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Monday, December 22, 2014

Batavia: Depot Museum ornament

Batavia, Illinois -- Look what Santa will be leaving on the tree at our house this week. Batavia's history museum is featured as this year's collectable ornament in celebration of the depot's 160th anniversary. It is available in the museum gift shop or, where I found it, at the Batavia Park District's Civic Center office. Ornaments are $10 each. 

Now all the Christmas trains circling my tree can finally have a station! 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Union: Illinois Railroad Museum

Union, Illinois -- It's the summer of steam for this train-loving family! Thanks to a prize-winning raffle ticket held by my three-year old at a library event this summer, we were the happy recipients of a family pass to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. We took advantage of the tickets over the Labor Day weekend, and enjoyed a visit to one of our favorite day trip sites in the area. It's been a few years since our last visit to IRM so we were thrilled to discover that locomotive #1630 has been operational this season and we would be there on a scheduled steam ride day. As it happened, that every engine was chugging past the parking lot as we pulled in, welcoming us with the characteristic deep toot of the whistle. Of course, a ride on the 1630 was the first destination of our visit once we entered the IRM grounds. Compared to the later ride on a relatively modern CTA train, the characteristic chuf-chuf of the engine and sway of the cars leaves passengers no doubt that they are riding something of a time machine.
The 1630 pulling into the station

Waiting to pull out of the station

The railroad museum's collection of engines, cars, signals, and memorabilia is staggering.  Long barns filled with rolling stock house family favorites such as the Nebraska Zephyr and streetcars that once rolled through our hometown (long before our time!). The kids loved checking out the compartments of Pullman sleeper cars, although Mom and Dad found them just a bit claustrophobic. We endured the mild shame of entering the wrong door of the trolley car for a ride around the entire grounds -- go in through the back, out through the front. Yet, as always, the kids may have been most wowed by the playground. IRM has recently installed substantial trained-themed play equipment giving both toddlers and older climbers the chance to work off the wiggles and play engineer in a safe place.
The new playground at IRM 
Wandering through
the interurban car barn

After almost five hours and three train rides, which seemed too few for our 8-year old, we called it a day, but only after a visit to the expansive gift shop. It's a paradise of train toys, knickknacks and mementos, so come with your spending money or be ready to repeat, "We are not shopping for us today!"

The museum remains open daily in September with trains operating on the weekends. Check the website for special fall and winter events, including Halloween and Christmas activities, coming up in the weeks to come. 

The Illinois Railway Museum is at 700 Olson Road in Union, Illinois.

By the wheels of the Grand Trunk Western 6323

Wise words

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Naperville: Saying goodbye to TRAINS! at the DuPage Children's Museum

Naperville, IL -- During my family's annual summer visit to the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, we said goodbye to a beloved exhibit. TRAINS! ends its two-year run at the end of this month. Before the museum closes for it's September hiatus, squeeze in a final visit or two to see the model train, "drive" or "ride" a Metra, be a ticket agent, operate a crane, or enjoy a great selection of books and artwork about railroads. A farewell party is planned for the evening of August 22 beginning at 5 p.m. Kids will be able to enjoy rides on two child-sized trains running in the parking lot during the event. Parents can RSVP for the festivities via the museum's web form. Goodbye, TRAINS! You will be missed. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Railroad Roadtrip: Trains in Wisconsin's Northwoods

At the Minocqua Museum
Northern Wisconsin -- Ah, the Northwoods: a vacation paradise of forests, lakes and trains.

For families who head Up North on their summer vacation, a day away from the cabin can include a whistle stop at local museums with charming model train layouts and retired railroad cars. More avid railroad fans can even enjoy the rare opportunity to ride an operational steam train. This being a tourist paradise, the non-train lover will be rewarded for coming along for the ride with fun sites to see and things to do at the very same spots.

