Railroad museums are fantastic facilities where individuals of all ages can spend a fun-filled evening learning about railroad history while looking at, or even interacting with, some of the most unique and influential artifacts in existence. Of course, the ultimate experience would be to visit the largest railroad museum in the United States.
The Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) is currently the largest railroad museum in the United States. Located in the Chicago metropolitan area, this museum houses about 450 historical artifacts and spans 100 miles with an additional five miles of protected, historic track from the E&B right-of-way.
In this article, we will discuss everything you’ll need to know about the Illinois Railway Museum, from its foundation and general history to its visitation information to what type of artifacts it houses, and much more. After discussing this impressive museum at length, we’ll also list several other railroad museums of renown in the United States that you should visit.
History of the Illinois Railway Museum
After visiting a museum of this magnitude, people often wonder how such a facility was founded and what circumstances allowed it to grow, both in size and in inventory, to the size it is today.
The Illinois Railroad Museum was founded in 1953 when it acquired its first artifact, the Indiana Railroad 65, a retired interurban car. The interurban was collaboratively purchased by 10 men who each contributed $100 (equivalent to $1,094.74 today) to spare it from the scrapyard.
Originally, the IRM was located on the grounds of the Chicago Hardware Foundry in suburban North Chicago, directly along the tracks of the renowned Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee interurban line.
By 1964, the IRM had acquired around 40 artifacts ranging from freight cars and locomotives to work equipment and more. This impressive increase in inventory was soon too much for the museum’s current space, and so, it relocated to a cheap, empty field east of Union near the long-abandoned right-of-way of the E&B.
As the museum continued to expand and increase its inventory to the historic size it boasts today, numerous electric cars and steam engines were restored to full operation, 13 storage barns were built, and numerous visitor amenities were expanded and improved, to name a few of the many changes.
Now, it houses an astonishing 450 pieces of historic railway and transit equipment throughout the 100 miles of museum facilities and the five miles of former E&B right-of-way track.
Visiting the Illinois Railway Museum
Visiting the Illinois Railway Museum is an experience unlike any other. There is something here for everyone, whether you’re a passionate railfan or someone who can merely appreciate the history, engineering, and relevance of these items.
While we always encourage spontaneous visits if you’re in the area, planning your trip to the IRM will ensure the best experience possible.
Here is a basic overview for visiting the Illinois Railway Museum regarding location, hours of operation, ticket costs, et.
|Location||7000 Olson Road
Union, Illinois, 60180
|Hours of operation||· Weekdays and weekends May through October, and Special Event days
· Museum grounds open at 10:00am and close one hour after the last train departure unless otherwise announced
· Parking lot opens at 9:30am and closes 30 minutes after the grounds close
|Ticket Prices||· Admission is not free
· Costs range from $9-$16 depending on age
|Parking||· There is free visitor parking at the museum entrance|
|Food Service||· The museum houses a diner
· A picnic area is available, and guests are permitted to bring their own food (alcohol prohibited*)
While we hope you find this overview helpful, we encourage you to read on as we discuss other details about visiting the Illinois Railway Museum in the sections below.
As stated previously, the Illinois Railway Museum is currently located at: 7000 Olson Road, Union, Illinois, 60180.
Those of you who don’t have their own form of transportation can reach the museum using public transport via MCRide. To do this, take MCRide, the county Dial-A-Ride service, to IRM from any location in the MCRide Service Area. It is important to note that you’ll need to reserve a trip with this service in advance, which you can do by calling 1-800-451-4599.
If you are leaving for the IRM from Chicago, Milwaukee and Eastern Wisconsin, or Rockford and Western Wisconsin, then you can follow the written directions provided by the museum on their website here.
Hours of Operation
Arguably the trickiest part of planning a visit to the IRM is choosing the best time to go and ensuring it aligns with the museum’s hours of operation.
The IRM is not open year-round. It’s annual dates of operation are as follows:
- Saturdays: April 30 — October 29
- Sundays: April 24 — October 30
- Weekdays: May 30 — September 2
As stated in the chart, the museum grounds will open at 10 am while the parking lot opens 30 minutes earlier at 9:30 am. When the museum closes largely depends on when their last train departs.
IRM visitors have the exceptional opportunity to ride on the of the museum’s many functional trains around the facility’s tracks. These trains operate from 11am- 3pm on weekdays and 11am-4pm on weekends.
The museum grounds close one hour after the last train departure (unless otherwise announced) and the parking lot closes 30 minutes after the museum grounds close.
IRM ticket prices are extremely affordable and include unlimited rides on the museum’s operating electric cars and steam or diesel trains.
Ticket prices for general admission are as follows:
|Adult||Seniors 62+||Children ages 2-11
(children under 2 are free)
|Weekdays (except holidays)||$12||$10||$9|
|Weekends- April and October||$12||$10||$9|
|Weekends- May through September||$16||$14||$12|
Remember that these are the ticket prices for general admission; they do not reflect the cost of special event tickets.
