Thoughts on a day at Illinois Railway Museum

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, August 5, 2018

UNION, Ill. -- I went to Illinois Railway Museum with some friends Saturday. It’s the height of summer vacation season, and it’s always fun to see who shows up at preservation centers like this one. You’ll find families, retirees, and, of course, rail enthusiasts. Each constituency comes with their own set of expectations. Those are fun in their own ways: Curious families whose kids want to go beyond Thomas the Tank Engine. Retirees reliving fond memories. Fans with their favorite railroads on their t-shirts and caps. At this point in my life, I come to places like this as much to see the performances of the volunteers and staff as well as the reactions of the visitors as I come to see the history, listen for the whistle, smell the coal smoke, and feel the crunch of cinders beneath my boots.

Illinois Railway Museum is revered for its massive rolling stock collection and its capability of providing a triple threat: It’s one of the few places in the U.S. that can field at once steam, diesel, and electric trains.

On Saturday, IRM’s Frisco 2-10-0 No. 1630 was in operation. It’s always interesting to see locomotive preparation and servicing, and IRM gets its steam power ready right in front of the visitors. That’s the way it should be. A big part of the steam story is just how labor intensive these magnificent machines are. No. 1630 is an icon of IRM. It’s run there for almost 50 years. After a 1,472-day inspection the 100-year-old locomotive returned to service in 2014. Those ten drivers provide plenty of power; it’s a relatively small freight locomotive that’s impressive to watch and ride behind.

Sitting outside the steam shop was J. Neils Lumber Co. Shay No. 5, which is within weeks of a successful return to service. The 1929 engine, which has been out of service since 1999, needs final adjustments to its hydrostatic lubricator before it’s fit once more, but that’s a goal that’s within reach, say steam shop curator Tom Schneider and assistant curator Jason Maxwell.

That’s what’s running. What’s down the tracks is worth previewing.

There’s a new auxiliary water tank for thirsty No. 1630. It currently hauls a milk car with water tanks inside its boxy superstructure. It will get a former Chicago & North Western tender, which can haul more water for busy operating days.

Deeper inside the shop us Union Pacific 2-8-0 No. 428, a 1900 Baldwin-built locomotive that was worked on years ago and is to become the museum’s third steam locomotive in operation. The engine last ran out of Grand Island, Neb., and was among the last UP power in steam in 1958 when it was retired.  Volunteers are preparing the cab, and that project will move along.

Among the history, the people, and coming attractions, our museums and tourist lines are endlessly fascinating. I never get bored when I visit one. I hope to run into you at your favorite one or a new one soon.




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