Main-level layout at Minocqua Museum
Large layout at the Minocqua Museum


My family  recently returned from our first Northwoods vacation in several years. We knew our week in the woods would include a few train stops, but the first was a chance discovery. During a morning visit to Minocqua we were in need of rest rooms and turned to the Minocqua Museum in our time of need. Lo and behold, what should we discover upon entering but a delightful model train layout on the main level and an even larger layout in the museum's basement. Both illustrate the area's history as towns grew up around railroad lines thanks to logging and tourism industries in the late 19th century. My boys were captivated by both layouts and appreciated being able to operate some of the trains with the push of a button. As is so often the case at small museums, the  engineer on hand, who had built both layouts, was eager to share his love of history and trains with our family. (For my daughter, who was less entranced with the trains, other exhibits fascinated her, including sitting in the Cameron automobile and playing teacher in the schoolhouse exhibit.)


The Lumberjack Steam Train
Laona, Wisconsin

The very next day, our family headed in the opposite direction to little Laona, Wisconsin for a ride on the Lumberjack Steam Train. Despite our many visits to train museums and countless train rides, this day marked our first family experience with a real, running steam engine. In truth, it was the dad of the family who was most excited to finally experience the puff-puff, chug-chug! According to the museum, the "Laona & Northern Railway was incorporated in 1902. ... It is the only logging railroad engine left in Wisconsin operating on its original line." The engine itself, a 2-6-2 for those of you who count wheels, was built in 1916.

Playground at Camp 5 
View from the caboose cupola
On our ride from the Laona station to Camp 5 (a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places) we sat in the Open Car. Thanks to the Plexiglass shielding we were able to enjoy a view of the engine pushing us backwards to the camp without experiencing the grit that would have been a feature of steam travel in days gone by. Two coach passenger cars were an option for riders as well, as two -- yes, two -- bright yellow cabooses. The ride lasted not much more than 10 minutes, but it wound through beautiful woods, across level crossings and a lake-side bridge, finally ending in the picturesque Camp 5. During our two-hour visit, our middle-child was rewarded for her train tolerance with a visit to the Animal Petting Corral where she and her brothers were able to pet kittens, hold bunnies, and get close to goats, pigs, chickens and a calf. Everyone enjoyed also wandering through the forestry museum -- nothing like seeing the real tools of actual loggers to put that Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty breakfast into perspective. Of course, no matter where we go, the kids always like the park the best, so the playground next to the "Choo-Choo Hut" cafe could have entertained them for hours. When it was time say goodbye to Camp 5, the kids skipped over the passenger cars in favor of a caboose seat, willing to wait 20 minutes in the cupola to hold their places up high and mastering the art of small talk with other kids doing the very same thing. After we returned to the station and spent some time gazing at the train from the safety of a conveniently placed swing set, we pulled out of the parking lot with a send-off blow of the train whistle and a wave from the locomotive's engineer.


After disembarking from the return trip,
 children took turns tooting the steam whistle

"Steam Hauler" for pulling sleighs loaded with logs
Our final train trek took us to Pioneer Park in Rhinelander. According to the museum docents who welcomed us, most kids head straight to the same place mine dashed upon entering the grounds: the Rhinelander Railroad Museum and Model Railroad. Its focal point is the circa 1890 Soo Line depot, which features four rooms of railroad memorabilia, including telegraph equipment that my 2-year old found most compelling. The Rhinelander Rail Association operates the model railroad layout on the lower level, providing a glimpse of the community's history as the rail lines and town centers would have appeared in the early twentieth century.   

Model train display by the Rhinelander Rail Association
Part of a mural outside the Firebarn. 
Outside the depot, visitors may inspect the 1925 narrow gauge steam engine and a passenger car from the Thunder Lake Lumber Company, a caboose from the Soo Line Railroad, a signal tower, and many other equipment pieces. Kids can walk through the caboose, but at this time the passenger car is being restored and is not open for inside visits. Due to the age of the equipment, climbing on the locomotive is also forbidden, however, a museum brochure points to the cow catcher on the front of the engine as a fine place for posed photos. (While there, take note of the narrowness of the narrow-gauge tracks: just 36 inches apart, compared to the 56 inches between the rails of standard trains.) 