One of the best times to visit the IRM is during one of its special events. Many of these are held on holidays that occur during the select months that the museum is open. They include:
- Mother’s Day (May 8th)
- Memorial Day Weekend (May 28th, 29th, 30th)
- Chicago Day (June 18th)
- Father’s Day (June 19th)
- Labor Day Weekend (September 3rd, 4th, 5th)
In addition to these dates, the museum will also hold unique special events, such as the Bunny Trolley Hop (April 9th, 10th, 16th) where visitors can mee the Easter Bunny and hunt for eggs around the museum grounds.
There’s also the Vintage Transport Extravaganza (August 7th) where “the past comes to life” and the museum pulls out all its best antique automobiles, trucks, fire engines, and hundreds of other vehicles for you to ride and witness.
Of course, these are just two of the countless special events that occur from April until November. During these events, general admission is not usually permitted and visitors. Instead, visitors must purchase a separate, special fare ticket to be admitted and might have an assigned train time.
For more information on when special events are held at the IRM, check out their online calendar here.
As we stated in the chart above, parking at the IRM is free, so you don’t have to stress about finding accessible street parking or a nearby parking garage. You will see the parking lot by the museum entrance off Olson Road.
One of the best experiences you can have at the IRM, in addition to appreciating their artifacts, is to dine at their Central Diner.
Aptly named, this diner is located in the center of the IRM’s facilities, directly across the street from Display Barn 6 containing interurbans and rapid transit cars.
The atmosphere is what really makes this eatery exceptional, as it incorporates an original 1930s roadside diner into it’s design and uses it to create a fully immersive environment. Although its menu is limited, it contains favored sweet treats such as ice cream and grandma’s cookies, in addition to lunch items like pizza, bratwursts, and hot dogs, all offered at reasonable prices under $6.
The Central Diner operates on the weekends between mid-May and early October, and on weekdays between mid-June and Labor Day. Operating hours are 11am-4pm on weekends and 11am-3pm on weekdays.
Of course, if you’re visiting on a budget or prefer to bring your own snacks and lunch items, IRM encourages you to do so. The picnic areas is located a short walk from the Central Diner across the street from Display Barn 4 containing electric cars. Here, you can sit, eat, and relax until you’re ready to start exploring again.
What to Expect and Things to Do at the Illinois Railway Museum
Because of its sheer size and layout, visiting the IRM isn’t like exploring most museums. Before you come here, there a few things you should expect from your visit.
The IRM is an expansive museum that stretches across 100 acres of land, which means visitors should expect to walk a fair amount between facilities. These numerous exhibit buildings are not connected to one another, which means you will also want to keep an eye on the weather for the day of your visit and plan accordingly.
Once you arrive, an array of experiences awaits visitors depending on their arrival date and time as well as their personal preferences and interests.
There are 13 storage barns on the property, most of which are accessible to the public and contain a majority the museum’s cherished 450 railway artifacts. As you explore the land, you’ll find:
- Display Barn 3: railroad passenger cars
- Display Barn 4: electric cars
- Display Barn 6: interurbans & rapid transit cars
- Display Barn 7: streetcars, interurbans & rapid transit cars, North Shore Line Eletroliner
- Display Barn 8: streetcars and rapid transit cars
- Display Barn 9: large steam and electric locomotives
- Hoffman Garage: motor and trolley buses
- Anderson Garage: trolley buses
All these buildings contain informative and insightful exhibits that discuss the history and relevance of each item on display. You can even enter and sit in some of the train’s on exhibit and witness what it would have been like to ride inside them decades ago when they were fully operational.
As you walk through these five barns and the additional garages, you’ll see the history of railroads and their associated vehicles and equipment develop and modernize through the ages.
Ride the Trains
Undoubtedly, the experience that sets the IRM apart from all other railroad museums is the fact that you can actually ride fully restored and functional trains up to the historic 1851 East Union Depot.
You’ll start by boarding the streetcar next to the 50th Avenue ‘L’ station and then transfer to a main line steam or diesel train for a five-mile trip along the main line. This trip usually takes about 35-45 minutes but feels much shorter for most who feel as if they’ve stepped onto the trains and back in time.
If longer train rides aren’t for you, there is an alternative option. The IMS’ streetcars travel along a loop that goes around the property and stops intermittently at various locations. This is perfect for hopping on for a quick lift and then stepping off wherever you please.
A complete loop on the streetcar line takes around 15 minutes, which might be the perfect, relaxing breather you needed before heading back to the barns or on your way home.
Shops and Playgrounds
In addition to visiting the hundreds of original and restored artifacts held in these buildings, visitors can purchase mementos in the gift shop/bookstore or the Schroeder store found near the museum entrance.
The IMS goes to exceptional lengths to ensure it has something for visitors of all ages, which is why they’ve included a children’s playground located just outside Barn 3. This is the perfect location to give your little ones (or yourself) a break from walking the museum grounds. It is also located near the picnic areas so you can watch them while you sip on a refreshment and or munch on a snack.
Sign and Signal Displays
Another unique element of the IMS is that you’ll find countless signal displays, signs, and entablatures scattered around the grounds.
