising: Not one of them knew that this was once a waiting room for the 55th Street cable car, built early in 1893 for the crowds attending the World's Columbian Exposition.
This is the sort of thing that bugs Borzo.
"Cable cars have not only been ignored and removed from the historical record," Borzo says. "They were considered old and rickety, not part of the modern, up-to-date image that Chicago wanted to project. This story is virtually unknown today, even among Chicago history buffs."
Well, not exactly and no longer, thanks to his new, exhaustively researched, deftly written and handsomely illustrated book, "Chicago Cable Cars."
In the book's foreword, Jacob Kaplan, editor/co-founder of the fascinating website forgottenchicago.com, writes, "Chicago never would have become such a boomtown if local residents could not have gotten to the factory gate, office tower or department store."
Borzo's book takes us back to the start, precisely, to Jan. 28, 1882, "a cold, blustery day" when both sides of State Street from Madison Street to 21st Street were packed. "Crowds estimated from 50,000 to an improbable 300,000 waited hours with great anticipation to witness the first cable car trains pass by."
Less than 200 pages and 25 years later, the end comes on Oct. 21, 1906, when "Chicago's very last cable train met its inglorious end traveling south from downtown on the Cottage Grove Avenue line to the 39th Street car barn."
Packed into those years are all manner of revelations. Did you know that Chicago had the biggest cable car system in the world? Were you aware that the cable cars carried more than 1 billion passengers, everyone from architect Daniel Burnham to mass murderer Henry Howard Holmes, the two "stars" of the book "The Devil in the White City"? Have you even a clue about how a cable car works? You will find out in this book, as well as learning how Chicago (not San Francisco) inspired the building of cable car systems in two dozen other cities.
There is crime: "All those nickels attracted the attention of thieves as well," Borzo writes before introducing us to what he calls "Chicago's first celebrity criminals," known as the Car Barn Bandits and called by the city police chief "the most reckless and daring quartet of youthful desperadoes that ever operated in Chicago or vicinity."
There are other characters, none more colorful than Charles Tyson Yerkes, who arrived here from Philadelphia in 1882 and became "Chicago's Cable Czar" as well as the "Goliath of Graft." His legacy, if not his name, remains part of the urban landscape.
Borzo does a terrific job of detailing some remnants of the cable car system. In addition to the Hyde Park waiting room, you can go see, as Borzo writes, "vestiges (that) vary from buildings to the lack of buildings; from track structures hidden underground to cable cars on display at museums; from a simple wisp of a cable car ticket for sale on eBay to an impressive observatory equipped with the largest refracting telescope in the world."
Many of these remnants are captured in the book's lovely photographs by Jonathan Michael Johnson. They include a former cable car storage barn on South Blue Island Avenue and a cable car powerhouse at LaSalle and Illinois Streets (once Michael Jordan's Restaurant, later the LaSalle Power Co., an entertainment complex, and sold in late March to a local real estate investment group).
Borzo's passion for place and places is palpable.
He is a Chicago native, a child of the Northwest Side who left for a while to get a degree in cultural anthropology from Grinnell College in Iowa. He later received a master's in journalism from Northwestern University.
He has lived the writer's life, working or writing for such publications and institutions as Modern Railroads Magazine and The Field Museum. He was one of the authors of "The Windies' City: Chicago's Historical Hidden Treasures," a gathering of some favorite "field trips" of the Chicago History Museum's docents; "The Chicago 'L,'" a history that also features the inimitable Yerkes; and in 2011, "Where to Bike Chicago: Best Biking in City and Suburbs," containing more than 70 rides (27 for kids) across Chicago and the suburbs.
The book, as always with Borzo's work, is peppered with history, offering us this winning nugget: When Carter Harrison II was running for mayor in 1897, his campaign slogan was, "Not a champion cyclist, but the cyclists' champion."
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
Chicago Cable Cars
By Greg Borzo, The History Press, 192 pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, CT Now