"Number 5," a narrow-gauge locomotive
This museum also features several additional exhibits depicting the varied history of the region and diverse interests of guests. Other sites include a sawmill, one-room school house, Civilian Conservation Corps camp building, restored fire engines, blacksmith shop, boating museum, logging displays, and a gift shop. Aside from the trains, my kids were most engaged by the school house with its sand table and collection of rubber stamps -- apparently children across the generations enjoy spending their free time at school in similar ways. 

After visiting the Hodag in the gift shop -- Babe the Blue Ox isn't the only mysterious creature of the northwoods -- we were begged yet again to head for the playground next to the museum for some running, climbing, and sliding. It was the end of the line our train adventures. We needed a day of playing in the woods and the lake before saying "All aboard" to the family van and heading home.  

Soo Line Caboose from the 1880s

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Geneva: Trackless Train at Famfest 2014

Geneva -- Check out the schedule for Famfest 2014 at Faith Baptist Church in Geneva for an afternoon of kid-pleasing activities, including rides on a trackless train. The event happens this Saturday, August 2 starting at noon. Activities are free, but registration is required via the church's online form

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Glen Ellyn: Free Cupcakes at 2 Toots!

Psst, there are free cupcakes to be had at 2 Toots this weekend! Here's the email we received: 

"Get a FREE cupcake delivered to you by train!
Just a friendly reminder.*  When you sit down to eat for the Illinois Wounded Warrior's Weekend - June 28-29 2014 - at the Glen Ellyn, 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill, mention that you "WANT TO MEET SHAUN." He is the new owner/operator.  And, as a show of thanks for your patronage, you will receive a FREE cupcake. 

Offer Expires: June 29, 2014 at 8:00PM Central Time"

Read more about the new owner of 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill in the Daily Herald

Friday, June 13, 2014

Warrenville: St. James' Farm Caboose

Warrenville, Illinois -- A few weekends ago, my family was introduced to the gem that is St. James Farm. The property, now part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, originally served as a private retreat for the McCormick family of International Harvester fame. They left behind remarkable dairy and equestrian facilities, as well as an impressive collection of sculpture. Visitors can now enjoy the preserve's more than 600 acres by trail, or by simply enjoying fishing or picnicking.

Of special interest to my group, of course, was the 1906 Burlington & Quincy Caboose. This railcar first came to St. James Farm during the McCormick family's days here to entertain children and it still fulfills its mission. Kids rush to board the caboose and see the equipment still featured from its' days as working rail stock. On the day we visited, a hay-ride guide told us a push button sets the caboose to rocking to emulate the feel of a train really rolling down the track. (We could only find plenty of kids to wiggle it on the rails in their own way.)

Love this vintage
Burlington dish towel!
To learn more about what really went on in the caboose during its operational days and why it ended up at St. James Farm, make a trip to the farm Saturday, June 14 between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Visitors will hear about the jobs of the brakeman and conductor and the CA & E Railroad. The program is free for kids under 5, $2 for kids 5-12 and $5 for adults. 

Enter St James Farm at Winfield Road. The preserve is just north of Butterfield Road (Illinois 56). For a map, click here

Inside the caboose

West Chicago: Caboose at Reed-Keppler Park

West Chicago, Illinois -- Thanks to a gift from the Canadian National Railway, visitors to the Turtle Splash water park at Reed-Keppler Park are treated to the sight of an E, J & E caboose at the western edge of the parking lot. (Old and new technology meet these days as heavy equipment is currently busy constructing the community's new ARC recreation center, also just west of the splash park.) The caboose previously resided in Joliet, according to "Around and About in West Chicago." The caboose arrived in West Chicago via truck in April 2013. More information about West Chicago's railroad history is available on the City Museum blog.  

Reed-Keppler Park is located at 129 W. National St., West Chicago. 

Batavia: Summer Hours for Depot Museum

Batavia, Illinois -- Batavia's Depot Museum has posted "new summer hours." The depot will now be open longer on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from noon until 4 p.m. The depot is located next to the Fox River Trail at the northeast corner of Houston and Water streets in downtown Batavia.

