Just as Detroit is known for its automobile industry, Chicago has a rich railroading past and is still known the world over for our passenger and freight trains.
It is only fitting that these two unique forms of transportation come together each year at America's largest railroad museum, located northwest of Chicago in Union. At the Illinois Railway Museum in McHenry County, you'll find more than 150 acres of vintage rail memorabilia and four and half miles of working train track.
No other event immerses spectators in living mechanized history quite like the museum's Vintage Transport Extravaganza, an annual car/train show that takes place the first Sunday in August. During that special summer day, classic and collector cars fill the grassy knolls and winding roads around the property, set against a backdrop of massive steam, diesel and electric train behemoths.
David Diamond serves as the general manager for the museum and helps oversee the show. "It is transportation encompassing transportation. Everything displayed here was here together at a place in time, but can never be unified again quite like this."
The event is now in its 22nd year and draws more than 400 cars and scores of spectators who enjoy reliving street scenes of days gone by. Vintage busses are parked along the mock city boulevards, complete with streetlights and park benches, while working streetcars jingle by. Numerous train depots can be found while a roadside art-deco diner takes attendees back to the magical time of soda fountains and jukeboxes.
The grounds serve as a backdrop in a much larger strategy to immerse guests in history. "Many more buildings are in the works, the next being an old-time gas station," Diamond says.
These ambitious plans are the culmination of several decades of hard work since the museum's establishment in 1953.
"It started in North Chicago with one 1930 interurban electric car that 10 enthusiasts wanted to preserve," Diamond said. "In 1964 this piece of land was bought from the long abandoned Elgin and Belvidere Railroad and the museum had the room to expand."
That initial single car has now grown into a collection of 400 pieces of railroad equipment, ranging from an 1859 horse-drawn streetcar to the stainless steel Nebraska Zephyr articulated train, and everything in between.
"We have a lot of lost technology on display here from days gone by. Its truly a sight for anyone to see," Diamond said.
The museum's extensive displays are impressive on their own, but when combined with the show's gleaming rows of classic yesteryear automobiles, it makes the event a perfect escape from our modern and often overly complicated world.
For more information about the museum, visit online at irm.org.