Learn how railroads carved out the suburban landscape in new exhibit at Elmhurst History Museum

New exhibit explores how railroads carved our suburban landscape

  • A Chicago, Aurora & Elgin passenger train, known as "The Roarin' Elgin," pulls into Lombard.

    A Chicago, Aurora & Elgin passenger train, known as "The Roarin' Elgin," pulls into Lombard. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

  • Chicago, Aurora & Elgin train depot at York Street in 1957 as photographed by Theodore Kross.

    Chicago, Aurora & Elgin train depot at York Street in 1957 as photographed by Theodore Kross. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

  • Elmhurst's Chicago & North Western Station, circa 1911.

    Elmhurst's Chicago & North Western Station, circa 1911. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

  • The Elmhurst train station in the 1930s.

    The Elmhurst train station in the 1930s. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

  • A Chicago & North Western train crosses the Illinois Central tracks at Salt Creek in Elmhurst, circa 1900.

    A Chicago & North Western train crosses the Illinois Central tracks at Salt Creek in Elmhurst, circa 1900. Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

 
By Patrice Roche
Elmhurst History Museum
Updated 11/13/2019 11:42 AM

On Oct. 25, 1848, the first Galena & Chicago Union train rolled west from Chicago and chugged its way to the end of the line in what is now Oak Park. It then returned to the city with a load of wheat.

The arrival of the railroad beyond city borders ushered in a new era in transportation, defying time and distance by moving passengers and freight quickly over long distances.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What role did the railways play in shaping regional settlement in Chicago, its suburbs and throughout the Midwest?

The Elmhurst History Museum embarks on a journey exploring 170 years of railroading history to answer that question in the new exhibit, "On the Right Track: By Rail to Chicago & Beyond."

The exhibit, which opens Nov. 14 and continues through March 29, takes a look at how railroads carved out the suburban landscape as we know it today and considers how people in the Chicago area experienced the railroad as passengers, business owners and employees.

The exhibit, which was created by the Elmhurst History Museum staff, shares the story of the railroad's enormous impact on the region to establish Chicago as the nation's central transportation hub.

"On the Right Track" explores early railroading history in Chicago and its expansion westward through DuPage County and beyond.

The exhibit also chronicles the railroads that traversed the area, including the Galena & Chicago Union; Milwaukee Road; Chicago & North Western; Illinois Central; Chicago, Aurora & Elgin and more.

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It also focuses on the people who used the railways for transportation and freight, and the many employees who made their living working on railroads.

"In planning the exhibit, we wanted to focus on the importance of railroads to the growth of this region, but also what they meant to the people who lived and worked here," said Dan Bartlett, curator of exhibits. "The growth of Chicago's suburbs emerged from this commuter culture that connected residents to their jobs downtown, which was a key factor in development of towns on the city's outskirts."

In addition, Bartlett said, the railroads employed workers in many different capacities.

"From freight handlers and maintenance crews to the porters, station masters, conductors and engineers who kept everything moving and on schedule -- the railroads linked this immense network of people and commerce that allowed Chicago to grow.

"I also wanted to know how the railroads manage to keep all those trains on time and on the right track, so there is a portion of the exhibit that gives visitors an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes."

The displays in the exhibit are filled with many intriguing photos, film clips of historic railroads and railroad operations, and a diverse array of artifacts. Many items are on loan from the Chicago & North Western Historical Society archives and the Illinois Railroad Museum, along with objects from the Elmhurst History Museum's own collection.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"On the Right Track" also features equipment used by rail workers, a diorama of a station operator's office, and a section on Pullman porters.

"We're fortunate to have found a number of collectors and institutions to share items with us, which adds colorful detail and texture to this story," Bartlett said.

Some of the featured artifacts include:

• Vintage telegraph equipment;

• A conductor's uniform and lantern;

• 1930s-era dining car china and menu from the Chicago & North Western Railway's "400" line;

• Passenger tickets and freight bills;

• The original 1894 Elmhurst train station sign;

• A steam engine bell;

• Scale models of train stations, locomotives and railroad cars and toy trains.

In addition, children and adults alike will enjoy the hands-on learning stations in the gallery, including a wooden train play area, a working telegraph where users can learn to send Morse code, and an interactive track switching game.

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