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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!

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