In the shade of a small forest, the loud, rhythmic beat of steam pulsing through Shay’s Lima-built chimney reminded me of the measured breathing of an elite athlete waiting for another game to start.
Suddenly, as if from the starting blocks, inky smoke exploded from the smokestack into the imposing display as the unique side-mounted drive shaft began to work, pulling the 70-ton, metal-shot-hauled locomotive, four cabs at tow. On the platform next to the wooden warehouse where we waited to board.
ILLINOIS RAILROAD MUSEUM
The Illinois Railway Museum was founded in 1953. In 1964, it moved to an empty field east of Union, IL, just 20 miles from the Wisconsin border.
Initially, a mile and a half of right-of-way and a small 26-acre parcel of land were purchased where the depot stands today, and approximately 40 pieces of rolling stock were placed on it.
Today, it is the largest railroad museum in the United States, with approximately 450 pieces of equipment and more than 100 acres of museum-owned land.
Based on the wide-eyed, fascinated enthusiasm of several children we saw running up to the shiny black behemoth for a closer look, it could be said that the Illinois Railway Museum is also the largest rail unit in the nation with a smile. As children of all ages as if they were unloading a Lionel train on Christmas morning.
We had arrived just in time for the museum to open at 10 on a clear, cloudless Saturday. Based on the cars filling up the parking lot quickly, several families had the same idea. By noon, Union Village’s population of 580 had easily doubled, if not more.
After entering the lot on Central Ave. we took a right onto Depot Street and headed towards a series of utility routes where an idling steam engine was being “warmed up” by an old crane with a clamshell bucket. The simple process of building one of these massive mechanical marvels was fascinating.
Nearby are several red-roofed “barns” housing many of the museum’s restored and unique treasures spanning more than a century and a half of railroad history, including an 1859 horse-drawn carriage from an early streetcar of Chicago?
RAILWAY MUSEUM EXHIBITIONS BY TRAIN
The intercom announcing the imminent departure of the first excursion of the day led us to the depot, a building built in 1851 that had been transferred from the village of Marengo to its current location.
The train, which had four colored cars of different vintages, quickly filled up as we boarded a 1946-built dark brown Great Western steel car.
We climbed awkwardly into the bubble, which is like climbing monkey bars on playgrounds. With the whistle of the steam blowing, we set off, accompanied by several children and maybe 1 or 2 squeals of delight from my wives.
The train ride on the museum’s five-mile train tracks takes about 45 minutes, including a quick photo stop.
With the creak of the rails and the occasional whistle, we wound our way through the cornfields and Illinois prairie, feeling the wind in our hair and the occasional burnt ember from the engine smoke making its way. Open windows.
Then we found a picnic table and packed our lunch. The original 1930s roadside Central Diner offers fine dining options on the weekends, but we decided to eat out to watch the red electric trolley make its way along the mile-long platform as it loops around the tents of the museum, allowing customers.
After lunch, we got to know many exhibits. In Barn 3, we hopped into a historic Pullman motor car and saw what luxury travel was like 60 or 70 years ago.
We boarded a refrigerated or “refrigerated” car and learned how the invention of refrigerated rail cars revolutionized American life. We also saw a huge snow blower with a wedge that was being used to clear snow from the track.
Barn 9 is one of the most sought after exhibition buildings. There we found the true giants of the rails: huge steam engines from the golden age of rail travel, including the Chicago Burlington & Quincy 4-6-4 “Hudson” passenger locomotive, whose 7-foot steel wheels towered over the United States.
There were powerful streamlined electric locomotives like the iconic GG1 and IRM’s most famous train, the streamlined stainless steel Nebraska Zephyr.
Moving from shed to shed, we came across the exhibition cars outside Railyard 5, where we found a comprehensive presentation of China’s colorful railway history and what it was like to dine on the railway in its heyday.
At Barn 7, we explored the history of streetcar transportation in America, from the aforementioned horse-drawn carriage to the colorful turquoise and salmon red of the 1940s The North Shore Electroliner.
In addition to many sheds, dozens of salvaged or donated items from that era are stored outside the park, many awaiting possible renovation. There seemed to be several renovation projects going on in the retail areas.
In the afternoon, the iconic words “All Aboard” were uttered as the museum’s St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad (“Frisco”) steam engine pulled into the station, pulling along a line of passenger cars. We boarded a 1914 Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad railcar and settled into a classic passenger train experience.
ALL IN THE BEGINNING
As we drove, we met our train conductor, Bob Neil, one of hundreds of volunteers who maintain and restore the museum’s exciting rail equipment, operate trains, fly flags, and maintain the museum’s tracks and infrastructure.
Referring to some of the old ads that still grace our trainer, he explained that he started it after he retired “to do something” and he loved it. This seemed to be the feeling of all the volunteers we met, many of whom had no previous railway experience.
Bob went on to explain that the motorcycle transporting us this time was a “Russian Decapod”. The 100-ton, 71-foot steam engine was built in 1918 for export to Russia, but was embargoed during the Revolution. Instead, the newly completed engine was sold to Frisco, who used it in both freight and passenger service until the 1950s.
Historic railroad equipment such as the Frisco decapod or the Burlington Zephyr also helped bring authenticity to the fictional world. Both the station and IRM’s trains have appeared in films and television.
Scenes from the movie “A League of Their Own” and the biopic “The Babe” were shot on the property. Most recently, the television program “Chicago Fire” filmed a complex crash scene in the area.
OPERATION OF THE ILLINOIS RAILWAY MUSEUM
In addition to the daily operation and activities, the museum organizes a number of special events in the summer. These include Diesel Days and the Vintage Transport Extravaganza, one of the largest vintage car shows in the state.
The most popular event is always a Day Out with Thomas, where large motorcycle versions of Thomas the Tank and his friends appear in the museum.
As we returned to the station, unexpected, fast-moving storm clouds raced across the horizon and crashed overhead. The cold raindrops exploded into steam as they fell on the hot boiler of the 1630 engine.
The rains abruptly ended our train experience but did not detract from our experience. As we left, I couldn’t help but smile as another steam whistle echoed through the Illinois countryside.