Visitors to the Chicago area can explore more than a century‘s worth of railroad and transportation history at the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) in Union, Ill. Beginning with a single interurban train in 1953, the museum has grown to become one of the finest of its kind.
Dozens of streetcars, trolleys, interurban and city transit trains from the Midwest are among the museum’s 450-piece collection, and rides on many of these vintage machines are offered every Saturday and Sunday during the summer months.
“We run a pretty full schedule on weekends,“ said IRM publicity director Barbara Lanphier. “We have interurban trains from the old Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin and the South Shore lines. We have a very fine collection of CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and Chicago Surface Lines equipment.”
Streetcar buffs can ride the last of the authentic PCC Green Hornet models as well as several other classics from a bygone era.
“Other streetcars are painted green, but this is the real thing,” Lanphier said. “The Green Hornet and other cars from the late 1930s and 1940s were an effort to try and modernize streetcar traffic.” Nearby Kenosha, Wis., currently operates several restored PCC streetcars as part of its transit service.
It’s sometimes said that those in the transportation industry as well as railroad buffs were born with a fervor for such things, and Lanphier counts herself among that group.
“I was a railroad brat,” she admitted. “My dad worked for the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee lines for years. Whenever my husband and I travel, we love to take the streetcars or trains to the end of the line.”
There is a one-mile streetcar loop and a 4.8-mile mainline track that runs from the museum’s 150-acre grounds. In addition to mass transit vehicles, the museum has an assortment of diesel passenger and freight trains, boxcars and even an old working steam engine.
“People come here from all over the world,” Lanphier said. “A German TV program and magazine did a feature on us a few years ago.”
Also, a 15-piece collection of trolley buses includes the last of these machines to operate in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Examples from Dayton, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, are also owned by the IRM. The museum has its own overhead line for these streetcar/bus hybrids (the only demonstration line of its kind in North America), and the trolley buses operate on the first Saturday of each month.
What’s made the IRM especially impressive is how volunteers perform almost all of the work, including renovation and maintenance of rolling stock. While some of the unpaid staff are transit veterans, many of the workers are involved because of their fascination with trains.
“Many of these volunteers have developed a love for the railroads over the years,” Lanphier says. “The general manager of the museum is a schoolteacher. We have engineers and a professional model maker who work here. There is a lot of camaraderie Ñ and some friendly rivalries. There are the diesel people, the steam buffs and others with their interests.”
Not content to maintain the status quo, the museum has several projects and new exhibits planned. A vintage 1930s diner is being restored, and a Blue Goose streetcar from Milwaukee will join the fleet once it is repaired and brought back to life.
For more information, visit the museum’s Website at www.irm.org.
A short drive away, the Fox Valley Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Ill., features a 25-piece collection with a wooden 1902 Chicago Aurora & Elgin electric train that is described as America’s oldest operating interurban.
Several other trolleys and streetcars take visitors for a two-mile ride along the Fox River and through a nearby forest preserve. The fleet includes vehicles from defunct lines such as the Chicago Aurora & Elgin and the Chicago Elevated System, a predecessor of the CTA. Also displayed is a retired 1892 postal car. For more information, call (847) 697-4676 or visit www.foxtrolley.org. Al Doyle