Home » I Caught A Cold Visiting America’s Largest Train Museum. Here’s Why It Was Totally Worth It

I Caught A Cold Visiting America’s Largest Train Museum. Here’s Why It Was Totally Worth It


This week has been rough on my high-mileage immune system. During the weekend, I stood outside in freezing temperatures and snowfall at the reopening of America’s largest train museum, and it seems I also came into contact with a virus. But it was totally worth it because I got to see and ride some awesome historic trains here in Illinois.

Last weekend marked the reopening of one of my favorite museums in America. The Illinois Railway Museum temporarily closed its gates at the end of December, and save for just a single weekend in January, its more than 450 pieces of train and transit history have to wait for spring to bring joy to visitors once again. This year marks an important milestone for the museum, as it’s been 70 years since ten men threw in $100 each to purchase Indiana Railroad car number 65. What originally started as a group of rail fans saving a piece of transit history from the scrapper grew into America’s largest train museum. And this isn’t just a place where trains sit and never move again, as the volunteer-run museum actually keeps a bunch of equipment operational.

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Celebrating Midwest Transit History

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IRM kicked off its celebrations of 70 years of operation last weekend. On Saturday, the museum commemorated 60 years since a major interurban operation was abandoned. Here’s what I’m talking about, from IRM:

On January 21st, festivities will kick off when IRM will commemorate 60 years since the abandonment of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, an electric interurban which ran between its namesake cities from 1908 until a frigid cold January 21st, 1963. The “North Shore Line”, as it was known, offered fast hourly trains from the Loop in downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee, as well as intensive commuter service through the North Shore suburbs to Mundelein and Waukegan. The railroad prided itself on its personal service, and even offered parlor and dining services on many trains. It was the home of the famed Electroliners, a pair of electric articulated streamlined trains bought by the railroad in 1941. The railroad had a charm about it which attracted many railfans, who mourned its passing in 1963.

Today the North Shore Line is fondly remembered as one of the premier interurban operations in the United States.

My wife Sheryl and I missed the North Shore Line Day event, but we were able to visit the next day for Cabin Fever Day. IRM figured that since its volunteers did all of the work pulling its rail equipment out of hibernation for the North Shore Line Day, they might as well pull out some other favorites and perhaps a surprise or two. The forecast called for 32-degree temperatures and snowfall throughout the whole event. It wasn’t looking ideal, but IRM promised beautiful diesel power and I couldn’t resist.


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Upon arrival at IRM, I noticed that the Electroliner was parked at the 50th Avenue Rapid Transit Station. I’ve said it before, but it’s so cool that I’ll say it again, this is a real transit station that was originally built in 1910 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company. IRM’s volunteers hauled the thing from its original spot near Chicago to the museum.

The Electroliner

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As the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transit Historical Society writes, in 1938 the North Shore Line was in trouble. Ridership saw its first decline in 1927. Then in 1931, the Line took a dive. Revenues plummeted and despite salary cuts and suspended dividends, the North Shore Line ended the year with a loss. The losses deepened the next year and the Line found itself unable to pay its bills. Yet, the North Shore Line pulled its way through the Great Depression as other lines, like so many businesses, faltered.

Interurban trains–streetcar-like self-propelled units that raced between towns and cities–were threatened by the rise of the car. As Bloomberg reports, the interurban peaked in 1916, when there were 15,580 miles of interurban lines in the United States. The interurban had only been around for a few decades by this time, and as the car became more popular, interurban lines lost ridership.


