Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fox River Trolleys

After the Arlington Heights parade on the morning of Independence Day, which we abandoned after about an hour – that’s enough standing-around time for most parades – we returned home for lunch but soon headed west, to near the banks of the Fox River. That's because the Fox River Trolley Museum has its home there, in South Elgin on Illinois 31 on the west side of the river.

We’d driven by it a number of times, but like most train museums it has limited hours (I’m using “train” museum loosely, because in fact the cars on the Fox River are trolleys, powered by overhead electric wires). So we’d never managed to visit before. But according to our sources, the place was not only open on the Fourth, but discounting its rides to a dollar each. Who could pass that up? A lot of people, apparently. I was worried about crowds and waiting around for the next trolley in the now-hot sun, but only about a dozen other people were around, so we got to ride as soon as the trolley was ready. I barely had time to support the museum by buying some postcards.

It’s a small operation, most of whose cars are beat up, rusted and closed to the public, but I’m sure the all-volunteer staff is doing its best. One car that was open was a caboose, showing visitors state-of-the-art comfort for trainmen in the early 20th century. Two trolleys were actually running on the Fourth, including a former Chicago Transit Authority car dating, according to the conductor, from 1924 and that saw service for about 50 years. That’s the one we rode. It squeaks, needs paint, and is otherwise in need of cosmetic restoration, but it runs all right. Not air conditioned (which would be wrong), but it was surprisingly cool with the breeze coming in the partly opened windows, which might be stuck in their positions.

The right-of-way follows the river and then into a forest preserve, and is the last vestige of an interurban trolley network that used to connect the towns in eastern Kane County. Towns then, suburbs now. The conductor noted that the road we came on killed off passenger service on the interurban once it was paved, but that the museum’s line survived into the 1960s because it was used to haul coal to the State Mental Hospital upriver a few miles in Elgin.

He was a little younger than I am, this burly and mustachioed volunteer conductor, but clearly into the part, busting out with “Alllllllll aboard!” at the right time, dressed in dark-blue conductor finery of a older time -- the cap, the white collar, the brass buttons – and perhaps living a boyhood-train dream just a little, though he might be a CPA or a bathroom contractor most of the time. Just speculating here, but the love of trolleys was there in his voice as he detailed the history of the car, the tracks and interurban transit in this corner of Illinois.

The four-mile ride itself was pretty, rolling along lush green territory, sometime glimpsing the Fox, other times crossing grassy fields. The driver had to stop and blow the whistle a couple of times at one point to clear the tracks of joggers. Bet that wasn’t a problem during the line’s regular passenger runs 80 years ago.



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