Home » I Saw Some Incredible Train History At America’s Largest Railroad Museum. Here Are The Coolest Trains That Stopped Me In My Tracks

I Saw Some Incredible Train History At America’s Largest Railroad Museum. Here Are The Coolest Trains That Stopped Me In My Tracks


During the weekend, the future wife and I drove away from our compound of car parts and little birds and into Illinois’ seemingly endless farmland. Nestled between the open plains and countless farms is the Illinois Railway Museum. This place isn’t just where you’ll find trains from just about every point in history, but it’s touted as the largest of its kind. The number of trains simply boggles the mind, and many of them are still operational, even a century after they were built. Here are some of the coolest trains I saw.

Like with my posts about the humongous EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in, I’m going to highlight specific trains in future posts. This one is largely about what you’ll experience out there.

The story of the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) is similar to that of any person who ends up with a massive collection. It was started in 1953 by ten men who all threw in $100 each to purchase Indiana Railroad car number 65. This interurban car (an electric railcar that runs between towns or cities) was retired from service and its final destination was looking to be the scrapper. But the men couldn’t let that happen, and they saved Car 65. The Illinois Electric Railway Museum was born, with its stakes planted at the former site of the Chicago Hardware Foundry in North Chicago, Illinois.


As the museum grew, it also expanded from just electric trains to steam and more. In 1962, “Electric” was dropped from the museum’s name to reflect this. And in 1964, IRM had 40 pieces of equipment with dwindling space for more. IRM found out that the old foundry wasn’t going to cut it, and it sought to find more room to grow.

IRM chose a plot of land outside of Union, Illinois for its new home. The small, almost middle-of-nowhere town had one thing that IRM wanted: an abandoned right-of-way that could be purchased for the price of back taxes.

That right-of-way used to belong to the Elgin & Belvidere Electric Railway. Opening in 1907, the E&B offered interurban service between Elgin and Belvidere. This railway–which IRM says is notable for creating the world’s first automated electrical substation–didn’t survive the rise of the car and the crush of the Great Depression. It folded in 1930, with its track and cars getting destroyed. IRM initially purchased a mile and a half of right-of-way and a 26-acre plot for its museum.

Today, IRM owns nearly five miles of the old E&B right-of-way and 100 acres of land. On IRM’s grounds sit about four miles of trackage, which allows most of its roughly 450 pieces of train and transit history to sit in giant warehouses, safe from Illinois’ rough winters. Oh, and that right-of-way? IRM has tracks on it and runs many trains of all types down it.

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Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee 749 and 251 – Mercedes Streeter

When Sheryl and I arrived on Sunday, IRM was running only four trains. Two were steam trains and two were running on electric power. On other days, you can catch the museum running newer and older diesel-electric trains, vintage car shows alongside the trains, and even explore the museum’s expanding collection of transit bus history. And depending on when you visit, you may even get the opportunity to take the engineer’s position and actually take the throttle of some train history.

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Mercedes Streeter

Our adventure started at what used to be a real Chicago station. The 50th Avenue Rapid Transit Station was built in 1910 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Company.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

The station was in operation until January 1978 when the Chicago Transit Authority consolidated this station and the Cicero station into one. Then, amazingly, in that same month IRM’s volunteers went out to the site and began the process of moving the whole station to the museum in Union. That process took until mid-February 1978.

This is not a replica of that station, but the real deal. IRM only restored it to what it looked like in the 1920s.

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Mercedes Streeter

Parked at the station was an old CTA train and two diesels, including this Chicago Burlington & Quincy EMD SW7 switcher locomotive. It was built in 1950 by the Electro Motive Division of General Motors and is powered by a 12-cylinder roots-blown diesel making 1,200 HP. This little guy is meant for moving cars around rail yards.

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Mercedes Streeter

Like many of the trains that you’re about to see, it’s in operational condition!

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Mercedes Streeter

On the other side of the platform is CTA 2243 and 2244, a married pair of 2200-series Chicago “L” cars built by Budd Company in 1969. IRM says that these two cars ran on what CTA calls the Blue Line today, taking passengers to and from O’Hare International Airport and running at speeds up to 55 mph. CTA retired them from duty in 2013 and IRM scooped them up.