These items have been salvaged, protected, and most have been fully restored to their original glory. Each comes from railroads and railroads stations all across America and are displayed in a colorful array filled with variety for visitors to appreciate as they walk from facility to facility or ride the museum’s trains.
Other Railroad Museums in The United States You Should Visit
It’s true that the Illinois Railroad Museum is one of the most exceptional spectacles of railroad history in the nation, but it isn’t the only railroad museum of renown to visit.
In addition to the Illinois Railroad Museum, we recommend you also stop by:
- B&O Railroad Museum
- Nevada Northern Railway Museum
- California State Railroad Museum
- Colorado Railroad Museum
Each of these museums has their own impressive collection of railroad artifacts that will expand your knowledge of these historic wonders.
B&O Railroad Museum
Many railfans who know their history might be familiar with the B&O Railroad Museum thanks to its nickname as the “Birthplace of American Railroading.” It earned this nickname in 1829 when it built the first passenger station and commercial long-distance track in the United States.
The museum’s buildings themselves hold historic significance, as the Mt. Clare Station and Yard not only saw the first passenger and freight station in the United States but was also the first railroad manufacturing complex in the country.
Located in Baltimore, Maryland, this museum provides an unparalleled experience by displaying the oldest and most comprehensive American railroad collections in the world. Each exhibit is “dedicated to highlighting the critical role railroads have played in the development of America.”
Some of the most notable items within the museum’s collection include its Jim Crow Segregated Car, the World War II Troop Car, and the dining car China Collection.
Let’s not forget the Mile One Express. Visitors of all ages can board this train for a 20-minute ride along the nation’s first mile of commercial railroad.
Nevada Northern Railway Museum
If you love the experience of riding historical trains, but don’t live near the Illinois Railroad Museum, an alternative we highly recommend would be the Nevada Norther Railway Museum.
Here, historic steam engines are used year-round and fully equipped to take you on a breathtaking 90-minute trip through two tunnels, up real mountain grades through the Robinson Canyon onward toward the Ruth Copper Mining District.
Much of the historic items the museum houses are connected to the regions mining history. As you explore the grounds, you’ll see original railway locomotives, rolling stock, track, passenger station, and buildings, all of which served the historic copper mining region of Central Nevada for over a century. Some of this history is even reenacted for your entertainment where employees will stage a thrilling train robbery or frighten you to your core every October on their special haunted ghost train.
When you aren’t enjoying one of these adventurous train rides around the region or admiring the museum’s artifacts, you can participate in hands-on adventures. One of the most unique options (for those of you who are in the area longer) is to sign up to ride along with or actually be the engineer of one of the museum’s steam or diesel locomotives.
California State Railroad Museum
The railroad is integral to the history of California’s settlement, and no museum makes this more evident than the California State Railroad Museum.
Unsurprisingly, the museum is located in Sacramento, a pivotal location that played a key role in the establishment of the transcontinental railroad. Upon opening in 1976, the museum spans 225,000 square feet that contains 21 meticulously restored locomotives and cars alongside numerous railroad-related artifacts.
These artifacts are placed in stimulating exhibits, which include:
- Chinese Railroad Workers’ Experience
- Georgia Northern No. 100 Gold Coast
- Farm-to-Fork: A Public History
- Gold Spike Exhibit Gallery
- Small Wonders: The Magic of Toy Trains
As you can see, many of the exhibits center on the crucial era of the transcontinental railroad, both its establishment and the formative years that followed. However, the history does not stop there. The museum does a wonderful job of displaying how it’s artifacts can connect even to the present.
Make sure not to get stuck in the exhibits too long, or you’ll miss your chance to ride one of the museum’s historic steam or diesel locomotives for a breathtaking 50-minute round trip along the scenic Sacramento River.
Colorado Railroad Museum
If you’re anywhere near the Centennial State of Colorado and interested in learning about the region’s railway history, the Colorado Railroad Museum is the place to go.
Established in 1959, this museum’s mission is “dedicated to preserving for future generations a tangible record of Colorado’s dynamic railroad era and particularly its pioneering, narrow gauge mountain railroads.”
This is a unique chapter of railroad history rarely discussed and frequently overshadowed by more momentous events, but to the people of Colorado, the region’s narrow gauge railroad companies was vital to their economy, employment, and place of residency.
All of that and more is made apparent in the museums’ impactful exhibits filled with photography, model railways, and over 100 narrow and standard-gauge steam and diesel locomotives.
You might have already guessed it but, yes, there are fully restored trains you can ride here too. These trains take visitors on a loop around the Museum’s 15-acre Rail Yard, which takes about 15-20 minutes total.
Thousands of visitors around the world, including ourselves, recommend taking a trip to the Illinois Railroad Museum at least once in your lifetime. If the sheer scope of the largest railroad museum in the United States doesn’t impress you, we promise it’s collection and rideable trains will.
Anyone who has visited before or can’t for the foreseeable future should make an effort to visit one of the other exceptional railroad museums listed above instead.