Illinois Railway Museum Keeps ‘Iron Horse’ Alive

History, On the Road
on July 13, 2008

The heyday of the “iron horse” is becoming more of a memory every day “except in Union, Ill. (pop. 576), where America’s largest collection of railroad vehicles keeps the glory days of train travel and transportation alive.

More than 400 steam, diesel and electric locomotives, streetcars, trolleys, and passenger and freight cars are on display on 60 acres at the Illinois Railway Museum. Visitors travel back in time as they tour six huge display barns, three restoration shops, an 1851 depot, a restored pre-World War II roadside diner and a demonstration railway constructed of vintage materials.

Founded in 1953 and relocated from Chicago in 1964, the museum also has had its equipment “star” in television commercials and movies, including A League of Their Own, The Untouchables and Groundhog Day.

“We’re trying to recreate the railroading that we remember as kids,” says Bob Heinlein, 70, the museum’s head of weekday operations, riding along with visitors in a swaying streetcar over five miles of restored track. Heinlein, of Schaumburg, Ill., hopped rapid transit cars and streetcars all over Chicago as a teenager and had a grandfather who worked as a steam engine fireman on the Milwaukee Railroad.

The sights, sounds and feel of riding a classic railroad vehicle, often for the first time, can spellbind visitors. “I loved seeing my children’s eyes get as big as saucers when the wind was in their hair and they felt the click-clack of the trolley moving down the tracks,” says Brent
Edwards of Yorkville, Ill. “Their smiles could be seen for miles.”

Visitors also are amazed to discover that the museum is staffed and operated almost entirely by volunteers, with only a handful of paid employees. Two hundred and fifty volunteers, such as Heinlein, some commuting from southwestern Wisconsin and northern Indiana, keep the museum in motion April through October, paid only by the satisfaction of doing something they love. When parts or materials must be purchased, many volunteers become fund-raisers and even dip into their own pockets.

Barbara Lanphier, 68, of Harvard, Ill., the volunteer in charge of publicity, was a rail commuter at age 5, riding the North Shore Line connecting Chicago and Milwaukee to and from grade school. She also volunteers as a curator for the museum’s off-site Strahorn Library for railroading research.

Chicago resident Tom Schneider, 66, a volunteer for 34 years, who took over as head of the museum’s steam department 25 years ago, has loved trains since childhood. “My dad was always interested in steam,” he says, “and we used to go over and look at the engines in the Chicago yards when coming home from church.”

Schneider’s department has some hefty rebuilding projects underway, including removing the out-of-alignment wheels of a World War I-era Frisco locomotive “not an easy task when dealing with a vehicle that weighs 120 tons and relying on volunteer labor.

“In order to drop the wheels out from under the locomotive, we had to put in what we call a drop pit and drop table,” Schneider explains. “We bought the drop table from a junkyard and then we had to rebuild it, which was about a 12-month project when you only work one day a week.”

Roger Smessaert, 64, of McHenry, Ill., began volunteering at the museum in 1965, helping install the facility’s initial vintage track and overhead streetcar wires. Now an engineer behind the controls of one of the museum’s diesel locomotives, he basks in the feel of the throttle, the throb of the engines and the ooh’s and ahh’s of visitors who line up to watch him pass. He grins as his locomotive thunders down the track. “This,” Smessaert says, “is a dream come true for me.”

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