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In 1938, a 51-day labor strike further drove a spoke into the North Shore Line and shutting down the system was in consideration. However, passenger traffic was recovering and the North Shore Line decided to improve its line with new equipment. In 1941, the North Shore put streamliners from the St. Louis Car Company into service. As railroad history site American-Rails writes, the Electroliners weren’t just the North Shore Line’s way of retaining ridership, but perhaps one of the last gasps of the interurban’s battle to keep people on rails as the car grew into further popularity. I’ll let IRM take it from here:

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The Electroliner is the most modern electric interurban train in existence. Designed and constructed by the St. Louis Car Company in 1941, the Electroliner was a high-speed, streamlined, articulated train designed for service between Chicago and Milwaukee over the North Shore Line interurban route. It was built to navigate the congested city streets of Milwaukee, the high-speed private right-of-way of the Skokie Valley Route, and the narrow confines of the Chicago elevated. The train was made up of four cars, with three coaches and a dining-lounge car that famously served drinks, snacks, and “Electroburgers” to riders. Only two Electroliner trains were built and both remained in service until the North Shore Line was abandoned in 1963. They were then sold to the Red Arrow line between Philadelphia and Norristown, Pennsylvania, where they were renamed Liberty Liners and ran for another 15 years.

IRM’s Electroliner is the only one of the two preserved in original condition. If you’re lucky, you might even see it moving.

The Nebraska Zephyr Plays In The Snow

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One of the other trains operating on Sunday was the Nebraska Zephyr. This train is a streamliner that was operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, otherwise known as just “Burlington.” Originally built in 1936, it’s the only one of its kind still in operation today. It was built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia and joined a sister train to become trainsets known as the Twin Zephyrs. The Illinois Railway Museum calls this its most popular train, and it’s one of the few units that actually leaves IRM’s property and mainline from time to time.

On Sunday, it was running without its CB&Q 9911A ‘Silver Pilot’ GM Electro-Motive Division (EMD) E5 locomotive. In its place, the EMD Burlington Northern BN-3 ran the consist.

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Don’t worry, the Silver Pilot remains in great shape. I’m told that the locomotive is in winter storage, while BN-3 is still in operation as it pulled the museum’s holiday trains in December. A 1956 EMD E9AM, this locomotive comes with two EMD 12-645CE 127.2-liter V12 prime movers making a total of 2,400 HP. This locomotive has a starting tractive effort of 56,500 pounds with 31,000 pounds continuous. Here’s what it looks like with the Silver Pilot:


IRM’s volunteers tell me that this was the first time that the Nebraska Zephyr has been out in snowy winter weather in over two decades. Riding the old Zephyr in the winter was just as fun as it was in the summer. In fact, it was actually better because the train wasn’t sizzling inside from the hot summer sun. Sheryl and I found the short snowy trip in the stainless steel wonder to be romantic.

Vintage Commuter Rail

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The Nebraska Zephyr was joined by the Chicago & North Western 411, which was pulling 1955 C&NW bi-level gallery cars and C&NW 151, a 1959 bi-level coach and cab car.

As their name suggests, these bi-level coaches have two levels. They’re notable for the upper level having a gap in the middle, or gallery. This enabled conductors to collect fares with ease.

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C&NW 411 is a 1949 EMD F7A. Its prime mover is an EMD 16-567BC, a 148.8-liter V16 making 1,500 HP. This locomotive has a starting tractive effort of 56,500 pounds with 40,000 pounds continuous. It used to be Metra 305 before it was repainted as C&NW 411. Riding this train felt a lot like riding any of Metra’s trains today, and IRM says that such is no coincidence.

While these coaches were some of the first to be used by C&NW, you can find their successors still in use today with commuter rail systems all over America.

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The last train was one of the museum’s latest acquisitions.

A Piece Of Chicagoland History

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This is Chicago & North Western 7009, an EMD SD50 that was built in Chicagoland. What’s really cool about this one is that it’s in original condition. It has never been restored or even upgraded in its previous life. Everything, including the paint, dates back to when it was acquired in November 1985.

Here’s IRM’s statement about the locomotive.