Information about the museum is available at it's website

Geneva: Model Railroad Display at Swedish Days

Geneva, Illinois -- Chicago's LGB Railroad Club returns to the Geneva History Center June 17 through 22 with the club's display train layout and other activities in honor of the 65th Swedish Days festival. The train is a large scale layout. The center will be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children. 

The Geneva History Center is located at 113 S. Third Street in downtown Geneva across from the old courthouse. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Maple Park: Orchard Train Coming to Kuipers Family Farm

Our first visit to Kuipers in 2007.
Future visits could include a train ride
among the autumn activities
Maple Park, Ill.  -- All aboard the orchard train! According to an article in today's Kane County Chronicle, Kuipers Family Farm has been given the okay to install a train for guests to ride. The Kane County Board approved the action during this week's meeting. The train may not be ready for little engineers for another year, but installation of the track could begin this summer. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

St. Charles: G-Scale Model Train on Display

According to releases appearing in local papers (I saw it in the Kane County Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune) a G-Scale Model train will be on display in the greenhouses of the Wasco Nursery and Garden Center during Fathers Day weekend. According to the release, the train will be set up in the greenhouse and among the plants. A "Live Steam Train" will be featured as well. The event is planned for June 13-15. Wasco Nursery is open 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.on Saturday and Sunday. Oh, and this is a free event! Count us in! 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wheaton: Monkey Joe's

This train and its cars appear on the walls of the toddler zone

The twisting gears of a colorful train on the walls of the toddler area at Wheaton's Monkey Joe's give little ones something to enjoy while the bigger kids are bouncing around on the facilities many inflatables.  Other activities for the tiny tykes include many small toys to push around their very own corner, which is a safe distance away from the enthusiastic bouncing and inevitable running of older patrons. Slightly bigger, bolder youngsters have a bouncy place of their own just a few feet away. Of course, the bravest of all ages will want to try everything. So, bring them early before the biggest kids are out of school, done with their morning activities or out of their pajamas. Kids age 2 and under are half the price of their older siblings and friends! 
Coming down the slide on the little kids' inflatble

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Aurora: Preschooler Train Class

Engine-eye view of Blackberry's train
The Fox Valley Park District is offering a fun class for preschoolers at Blackberry Farm this summer. The All Aboard! program for 4 to 6 year old meets at the farms Train Depot where children get to pretend to be station masters, then take a ride around the pond on the small-scale train. There are also train crafts, including a take-home whistle. The class meets for two hours with the choice of a June 30 or July 10 session. Full details are in the Summer Activity Guide. (Psst, it's on page 45.) Registration for residents begins May 10. Non-residents can sign up for activities beginning May 19.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

No Polar Express Here: Digging out from the Polar Vortex

We here at Railroad Kids headquarters are just now digging out of the Polar Vortex. Oh, there has been much building of trains this winter. It takes the skill of an Olympic slalom skier to navigate rooms that have been literally covered in wooden train tracks, Lego train tracks and Power Train tracks, not to mention the urban landscapes that said railroads traverse.  As always, our reading of train books and viewing of train videos goes on and on. 

With the layout
she built herself 
Unfortunately, between the frigid cold and the epic power of Winter Germs, we haven't been out to visit many train sites this winter. We aren't the only ones who have sequestered ourselves. I was heartbroken to see the season has been too tough for a great little restaurant in Geneva. Last month, the Boxcar train restaurant announced that it was closing its doors. It was nice place: tasty food, fun for the kids, decorated in a way that even adults could appreciate. The Boxcar will be missed. 

After Christmas there was certainly a lull in train-themed family activities of all sorts, but take heart, those types of events are picking up again. May I point to the Chicago Family Palooza happening this very day in at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles? If you can't stand today's return to snow and icy winds, the many, many indoor attractions include a trackless train ride. It's the kind of thing that my kids would love if all three were healthy simultaneously. Alas, such is not the case. 

