Monument to innovation: Can preservationists save 121-year-old railroad depot in West Chicago?

The Illinois Prairie Path in West Chicago runs near a weathered brick building just north of Wheaton Academy.

Built around the turn of the 20th century, the structure served as a passenger depot and power substation for the electrically operated Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway. Where some now see boarded-up windows and patches of grass, Brian Ostberg sees innovation and workmanship.

So when Wheaton Academy leaders targeted the former Prince Crossing station for demolition, Ostberg would have none of it.

Alarmed at the prospect of losing another piece of rail history, the Wheaton man and others fascinated with “Roarin' Elgin” trains are making a last-ditch effort to save the building, the core of which is 121 years old.

“The only viable alternative right now, as far as we can see, is moving it,” Ostberg said.

School administrators did not return a request for comment.

Six substations originally powered high-speed trains on the all-electric line that became the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin. Of the six, only two remain: the old Clintonville Station near modern-day South Elgin and Substation No. 5 on the west side of Prince Crossing Road.

“It doesn't have beautiful architectural details, but it has incredible functional details that tell stories about how this building worked for a few decades in providing electrical power to the railway and the community,” Ostberg said.

The city council earlier this year approved Wheaton Academy's plans for a multiphase, campuswide project. Foundation work has started for a two-story addition to the main academic building.

Wheaton Academy has not yet applied for a demolition permit to remove the former train depot, a city planner said. The high school proposed tearing it down in the first phase of the project.

Jim Slattery, a volunteer with the Fox River Trolley Museum, is trying to find a way to move the building - in one piece - to another site, ideally in the West Chicago area. He hopes it could become a museum dedicated to the railroad and its workers.

“To me, it's awe-inspiring because if you looked at some of the pictures back then, what they did and how they did it,” Slattery said, “it's just amazing that things were done that way.”

The brick building on the west side of Prince Crossing Road in West Chicago served as a train depot from 1903 to 1957. Courtesy of West Chicago City Museum

'Warp speed'

“Roarin' Elgin” trains frequently attained speeds still impressive by today's standards: up to 70 mph, especially outside of cities and towns, Ostberg said. In Wheaton, the tracks diverged into a Y-shape. One major branch went through Warrenville to Aurora, and the other headed north to Elgin.

Electric trains provided faster, cleaner passenger service than steam engine railways. The CA&E used a coal-fired power plant in Batavia along the Fox River to generate 26,000 volts of alternating current that was sent over transmission lines and utility poles to the six substations, Ostberg said.

“It was the first large electrical utility in the western suburbs and DuPage County,” he said.

For a few decades, the Prince Crossing substation not only powered trains between Wheaton and South Elgin, Ostberg said, but also provided electrical power to communities, farmers and industry along the railroad line.

“This was transformative to the entire area. I sort of always liken it to, if you watch 'Star Trek,' when we first developed warp speed,” said Ostberg, who, with his wife, Joyce, is chronicling the rise and fall of the railroad on their “BeHistoric” YouTube channel.

“Can you imagine going from manual power, steam power - no electricity exists - to having electric lighting in the streets, having electric lighting in the homes, having refrigeration to preserve meat, to have electricity to run machines and factories?”

The former Prince Crossing substation in West Chicago supplied power to the Elgin branch of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway. It took in alternating current and converted that power to 600 volts of direct current. The electricity was applied to the third rail, the "live rail," and transmitted to train motors. Courtesy of West Chicago City Museum

School history

In 1911, what was later known as the Country Home for Convalescent Children opened where Wheaton Academy stands today, taking advantage of the presence of the railroad, Ostberg said.

The convalescent home was affiliated with a Chicago institution run by Dr. Isaac Prince, the namesake of Prince Crossing. The property provided a restorative rural setting for children with disabilities, many of whom had bone problems due to tuberculosis, according to the West Chicago City Museum.

The academy held classes on the campus of Wheaton College before moving to its current home on Prince Crossing Road in 1945.

“Now they wish to tear down this structure - a structure which had it not existed - there would not have been a Country Home for Convalescent Children at that location - and there would not have been a Wheaton Academy years later,” Ostberg wrote in a speech he partially delivered at a February city council meeting.

Wheaton Academy purchased the depot structure and property about a decade ago. School leaders have told city officials that the building was already dilapidated when they acquired it, and they would use it actively if they could.

“We've heard on and off through the years of interest in moving it and saving it and doing whatever to it, and nothing ever pans out,” West Chicago Community Development Director Tom Dabareiner said.

Ostberg acknowledges there are significant maintenance issues.

“We're understanding of Wheaton Academy's position,” Ostberg said. “We're not trying to suggest that they should simply do this or do that. If you purchase a historic building, I think you sort of owe it to the community to do your best to preserve that building in some fashion.”

'An intrinsic value'

Despite all the wear and tear, preservationists can see the possibilities. The depot could turn into a repository for railroad artifacts. Jerry Hund, who taught architecture and engineering at Bartlett High School, has offered to create lesson plans for students.

“It isn't the prettiest building,” the retired educator said, “but once you start to study why it was built, why it had that particular shape and design, and if you go up close and look at the intricate brickwork on the structure, it's rather fascinating.”

Hund runs a Facebook group that shares memories of the railroad - passenger service ended in 1957 - and other preservation efforts. Slattery has restored and repainted a wooden station - about the size of a shed - that once served the town of Wayne. It was moved on a flatbed truck to the Fox River Trolley Museum.

Moving the Prince Crossing depot, however, would be a huge undertaking. Substations were built with reinforced concrete main floors because of their heavy machinery, Ostberg said. The “extra thick” brick walls were designed to prevent fires.

“It has a value, an intrinsic value, to the entire community,” he said. “If one day it's gone ... that just sends a message, I think, to the entire community that historical buildings like this don't matter, key steps in the transformation in society don't matter.”

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