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Mercedes Streeter

We were already impressed. I mean, these people love trains so much that they moved an entire CTA station out into the middle of nowhere. But that’s just scratching the surface. When Sheryl and I walked into one of the museum’s many barns we were blown away.

Immediately upon walking through the door of one barn, you see a stainless steel diesel beauty shining under the lights.

Nebraska Zephyr Rs
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Mercedes Streeter

 For this, I’ll let IRM explain what you’re looking at:

The Nebraska Zephyr is the most famous train at the Illinois Railway Museum. It is an articulated streamlined train built entirely of stainless steel. The train is known as the “Train of the Goddesses” because each of its five cars is named for a classical deity. It is the only complete Zephyr train from the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad in operation today.

The Nebraska Zephyr was constructed by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in 1936. Originally it was used between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul and was one of two identical train sets known as the Twin Zephyrs. In 1947 the Twin Zephyrs were replaced on the Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul route with more modern equipment. At that time, our train set was put into service between Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska and renamed the Nebraska Zephyr. The train is articulated, meaning that adjoining cars share the same truck and are therefore semi-permanently joined. Our train was built with six cars; had a seventh car added shortly after construction; and then had two cars removed from its consist in the mid-1960s.

When it was built, the Nebraska Zephyr was pulled by a two-unit set of “shovel nose” diesels. In later years it was commonly hauled by stainless steel E5 passenger diesels, and today the train is still hauled by the last surviving E5, CB&Q 9911A “Silver Pilot.” The train set itself consists of the following five cars:

960 “Venus” – power car and coach

4626 “Vesta” – coach

4627 “Minerva” – coach

150 “Ceres” – diner

225 “Juno” – observation-lounge

In that same barn is something absolutely massive. And this usage of that word isn’t an exaggeration.

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Mercedes Streeter

What you’re looking at here is the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway 2903. It’s a 1943 Baldwin Locomotive Works Northern steam locomotive. It’s over 121 feet-long and weighs in at 975,000 pounds while in operation. This beast has four leading wheels, eight driving wheels, and four trailing wheels (otherwise known as a 4-8-4). It has a tractive effort of 66,000 pounds and has a top speed of 100 mph. IRM says that it ran mixed passenger and freight use for about 15 years before its retirement. Then it went on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry for three decades. It doesn’t run, but it remains the largest steam locomotive in Illinois.

For comparison, a Union Pacific Big Boy is 132 feet-long and weighs 1.2 million pounds with a 4-8-8-4 classification. Still, everything about this locomotive is just colossal. I’ll use Sheryl (a 5-foot, 8-inch human) for scale.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

Now, you’ve probably noticed how I said that giant Baldwin is merely the largest steam locomotive in Illinois. Well, that’s because IRM has an even larger train on hand, so long as you’re counting by length, anyway. IRM has one of the only two remaining Union Pacific gas turbine-electric locomotives (GTEL) left in existence. 

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Mercedes Streeter

This train is so cool that it’s getting its own post, but you’re still getting a brief summary. Remember the UAC TurboTrain?

Well, that wasn’t the only experiment into using turbines to power trains. Union Pacific was so dedicated to the idea that it built 55 turbine-powered locomotives. The final 30 of them were rated at 8,500 horsepower, weighed about 850,000 pounds, and the turbine roar was so loud that they earned the nickname “Big Blows.” And UP claimed that under certain conditions, they could even hit 10,000 horsepower. Here’s IRM’s short explanation:

Early diesels had relatively low power (800-2000 hp). Beginning in 1948, the Union Pacific and GE developed alternatives for heavy freight. The resulting 55 units replaced the usual diesel prime mover with an aircraft gas turbine.

The last thirty turbines (UP 1-30) were the largest (166 ft) and most powerful internal combustion locomotives ever built, but were not fuel-efficient. The lead unit contained a cab, controls, and an 850 hp diesel to start the turbine and for low-speed movement. In the second unit, the turbine drove two main generators to supply electricity for twelve traction motors. The tender (from a retired steamer) held thick “bunker C” fuel oil for the turbine. All turbines were retired by 1969, as new diesels were developed and fuel costs rose.

And that tender? It held 24,000 gallons of that bunker fuel oil.

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Mercedes Streeter

Union Pacific says that it never donated these to any museums, but that didn’t stop two of them from getting saved. Unfortunately, these don’t run.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Illinois Railway Museum has more than just awesome trains. Located on the east end of the property is a bus barn. The bus barn closed right before we were able to explore the place, but I was able to get the camera in there to take a peek.

