ALL ABOARD! Fox River Trolley Museum brings transit history to life

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By Jack McCarthy

The Evanston Express elevated train parked on a single track no longer makes any runs through Chicago and its northern suburbs.

The nearby South Shore electric train has been permanently relieved of duty traversing busy South Side routes. And the closest a wooden Chicago, Aurora and Elgin interurban trolley gets to any of those towns is its permanent home in South Elgin.
Although these varied rail transportation cars are now retired, they still serve a valuable purpose in preserving the history of different types of Chicago area transit.
Besides, they're also fun to ride.
The Fox Valley Trolley Museum has these cars and more than two dozens pieces on permanent display in its outdoor museum on Illinois Route 31.
And it's not just a static showcase. Many cars in the fleet are working trains that continue to make limited runs on a two-mile route that hugs the western bank of the Fox River.
"What we're trying to do is a little bit of education and a lot of fun," said Bob Bresse-Rodenkirk, a museum volunteer and spokesman. "It's inexpensive, it's close to home for most of them and today with the economy, it's something you can't beat."
Last Sunday, the museum offered the first of two weekends of Pumpkin Trolley runs, which include rides and the opportunity to pick up pumpkins. This Saturday and Sunday will feature Haunted Trolley and a reservation-only Halloween Hiawatha, which includes a riverbank campfire.
The trains run a scenic course and offer beautiful fall hues and glimpses of the Fox River. While last Sunday's temperatures hovered in the 80s, breezes circulating through open windows helped make for a pleasant ride.
The line covers a small portion of the former Aurora, Elgin and Fox River Electric route, which was last used as a freight line as late as 1971.
The museum has been opened since 1966. It's an all-volunteer effort, ranging from workers restoring transit cars to conductors on the single-car trains powered by overhead electric cables. Expenses for 2007 were around $67,000 and covered administration, train and track maintenance and electricity.
"Every one of us is a volunteer. There have been no paid employees since the museum was founded in 1961," said Bresse-Rodenkirk. "On any given weekend you will see anywhere from 4 to 10 people working on the trains, on the equipment."
The fleet ranges from a 106-year-old  wooden interurban trolley that once ran between Chicago, Aurora and Elgin—the oldest operating car in North America—to CTA rapid transit cars built in the late 1950s.
"Early on we had a high percentage of people who came out here because they remembered the cars fondly," he said. "You don't see that much anymore … (now you see) a lot of parents with young children, who are caught up with Thomas (the Tank Engine) and trains."
The museum is generally open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays during warmer weather. Visitors can take a round-trip (four-mile) ride for $3.50 for adults and $2 for seniors and children ages 3 through 11. An all-day ticket for multiple rides costs $7.
Saturday hours end this week and Sunday hours end on Nov. 2. The museum reopens for three days in December for special holiday season "Polar Express" runs, which require advance reservations.
For more information, call (630) 665-2581

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