Follow these tracks for a family train adventure A quick guide from a trainophile on steam engine sites in the area By Art Belanger
All of us have had the experience of driving toward a railroad crossing just as the red lights start flashing and the gates spanning the road begin their descent. Those of us who are admitted trainophiles know this is the time when we smile and enjoy our good fortune.
The lure of railroading has had a magnetic effect upon people since steam engines were invented. And children are fascinated by trains. Steam trains no longer are part of everyday life, but we don't have to travel far to enjoy them again.
With a trip of only a few hours, or a few days, you can find operating railroads that will allow you to introduce your children to the joy of a train whistle as it dances to the engineer's tug on the rope and the smell of the black smoke as it billows from the stack.
The Illinois Railway Museum is the largest railroad collection in this part of the country and about a one-hour drive from Chicago on Interstate 90 to Union. There are operating steam, diesel and electric railroad trains. Much of the collection is in six large car barns. Admission is $8 weekends, $6 for children; $6 weekdays, $4 for children. Admission includes rides on the trains running that day. www.irm.org; (815) 923-4000.
Camp Five Museum Foundation in Laona, Wis., is a just six hours away on Highway 8. This steam engine-led train will take you 2½ miles to an authentic lumberjack camp. There, take a guided tour through forests where lumber operations continue. Petting zoo, blacksmith shop, nature center, refreshments and lots of logging paraphernalia are there to explore. Admission is $15 for adults, $5 for children 4-12, $10 for 13-17 and free for 3 and under. Open Monday-Saturday through Aug. 30. www.camp5museum.org; (715) 674-3414.
Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad, in Freeport on U.S. 20 west of Rockford, is a little closer to home. Operating out of the Silver Creek Depot from the early 1900s, this steam engine takes riders on a four-mile round trip through Indian Gardens and across a 30-foot stone pier bridge. Trains are scheduled for Sept. 1-2, 27-28; Oct. 11-12, 25-26. The adult fare is $5, $3 for children under 12; call (815) 232-2306.
The National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis., has a vast collection, including the largest steam locomotive ever built and Gen. Eisenhower's World War II command train. During the summer, tickets are $7 adults, $6 seniors, $5 children ages 4-12, free for children 3 and under. www.nationalrrmuseum.org; (920) 437-7623.
Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin is for fans who don't mind riding an electric car. The historic electric railroad bed is left from an interurban system that at one time ran throughout the west and northwest areas into Chicago. The $3.50 adult fare, $2 for children and seniors fare includes a ride along the west bank of the Fox River into Blackhawk Forest Preserve with a stop at Coleman Junction. A second ride costs 50 cents or you can buy an all-day pass for $7. www.foxtrolley.org; (847) 697-4676.
East Troy Electric Railroad in East Troy, Wis., off Interstate 43, is 30 minutes northeast of Lake Geneva. The line runs from East Troy to Mukwonago, where you can visit the Elegant Farmer roadside grocery and bakery. The trains run Saturday and Sunday through October with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday runs through Aug. 22. The fare is $9 for adults, $5 for children 3-11, and free for children 3 and under. www.east troyrr.org; (262) 642-3263.
Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society is seven miles west of Baraboo (home of the Circus World Museum) on Highway 136 in North Freedom, Wis. This rail fan's delight features diesel-powered trains departing four times daily from a restored Chicago & North Western depot. The ride is 50 minutes long and features commentary from the knowledgeable conductors who greet passengers in the vintage cars. Open daily through Labor Day and weekends to mid-October, the fare is $11 for adults, $6 for children 3-12 and free for children 3 and under. This is especially popular for viewing fall colors, and in December with the snow train. www.midcontinent.org; (608) 522-4261.
The Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson, Ind., features a working museum with free caboose rides all year. Plus, you can arrange cab rides ($15) in a diesel locomotive or sign up for the guest engineer program ($50) if you are over age 16. http://hvrm.railfan.net; (574) 896-3950.
The Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville, Ind., offers weekend rides on a diesel-pulled train through October. Admission is $3 adults, $2 for children ages 3-12 and free for children 3 and under. www.itm.org; (317) 773-6000.
Carthage, Knightstown & Shirley Railroad in Knightstown, Ind., 30 miles east of Indianapolis, gives 10-mile rides Fridays-Sundays. Trains depart the depot at 11 a.m.; admission is $7 for ages 12 and over, $5 for ages 3-11 and free for children 2 and under. www.cksrail.com; (765) 345-5561.
La Porte County Historical Steam Society, the Hesston Steam Show in Hesston, Ind., has three trains: full size, amusement-park size and hobby-scale steam trains that operate through Labor Day. The adult fare for the two-mile round trip is $3, $2 for children. www.hesston.org; (219) 872-7405.
Whitewater Valley Railroad in Connersville, Ind., is near the Ohio border. This five-hour round-trip ride is 32 miles through a restored canal town with shops and a working grist mill. There is a two-hour layover in Metamora. The diesel-pulled train runs through October. www.whitewatervalleyrr.org; (765) 825-2054.
Among Art Belanger's earliest memories is the silver Burlington Zephyr. Now the parent of two adult children, he lives with his wife in Addison.