So, we continue to dream of Spring. Even now, my two year old is making a substantial Duplo train and station right here in the living room. No cough can hold him back from his engineering pursuits. Someday soon we hope to get out and ride the rails again. Until then, we build, build build! 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Batavia: Lego Day

Scenes from last year's
Batavia library
 Lego Day
Batavia, IL -- (Saturday, Jan. 25) Lego trains will be among the displays to see this Saturday at Batavia Public Library. The library's popular Lego Day will be open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The Lego city scenes, which will include an elevated train, will be the work of ChiLUG -- Chicago Area Lego Users Group. Young builders will have a chance to make Lego creations of their own at the event, too. There are no admission fees or registration requirements. 

The library is located at 10 S. Batavia Ave., Batavia. 

A past Lego Day 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Magazine alert: Trains Magazine Big Boy issue

The perfect Easter basket present has been found! Trains magazine is now promoting their upcoming Big Boy issue, which will detail the process of bringing back to life the Union Pacific "Big Boy" engine. They are promising 100 pages of information on the restoration process for California's No. 4014. These 1940s engines were legendary for the power they brought to railroading over the mountains of the west coast. In my house, the story of the Big Boy has been a long-time favorite and my Senior Engineer can rattle off facts about its wheel alignment, engine power and service routes faster than a baseball fan can recite game stats. Parents, our schools (and our kids' future employees) want to see our young people develop their non-fiction reading skills. Even though its not a "kids" magazine, this is the kind of material that will get them excited about reading and developing those abilities. 

Big Boy: On the Road to Restoration is due to be published in April, with reservations (at a discount price) available on their website now. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Train Book Alert: "Train" by Elisha Cooper

When I head to the library, my Senior Engineer almost always asks for train books to be brought home. We were both delighted to discover the new picture book Train by Elisha Cooper. With lilting illustrations and flowing narration, Train depicts the journey of several kinds of trains across the country. It was a special treat to find the Passenger Train "thundering into ... the outskirts of a midwestern city filled with smokestacks and factories and belching steam." Even the youngest Chicagoan, or suburban visitor, will see a skyline filled with very familiar skyscrapers. That real-life inspiration for the scenes on these pages extends to the rolling stock on every page. Images of Amtrak and Union Pacific engines, as well as cargo cars branded with recognizable names (CSX, Norfolk Southern, ADM, Hanjin), fills this picture book with enough detail to appeal to the maturing young reader, as well as their younger siblings. Those older readers, or parents of any question-asking train fan, will appreciate the glossary and notes with more than a dozen railroad terms explained. 

Find Train at libraries and bookstores

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Road trip alert: Wisconsin Dells and Middleton, Wisconsin

A past visit to the
Mid-Continent Railway Museum
in North Freedom, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells -- Our holiday plans took us up to the Wisconsin Dells last week. While we didn't have time to take in the area tourist attractions beyond our hotel pool, our Senior Engineer noticed several activities he would like to visit next time we are in the area. (Once kids start to read well, nothing escapes their notice, does it?) When your travel plans take you north, too, here are some fun outings ideas for your own train fans: 

  • Buffalo Phil's Pizza & Grill: Find this restaurant at the Tanger Outlet Mall and enjoy food delivered by train. 
  • Riverside & Great Northern Railway: When this 15-inch gauge railroad opens in the spring, you'll be able to enjoy a steam train ride along a three-mile route through the scenic Dells. There's also a free museum and gift shop. 
  • Mid-Continent Railway Museum: Located not to far away in North Freedom, this is a museum my family has been visiting for years, so the kids are eager to enjoy it again soon. A "Snow Train" weekend is coming up in mid-February, then the season opens for good in May. In the meantime, website visitors can follow the "Restoration Journal" to see the progress volunteers are making on the museum's steam engine collection. 
Travel Tangent: On your way to or from the Dells, you might find yourself in need of refreshment. I love quirky museums, so it was a delight to finally stop at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, near Madison. Further proof that trains are everywhere you look, among the vast collection of mustard jars from around the world, we found model train cars emblazoned with mustard brands. They are something to peek at while pondering which of the hundreds of mustard varieties you might want to sample with the museum's fresh pretzels. Yummy fun!

At the Mustard Museum, Middleton Wisconsin

At the Mustard Museum, Middleton Wisconsin