– By Tom Schaffner
The Railway Capital of the US
Because of its strategic location in the center of the country — halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and smack in the middle of America’s manufacturing and agricultural belts — Chicago has always been the undisputed railway capital of the United States. Even today, more trains arrive in or depart from Chicago on a daily basis than anywhere else in the country (and likely the world).
Throughout history, Chicago and railroads have had a symbiotic relationship — both have helped each other grow into strong and viable entities. Chicago contributed to the success of railroads by supporting their growth and development with flexibility and by providing a proactive regulatory environment; the railroads helped Chicago grow by moving billions of tons freight into and out of the city on a regular basis and by making the city a key hub in their network of passenger trains.
Additionally, Chicago made trains the centerpiece of its own public transportation system. Beginning with the city’s first elevated railway in 1892 — the “Alley L” (the southern portion of today’s Green Line) — the city has made trains the primary conveyance for moving from neighborhood to neighborhood or one side of town to the other.
Top Train Museums
As the railway capital of the U.S., Chicago is fortunate to be located within a few hours’ drive of several of the nation’s best train museums:
- Fox River Trolley Museum (South Elgin, IL) — The museum maintains a collection of 30 antique electric trolleys, railroad cars and locomotives and is focused on railways and transit lines of the Chicago area. One of the museum’s prized pieces of equipment is the wooden interurban car #20 from the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad. Constructed in 1902, car #20 is the oldest interurban car operating in the United States.
- Illinois Railway Museum (Union, Il) — Located about 60 miles northwest of the city, the Illinois Railway Museum is the largest railway museum in the world. Founded in 1953, the museum has in its collection 450 pieces of historic equipment, including steam engines, diesels, streetcars, interurbans and passenger and freight cars, many of which can be ridden on tracks that run throughout the site. For fans of Chicago’s elevated transit system, a visit to Barn 8 is a must — it contains every type of L car that has run on the system since 1898.
- Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, IL) — Though technically not a railway museum, the Museum of Science and Industry contains several historic locomotives, the opportunity to tour the Burlington Route’s 1934 Pioneer Zephyr, which was America’s first diesel-electric stainless steel Streamliner, and the world’s largest model train exhibit, “The Great Train Story,” which presents 2,200 miles of scenery and stories as a model train emulates the trip from Chicago to Seattle along 1,400 feet of track.
- A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum (Chicago, IL) — There are no locomotives or passenger cars to examine or explore but that doesn’t make this museum any less important in the history of train travel in the U.S. This museum, housed in Pullman National Historic Landmark District, contains a collection of artifacts and documents related to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and celebrates the organization’s role in the U.S. labor movement. The porters, most of which were African American, were employed by the manufacturer of the cars, George Pullman, and his Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company.
- Mid-Continent Railway Museum (North Freedom, WI) — Located about a four-hour drive northwest of Chicago, the Mid-Continent Railway Museum has 13 steam locomotives and 7 diesel engines, including #1325 from the Chicago and North Western Railroad. The museum also has the largest collection of wooden passenger cars in the United States, has six of only seven surviving wooden boxcars built by Mather Stock Car Company and has in its collection the nation’s last surviving fish car.
- Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum (North Judson, IN) — Halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis is the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum, which is located near the junction of four historic railroad lines — the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Pennsylvania, the New York Central and the Erie. Founded in 1988, the museum has more than 30 pieces of rolling stock in its collection, including freight cars, cabooses, diesel switch engines and an Orton locomotive crane. The museum itself is housed in a station formerly owned by the Erie Railroad.
- National New York Central Railroad Museum (Elkhart, IN) — The National New York Central Museum is dedicated to the preservation of the New York Central and includes several outdoor equipment displays, indoor model railroads, artifacts from the railroad and other exhibits pertaining to the history of railroading. The museum consists of a modified New York Central Twentieth Century Limited train and a freight house built by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway in 1907.
- New Buffalo Railroad Museum (New Buffalo, MI) — Located on the grounds of what was once the largest train yard in Southwest Michigan, the New Buffalo Railroad Museum is home to exhibits and collections recalling New Buffalo’s proud heritage as a railroad hub for both the Pere Marquette and Chesapeake & Ohio. The rail line behind the Museum still carries CSX freight trains through the stanchions of one of the original coal towers. Visitors can stroll through a box car and ap Pullman Sleeper Car for military troops.
- Monticello Railway Museum (Monticello, IL) — About 18 miles west of Champaign, the Monticello Railway Museum is home to over 100 pieces of railroad equipment, including several restored diesel locomotives and cars. Founded in 1966, the organization’s original goal was to encourage the Chicago Burling and Quincy Railroad to continue operating steam excursions for rail enthusiasts. When that effort failed, curators of the organization decided to operate their own steam excursions and, shortly, thereafter, a museum was born.
If you’re interested in visiting other museums in the city, many of our Chicago tours visit museums that cover all sorts of topics — from Chinese history to American economics. Learn more about L Stop Tours today!
Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, as well as the co-owner of L Stop Tours.