Take a ride through time via The Roarin' Elgin

New DuPage County Historical Museum exhibit features artifacts, programs

  • The Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railway was one of the first known attempts at making an electric railway between Chicago and Aurora. The "Roarin' Elgin" exhibit will open Saturday, June 10, at the DuPage Historical Society Museum in Wheaton.

    The Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railway was one of the first known attempts at making an electric railway between Chicago and Aurora. The "Roarin' Elgin" exhibit will open Saturday, June 10, at the DuPage Historical Society Museum in Wheaton. Courtesy of DuPage Historical Society Museum

Updated 6/3/2023 1:00 AM

The establishment and growth of cities and towns have long been influenced by proximity to railroads.

To get a close-up view of how DuPage County responded to the many twists in the story surrounding the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway, visit the DuPage County Historical Museum's newest exhibit, titled "The Roarin' Elgin: A Trip on the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway," opening Saturday, June 10.


The exhibit will display several authentic artifacts, including a kerosene lantern used on the electric train in the 1920s and a conductor's ticket punch. Come explore the now-closed railroad's past via these and other items that have been preserved for more than 100 years.

The exhibit will remain on display at the museum, 102 E. Wesley St. in Wheaton, until March 2024.

"I am incredibly excited to be working on The Roarin' Elgin exhibit this year. I always enjoy exhibits that highlight areas of history that I don't necessarily specialize in and it gives me the opportunity to learn more about DuPage County history as a whole," said Emily O'Brien, museum curator.

"This exhibit will showcase the various ways in which The Roarin' Elgin, the first interurban electric railroad between Chicago and the suburbs, impacted DuPage County residents during its period of operation," O'Brien said. "'The Roarin' Elgin' gives me the perfect opportunity to educate the public on the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin railway in a fun, interactive way as I simultaneously learn about it as well!"

'The Great Third Rail'

The railway was chartered in 1899 and began service in 1902. After several changes in ownership, the railway entered bankruptcy in 1932, going into receivership. The railway was taken over by a publicly held company in 1946. Passenger service continued until 1957, with freight service ending in 1959.

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The Wheaton station for the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin was located at Main Street and Liberty Drive.

Half of the wood and brick building was used as the headquarters for the superintendent of transportation and the trainmaster's offices. The other half served as the ticket office and waiting room for passengers.

In 1963, the Chicago Tribune published a letter from May Theilgaard Watts detailing her vision of the unused electric line.

Her letter gained so much public support that a group of volunteers formed the nonprofit Illinois Prairie Path.

By 1966, the Illinois Prairie Path leased the right of way in DuPage County. The Illinois Prairie Path now consists of 62 miles of trails in DuPage, Kane and Cook counties.


Special programs

To bring the railway's past to life more fully, the museum is planning several programs.

• Historians Brian and Joyce Ostberg of BeHistoric will present a history of the railway, which was chartered in 1899, went through several name changes, weathered economic challenges and service modifications, and finally was closed in May 1961.

The program, titled "A History of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway," is a free program that will be presented at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26 in the museum auditorium.

• "Crafting with CA&E," a craft workshop class, will lead participants in the crafting of a trolley from Popsicle sticks and the making of puppet people to ride along with those trolleys. This free program event is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19. and Saturday, Sept. 16 in the museum auditorium.

• The Ostbergs will return at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30 to present "Relics of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway," a free program in the museum auditorium.

Attendees will learn about what remains in the wake of the railway's discontinuation, including the Illinois Prairie Path, which was built adjacent to the railroad. The program will cover how to find remaining stations, substations, bridges and overpasses along the more than 61 miles of the Illinois Prairie Path and the Fox River Trails.

• At 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, the Ostbergs will present "Tragedies and Accidents of the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railway" in the museum auditorium. There is no admission charge for this event.

This presentation will investigate the many accidents and tragedies that befell railway workers, passengers, automobile drivers, and pedestrians over the decades -- as they worked, lived their lives, and coexisted alongside the sometimes dangerous Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railway.

The museum is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free. Donations are greatly appreciated to help create new exhibits and keep our facility open and operating.

More programs related to the new exhibit will be added. For more information, visit dupagemuseum.org.

The exhibit is supported by a $2,500 grant from the DuPage Foundation through the foundation's History DuPage Fund.

"DuPage Foundation has been very supportive of the museum's exhibits and community projects," said Michelle Podkowa, museum manager and educator. "We could not present as many new, themed exhibits without their help every year. We'd like to thank them for their continued dedication to the history of the county."

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