This past weekend, I fulfilled a longtime ambition of visiting the Illinois Railway Museum. I drove out for their July 4th pagent, where every piece of equipment that could move, moved. The weather was miserably rainy, but this did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd or the volunteers who make the facility work.
I enjoyed my time at the museum, but I found myself comparing the museum to the Halton County Radial Railway that operates in the north of Milton, Ontario, near Rockwood. The Illinois Railway Museum is often cited as the standard by which other facilities are measured; they have the biggest shops, the largest roster, and a compact centre that allows visitors to get close to a lot of the equipment. Even so, though Halton County appears to live more hand-to-mouth than the Illinois Railway Museum, I’d have to say that the Canadian museum measures up remarkably well, and it took me a little while to figure out why.
It hit me when I saw that the Illinois Railway Museum was operating some famous vehicles, including the original Nebraska Zephyr, along its lengthy demonstration track. Despite these pieces of equipment being the stars of the show, the trips I most enjoyed were the ones operated by two streetcars along a mile-long loop around the museum grounds, as well as a trolley bus operating along one of the interior museum roads. I enjoyed those rides because they took me to places I wanted to go: to the diner for lunch, to the museum’s used bookstore, and to the various barns where you could see some of the displayed equipment.
On the other hand, the special equipment ran out onto the demonstration railroad, headed east for about twenty minutes to a cornfield… and then stopped, reversed direction, and came back. You ended up getting off where you started from, with no sense of actually having gone anywhere. At Halton County, you ride vintage equipment along a mile-long run through dense woods, ending up at the East Loop. There, you get off, see some equipment on display at the barn, eat ice cream at a wonderfully set-up snack bar built out of a former PCC streetcar, and take in a beautiful garden and pond built inside the loop. After about twenty minutes, you can then take another vehicle back to the west end.
A museum on the way we used to travel benefits, I think, if they can recapture the sense of actually travelling somewhere, even if only to an ice cream stand a mile down the line. It mimics the way the equipment used to be used, and this was why the IRM’s streetcars and trolley buses offered more enjoyment for me than their Zephyr.
The Illinois Railway Museum did do one special thing on the date that I particularly enjoyed: their “pageant” involved several pieces of equipment making run-bys on the demonstration line, for people watching on the station platform. Seeing these beautifully restored vehicles passing by gave many visitors a view of these pieces of equipment in action that they typically don’t see riding inside them.
Interestingly, I overheard a number of volunteers talking about the possibility that Metra might extend out along a parallel railway line to one of the rural communities nearby. Should this happen, the volunteers seemed confident in their museum’s ability to build out to the new Metra station and offer shuttle service from there to the museum. That would certainly enhance the sense of the museum pieces heading to and from real destinations.