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Built in November of 1985, 7009 was one of 35 SD50s (numbered 7000-7034) acquired by C&NW as part of a fleet modernization. Initially assigned to haul coal out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the SD50s later migrated to iron ore service in Upper Michigan and general freight service. After the original lease agreement expired, C&NW successor Union Pacific released all 35 units, whereupon they were sold to NRE for continued use in short-term lease service. 7009 was last known to have run in common-carrier service in 2006 and has since been stored, most recently at NRE’s facility in Silvis, IL.

“(The) 7009 is a very significant acquisition for us,” IRM’s Curator of Diesel Locomotives Jamie Kolanowski commented. “Not only is it representative of one of Chicago’s legendary railroads and built by Electro-Motive right here in Chicagoland, it is also in remarkably original condition, not having been rebuilt with aftermarket upgrades. It even still wears its original C&NW paint applied at the factory. Its historic fabric is extremely complete.”

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IRM got it in November and got it running just in time for this Cabin Fever Day event. The museum plans on restoring it back to what it looked like back in 1985, but for now, it’s enjoying a refreshed life pulling simulated freight down IRM’s demonstration railroad. For Cabin Fever Day, it was pulling a Milwaukee Road Dynamometer X-5000 and a caboose.


The caboose was warm inside thanks to a wood-burning stove. Sheryl hid inside the car, which smelled like a nice campfire. I had a different, and perhaps much dumber idea:

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I had the unique opportunity to ride this train from the outside of the caboose, and this was something that was out of this world.

I’ve ridden in one of IRM’s parlor coaches before but being on the outside is something completely different. Being a freight car, the caboose was rougher, but standing there on that platform and watching rural Illinois roll by was unforgettable. Then when the train reached the end of the line and reversed, I got a front-row platform to icy wind and the action ahead of the train. Riding this caboose in reverse was even cooler, If it weren’t so cold, I’d say that you could pitch a chair and just sit back and relax as rural Illinois rolled by.

Perhaps even better was the soundtrack.


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The SD50’s prime mover is an EMD 16-645F3B 211.4-liter V16 making 3,500 HP with a starting tractive effort of 92,000 pounds and 82,100 pounds continuous. Standing outside as this locomotive runs up? You can feel the engine rumbling in your feet and your heart. Every time the locomotive accelerated down IRM’s line, the rumble of that EMD prime mover let out greater thunder than any car’s custom sound system could.

This SD50 isn’t nearly as pretty as IRM’s older diesels or, in Sheryl’s opinion, nothing like the steamers. However, it’s a beautiful example of something that helped keep America running.

I spent much of Cabin Fever Day outside, getting wet and cold in the snow. My hard coughs today suggest that might have been a mistake, but the smile on my face as I recall this day and write this post tell me that it was totally worth it.

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IRM has closed down again until March 25, so this was essentially a shot in the arm of awesome trains before I have to wait two more months to experience it again. If you’re ever in northeastern Illinois, give IRM a visit. Tickets are $14 to $18 for adults and are cheaper for youth. We aren’t sponsored by IRM, I just love the place so much that I keep paying to come back!


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1 year ago

It’s easy to forget that the EMD diesel lines my company works with originated in train service. I love seeing examples like these!

John Gallup
John Gallup
1 year ago

Thank you for this post. I grew up in Chicago and remember the Electroliners in their last days, both on the El downtown and crossing through the northwest suburbs. I also waited at many a grade crossing for the Burlington Zephyrs to go through Hinsdale, sometimes pulled by slope-nosed E5s like the one in the picture. I was so curious about it that I wrote to EMD in nearby La Grange asking what it was, and some kindly engineer or PR person sent me a blueprint with a side view drawing of the locomotive! Wish I still had it, but then again it might have faded to illegibility after all these years.

1 year ago

I am barely old enough to remember the final days of commercial passenger service by the major railroads. Rode the Missouri Pacific from Union Nebraska to St. Louis Mo. quite few times in the sixties. The trains and the train stations left quite an impression on my young brain. The sights and sounds (and smells!) of the passenger station was pretty amazing.

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