Illinois Railway Museum keeps 100-year-old Chicago transit trains running


This train, Chicago Aurora and Elgin 409 & 431, ran on the interurban line from Chicago to Wheaton, with splits to Elgin and Aurora (thus the name). You can see its extensive route map. Many of the suburbs it traveled to and through now have Metra service and other parts became the Illinois Prairie Path. 

Every year at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois, volunteers bring out the working condition trains that used to operate on Chicago or Chicagoland tracks: ‘L’ trains, interurbans, and streetcars. This past weekend was “Chicago Day” at IRM. My friend and I rented a Zipcar and drove there, 54 miles from my house in Avondale. According to the article on Wikipedia about IRM, it’s the largest railroad museum in North America.

The museum is a not-for-profit education corporation run completely by volunteers. It’s funded by memberships, donations (both monetary and services, like train car transporting), grants (including from the State of Illinois), entry ticket sales, and sales in the gift shop and of vintage paraphernalia. 

We rode only electric trains on this visit (my fifth time), all of which had operated in the city limits of Chicago in the 1900s. Here’s a list of trains we rode:


One of the most interesting parts of the trains are that their original advertisements are intact: it’s a great look at the past, where you can understand sentiments at the time about public health, military, politics, and other social norms. For example this photo of an advertisement advising people to “not press their luck” and get vaccinated against polio would be lost on anyone born in the era where only 650 cases are reported around the world in 2011 (and all in Africa or Southeast Asia).


We also visited the bus barn, which held buses used by Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority. Not all of them worked. One bus couldn’t go in reverse but needed an oil change. So a worker used a CTA bus to tow the Pace bus.


The museum has trains from before Metra was created in 1984, when commuter trains were privately operated by the railroads. Currently, many of the routes are operated by the railroads, but under the direction of Metra, a quasi-governmental transit agency.


This sign on the side of a bus says, “Ride transit and save”. The same is still true today. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says that Chicagoans who give up a car and take transit to work will save $975 per month.


The museum even has a transplanted train station that served passengers in Cicero on 50th Avenue.

See the full photoset on Flickr. It’s possible to bike to the museum, by taking your bicycle on the Metra UP-Northwest Line from Northwestern Station to Woodstock station in Woodstock, about 10 miles away.

14 thoughts on “Illinois Railway Museum keeps 100-year-old Chicago transit trains running”

    1. They should be there in some capacity. They rotate which trains you can actually take trains there. And if you don’t have a car you can take your bike on Metra and ride 11 miles from Woodstock.

      1. I’ve updated the post to say that one can reasonably bike to the museum. I don’t remember seeing bike parking, though, so you’ll have to lock to the chain link fence around the car parking lot.
        Even if trains aren’t running, they are in the barns, but not always available to walk through.

        1. Woodstock station is in Woodstock, Illinois. Also, if you live on the north side I find it easier to get on at a neighborhood station such as Jefferson Park (also Clybourn and Irving Park).

    2. Great question. I found an operating schedule on IRM’s website. (the page title says 2011, but the rest of the page is about 2012)

      Sundays: April 1 – October 28
      Saturdays: May 5 – October 27
      Weekdays: Memorial Day – Labor Day
      Electric Cars run hourly or as required.

      Try going on July 7 for the trolley pageant. Avoid “Days out with Thomas” (the tank engine).

  1. We spent P’s birthday here a couple of years ago and had to leave within 30 minutes because there was a civil war reenactment going on and cannons and riffles were firing every minute. She’s still shell shocked and refuses to return. Seemed like a cool place, it’s a shame that they were banging the war drum that day.

      1. gag me with a spoon. i can’t imagine a kid who doesn’t watch tv will give too many shits about an anthropomorphic engine.

  2. Great post – and awesome photos. I just recently visited the Illinois Railway Museum as well, and had a great time! It is really well-done, and the staff/volunteers are fantastic! Highly recommend to anyone, especially those with kids or train lovers in the family.

  3. America! Glorious past! What of the future? no bullet trains yet? Laurels are nice to rest upon. China has Electric bullet trains for its peons? Oil free? cheap fast, efficient, public transportation? Capitalism did not bring this to the American peon first? Why not?

    1. There’s little money to be made on trains when government is still giving away its most vicious competitor: roads (and to som extent, little-taxed gas).
      To make a market for trains, the government must stop providing the least efficient mode of transportation for free.

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