Illinois Railway Museum – Union, Illinois - Atlas Obscura
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Illinois Railway Museum

Union, Illinois

At the largest railway museum in the United States, you can see everything from an early steam engine to a functioning Thomas the Train Engine.  

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Who doesn’t want to ride in a life-sized Thomas the Tank Engine? That’s one of the many items you might see at the Illinois Railway Museum, located 50 miles northwest of Chicago in Union, Illinois.

The museum was founded in 1953 by 10 men who each contributed $100 to purchase Indiana Railroad 65, a recently retired interurban car that was on the verge of being scrapped. Since then, it has grown into the largest railway museum in the United States, with a collection filled with working trains including steam, diesel, and electric models. The Illinois Railway Museum has two operating steam engines (and a third being restored), a retired CTA red line train, as well as Pullman cars for visitors to tour and ride in.

The Illinois Railway Museum is situated on over 1,00 acres of land with 20 structures. Touring the historical structures such as the 1851 East Union Depot, Spaulding Tower, the Schroeder Mercantile Store, and the Central Diner is a blast. There are horse-drawn streetcars, million-pound steam locomotives, sleek streamlines and basic boxcars to see and tour in the many barns where the trains are parked when not running the rails. An admission ticket includes unlimited train rides and access to all public areas.

The museum is a mix of indoor and outdoor areas, so dress appropriately for the season you’re visiting in. The Schroeder Store and Central Diner are heated or air-conditioned and there are restrooms in multiple locations on the grounds. The Central Diner boasts a 1930s roadside diner vibe and features a dining room with a panoramic view of streetcars. There are picnic tables throughout the grounds and visitors are welcome to bring their own food.

The highlight of the museum is the collection of historical railway equipment, the largest in North America. Different trains are brought out to run on the museum’s lines, so you’ll want to visit more than once to ride a different train each time. Their calendar of events lists the train schedule. While the train decorated like Thomas the Tank Engine is not part of the museum’s permanent collection, it is brought in for special events a few times a year.

The Illinois Railway Museum is owned and operated entirely by volunteers who are the ultimate cosplay as they dress the role of keeping these historical trains running and telling their stories.

Know Before You Go

Major portions of the museum buildings and grounds are wheelchair accessible.

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