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Mercedes Streeter

IRM has a bus day on its upcoming events calendar and you bet that I’ll be there. I just have to solve an annoying check engine light issue with my RTS. Still, I was able to see a couple of pieces of bus history.

Check out this 1979 GM RTS-03. 

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Mercedes Streeter

This bus is an earlier generation of my 2002 Nova Bus RTS-06. It’s a TW-7603 that was used by the transit system in Janesville, Wisconsin until 2002. IRM has owned it ever since and yes, it does drive!

The letter soup of TW-7603 means that it’s a 35-foot, 96-inch-wide transit model with Detroit Diesel 6V-71N 7.0-liter V6 diesel power. Much like how I’m keeping my own RTS, IRM is keeping this bus as it was received. 

IRM even has a Southern California Rapid Transit District Flxible Metro. This bus isn’t listed on the website, but I can tell you that it has a 10.0-liter Cummins L10 six-cylinder diesel.

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Mercedes Streeter

The best way that I can describe this place is that it’s basically a city celebrating all things transit. Sheryl and I got to take a ride in a few trains on the property, too. It was a completely different experience getting to ride aboard a century-old steam train and inside of an old retired caboose.

And amazingly, both experiences were free. You’ll hear about those in a future post!

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Mercedes Streeter

You’re going to need to visit this place more than once to take in everything. Some of the barns were closed and as I said before, just a limited selection of trains were running. But unlike an airshow, IRM runs most of the year. Tickets are also just $16 for adults so it won’t break the bank to go.

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Mercedes Streeter

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this operation is that it’s a non-profit organization owned and run entirely by volunteers. Money comes from donations and funds from tickets and merch. Volunteers do everything from restore the trains to operate them. These people are there because they love trains and buses as much as the people who visit the place. The museum notes that most of the volunteers aren’t even professional railroaders, but all kinds of people who can lend a hand.

And of course, this place is very kid-friendly. While the property is very much a free-roaming environment, all over you can find placards and boards with well-written educational pieces about how trains work, why certain designs are no longer around, and more history than you can take in all at once.

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

If you (or your kids) are even vaguely interested in trains, stop by the little town of Union, Illinois and give the Illinois Railway Museum a visit. I can almost guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face while also learning something new. I certainly did.


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47 Responses

  1. Do they have actual electrified track? Back in the 90s we rode the line from Lake Oswego Oregon which used a generator car to power their double decker tram.
    We have also visited one of the tinier museums. Train Mountain is one of the world’s largest 8″ gauge miniature railroads plus they have a few full size cars on display

    1. I’ve been three times. I don’t believe they have electricified track. The safety issues are obvious since you can wander around the entire property. They do have overhead electric pantograph lines to run the streetcars and trolley buses.

      It’s an amazing place. Just be sure to check out their famously complicated calendar when planning your visit because the running stock changes from day to day and is pretty light on most weekdays.

      One of my highlights was from my first visit with my wife and 1-year-old son. We had been there for a couple of hours and he was getting pretty burned out. We climbed on one of that day’s operating trains, found an empty first class sleeper cabin, and had a lovely family nap as we rolled through the Illinois countryside.

  2. I also find the fact that the Illinois *Rail* Museum is preserving busses somewhat ironic, considering they’re also preserving trolleys and interurbans. Remember it was bus manufacturers that encouraged many cities and towns (through legitimate and illegitimate means) to rip out their trolley and interurban tracks and convert to rubber tire busses…

  3. I’ve been there a few times, there is SO much to look at and do. And that City of Janesville bus, that’s where I’m at, I remember seeing them and the transition to the new buses. One of which happens to be right behind the old one, with the white and green coloring. I wonder why that’s down there too?

  4. Super excited to see an EMD-powered locomotive included here! I work for a company that provides sales and service for stationary EMD generator sets; I’m always interested in seeing these engines in other applications.

  5. Mercedes, you would absolutely LOVE the National Museum of Transportation down in St. Louis. They have a UP Big Boy, a GM Aerotrain in Rock Island livery, and at least a couple bits of CB&Q Zephyr stock, although I don’t think they have a full train like these guys do.

    They also have cars and planes, too – including a Chrysler Turbine Car from the 1960s.

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