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Monday, September 30, 2013

Chicago: Museum of Science & Industry

The Seattle skyline as seen in The Great Train Story
The best train destination in Chicago for railfans of all ages is, without a doubt, the Museum of Science and industry. Since 2002, The Great Train Story has entertained guests with an HO-gauge model railroad layout featuring more than 20 trains and more than 1,400 feet of track. Trains have been a cherished museum exhibit since 1941, when an original, smaller Q-scale layout showcased the place of the railroad in American agriculture and industry. The exhibit of today does the same thing by bringing visitors along on a cross country journey from downtown Chicago across the country to the Seattle harbor. Along the way, kids (or kids-at-heart) can help blast through a mountain tunnel with the push of a button or raise a river draw bridge when the train comes back to town. There they can wait along with the tiny passengers of the miniature Chicago el stops, and take in the skyscraper skyline. Visitors enjoy the meticulous details of city streets and country towns, rural fields and towering bridges. Trains of every stripe, CTA, Metra, Amtrak, BNSF and more, traverse the diminutive landscape. Because of the scope of the layout, allow ample time for a slow stroll around the exhibit taking in as many of the magnificent details as possible.

Fastest Steam Engine in the World,
 for awhile!
The Rocket
Surrounding the Lilliputian world of The Great Train Story is the life-size history of early railroading. Numerous engines from the steam era now live in the exhibit hall. One favorite is the Empire State Express 999, which welcomes guests into the Granger Court Transportation Gallery and invites them to step up to the cab for an engineer's look at the controls, fire box and tender. This engine was the first land vehicle to top 100 miles per hour, earning it a place in railroad history books. Kids who love the "Please, touch!" aspect of the MSI will also enjoy setting in motion the The Rocket, the engine of 1829 that so influenced later steam engine design, and imaging city streets of the past as they climb on a cable car that replicates those that once traveled along State Street in the late 1800s.

The Pioneer Zephyr
One other exhibit of the MSI is an absolute must for the rail enthusiast and it is impossible to miss. Housed in the museum's grand entry hall, All Aboard the Silver Streak: Pioneer Zephyr takes visitors back into the streamlined era of Art Deco style and speed. The stainlesss-steel cars are flanked by hands-on displays demonstrating the advantages of the streamlined style over steam engines. Additional displays show the cultural influence of Zephyr line's look.

Swiss Jollyball
For more whimsical train fun, visit the Swiss Jollyball, a larger-than-life pinball machine made from junkyard finds. A handful of train cars are just some of the wild rides the jolly ball finds itself upon. Despite the wonders of every kind at the museum, this one exhibit (located near the food court for great dinner-theater eating) gets repeatedly mentioned right after "The Great Train Story" as my children's favorite thing to see.

Our favorite souvenir 
As for souvenirs, the MSI gift shop across the entry hall from the ticket counter offers plenty of railroad items, but if you also need something more unique, you can' t go wrong by stopping at the Mold-A-Rama machine in the Transportation Gallery. An injection molded train will be created while you watch for $2 and gathering these little plastic statues from other exhibits makes for the start of a fun collection . There's also a souvenir penny machine in the gallery that will send you home with similar railroad memories.

Last of all, for that icing-on-the cake moment, remember that those of us coming in from the suburbs can bring a lot of joy to the kids in the car by simply choosing to drive home under el tracks or next to a CTA line. They don't realize how hard it is to get in or out of the city without passing trains, so you end the day as tour-guide hero. It's a railroad win!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chicago: O'Hare's ATS tram

The kids are looking forward to the afternoon errand today. We will be pretending ye olde family van is a big ol' taxi and zipping over to O'Hare to do pick-up duty. First question out of the mouth of the train lover: "Can we ride the train?" The train to him is the people-mover that scoots travelers from the long-term economy lots into the airport's terminals 1,2,3, and 5. Particularly fun for him is getting into the first car and watching the "Airport Transit System" move along the tracks from an engineer's-eye view. It's a brief ride of just 10 minutes if you stay on the route from end to end and free, aside from parking fees. Trains, planes, and automobiles, kids! 

For O'Hare's map of the ATS's route, click here

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Union: Extras needed for "Chicago Fire"

I've been following NBC's Chicago Fire because a high school friend of mine, Robyn Coffin, has a recurring role in the show as Cindy Herrmann. It's a thrill to see her on TV -- someone we know on a show filmed in a place we know. 

Now, the producers are looking for some of the rest of us to serve as extras in the show for a scene that will be filmed at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. The details are reported at PlanItNorthwest, but according to Jami Kunzer's story " a call is out for roughly 150 extras to be available Oct. 4-10." Send an email to: with the subject line "five day." And hustle. The expectation is that spots will go quickly. 

Break a leg, folks!

Illinois Railroad Map

I knew this map had to exist, it just took me far too long to get around to do the simple Google search to actually locate it! Here it is: the Illinois Railroad Map (2012 edition). Now I will actually be able to answer the simple question from the back seat, "Which train do you think runs on that line, Mom?" Better yet, I do believe I'm going to print this out right now and put it in that back seat. Nothing like a railroad obsession to help develop some geography skills! 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chicago: Randolph Pulman Porter Museum

To this mom, one of the best reasons to encourage children's interest in trains is how they provide a gateway to great discussions about history and social issues. I was reminded of this fact today when my email inbox contained a Groupon offer for the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. Visiting Chicago's Pullman neighborhood has long been on my own to-see list, so I took a peek at their website. Under "Union History," we are given an overview of the history that brought African-American men to the Pullman Palace Car Company as porters. By the 1920s, the site reports, railroad workers provided the "the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada."  A. Philip Randolph was the union president whose efforts led to improved pay and working conditions for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. More of this history is showcased through links to videos and reviews of the museum, including a profile of a former Pullman Porter reflecting on his career. Just browsing the site provides great insights into a notable chapter in Chicago history. Having this museum in Chicago means that when kids' history classes (or observant questions) turn to topics of civil rights and union organization, we have a nearby resource to inform the conversation.

Batavia: Library train art

This vivid train poster appeared in the Batavia Public Library's children's department earlier this year in honor of the summer reading program's transportation theme. I'm happy to see that it is still there, mostly because it's fun for me to see how my toddler has gone from simply pointing at it a few months ago to announcing, "Train!" as we visit this fall. Long live the steamers!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Trains as "icing-on-the-cake"

This is the time of year when the orchards are pulling out all the stops to bring in the crowds (and their dollars). Among the activities at the larger sites, a "train" of some sort that happens to have an apple or pumpkin theme often appears to entice families of little ones. I don't begrudge these places their success in marketing and entertaining, especially when the season is so brief. On the other hand, the grown ups in this household have the opposite goal of finding entertainment that is pleasant but affordable. Plunking down $10-plus dollars per kid for autumnal side show attractions just isn't happening for us. The point? We don't always go places to see the train or ride the train, we consider the train we happen to pass an icing-on-the-cake moment for the kid who always asks, "Do you think we will see a train?" 

At Waterman's Honey Hill Orchard
So this weekend, we headed out to Waterman for a day at Honey Hill Orchard. It was a delighful fall day on all sorts of levels, but for Mr. Train, just getting there was a treat. Our route took us along Route 30, a road that runs parallel to tracks from just west of Aurora Municipal Airport. Even though we didn't happen to pass any actual trains, the view from the van took in enough signals to make the drive fun. So it wasn't really a train day. It was an apple day with a side order of tracks. And that was good.