One of my fondest permanent memories from when I was 7 years old was taking a train trip from California to Chicago. I didn’t see a lot of the Illinois plains because it was dark at that part of the journey, but I have now had a chance to recall at least part of that vision on a brief excursion at the Illinois Railway Museum. Riding an historic period electric rail car, whizzing along through the farm fields up to 40 miles an hour with kids excited at the rattling bump of the rails and air flowing through the windows as the engineer finesses the throttle. There’s something about a moving train which completely fascinates a kid, better than any video game.
Railroads in America were once the largest private employer in the country. Everyone lived their lives in the presence of a railroad track through the countryside to get from town to town, or an electric street car to get about the teeming city. And though we turned from iron rails to the concrete path of the automobile, there is still something majestic and magical about the moving machines of railway transportation, whether motored by steam, internal combustion or electricity, which fascinate, young and old. One of the largest operating demonstration showcase museums is located in the farmlands of Illinois about an hour from Chicago.
The Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) began as an attempt by enthusiasts to save one aging city electric tram car, the “high-speed” lightweight electric Car 65, which operated between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City before and during WWII. In 1963, with a growing collection of electric city trams and trains housed in North Chicago, but more and more mainline trains falling out of active service, a decision was made to add steam and diesel machines. The original Illinois Electric Railway Museum name was shortened and enough land to support indoor sheds of equipment and an operating track was sought. After a number of sites were considered, an unused right-of-way of the Elgin & Belvedere Railroad in McHenry County just outside the town of Union, Illinois was chosen. 26 acres of farmland was purchased with the option for more. What began with 1,300 railroad ties and 3,000 feet of track has grown into almost a mile and a half of track in indoor storage facilities and outdoor spurs for a massive collection of engines and rolling stock.
The look of the rail museum is a bit deceptive at first glance, with the thought of where are all the trains coming to mind surveying the open acreage, but the large storage sheds at the museum with rail tracks laid side by side are packed to the gills with equipment, from mighty steam behemoths like the Atchison Topeka & Sante Fe Baldwin 4-8-4 Locomotive 2903 at 121 feet long to the Burlington & Northern GM Diesel Electric freight workhorse of the 1950s and 60s, while the electric street are sheds offer an amazing range of street and interurban cars which once carried commuters around the bustling cities of the Midwest. Perhaps the most distinctive of the collection is the complete gleaming stainless steel train of the Nebraska Zephyr, from streamline engine nose to the rounded end of the club car.
The trains of the Illinois Railway Museum have made appearances in many movies and TV commercials, curiously seeming to mainly carry baseball players. Penny Marshall used the trains and much of the museum for significant scenes in “A League of Their Own” with Tom Hanks and Madonna, and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in the 1991 biography film “The Babe” and most recently in the blockbuster sequel, "Transformers: Age of Extiction" as a hideout from autobots and government black helicopters. Future films may take advantage of the new restaurant on the grounds, a1930s style streamline diner.
But the Illinois Railway museum is more than machines and rail cars
in barns; it is intended as a museum in motion. The operating demonstration
railroad of the IRM is formed by two divisions, both departing from the
former historic rail station depot which once served the town of East
Union. A 5-mile long mainline track parallels the through line right-of-way
track of the Amtrak route, and a mile long street car loop which wraps
around the museum. The ticket depot features a collection of railroading
memorabilia and an authentic waiting room. The museum store, housed within
standing historic rail cars offers a collection of railroading logo merchandise
for rail enthusiast.
The busiest time of the season at the IRM is when Thomas the Tank comes to call. The famous kids’ show steam engine character makes the rounds of heritage railroad sites, tacked to the end of an operating train, with play and exploration events for children to discover railroading. Other major weekends feature special runs of some of the larger trains of the collection and street car trolly theme days. In September of 2013, a special rare run of the Nebraska Zephyr will make the journey from Chicago to Quincy, Illinois.
Visiting the Illinois Railway Museum
Museum hours for weekend operations are 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM with grounds open from 9 to 6. On weekdays trains operate from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM, with grounds open 10 to 5. Fares for riding the trains are weekends May to September $14 Adults, $10 Children, $50 max for a Family Ticket. Weekdays and Weekends in April and October, $10 Adults, $7 Children, $38 family ticket. A variety of events and theme weekends are scheduled throughout the season. The museum is located at 7000 Olson Road, Union, Illinois, off US Highway 20 and Illinois Route 123, about halfway between Rockford and Elgin. © Bargain Travel West
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