JOLIET – Three thousand people are taking a train back to the 1940s this weekend on the Joliet Rocket, a steam locomotive pulling rail cars from a past era.
Just the 700 people lined up for the first ride out of Joliet on Saturday morning were reminiscent of a bygone age when train stations were crowded with travelers.
Some waiting for the Joliet Rocket were dressed in 1940s garb, including men in World War II military uniforms and women in dresses, hats and gloves.
Tom Rock of Crown Point, Indiana, was wearing a beige suit, straw hat, bow tie and spectator shoes.
“There’s only one way to ride on a train like that,” Rock said. “It was a different day and age. You would dress up to take the train to town.”
The Joliet Rocket was making four trips to the LaSalle Street Station and back – two on Saturday and two on Sunday. In Chicago, there would be a two-hour layover with live music, re-enactors, vintage cocktails, appetizers and awards for best-dressed passengers.
The 13 rail cars were nearly sold out for the weekend, making the Joliet Rocket one of the largest steam train excursions in the country in a decade, said Kelly Lynch, vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which organized the excursion with Metra.
Most steam-powered train excursions don’t involve as many trips, but the Joliet Rocket was a unique opportunity, Lynch said.
“It’s the first steam-powered locomotive on this route since 1973,” Lynch said.
The Rock Island Railroad introduced its Rocket trains in 1937, when competition for rail travelers was strong, Lynch said. The Rocket trains were considered luxurious, having personal valets, cocktail bars, coffee bars and electrical outlets.
There was no Joliet Rocket in that era, Lynch said. But there was a Peoria Rocket that stopped in Joliet on the way to Chicago, “so this was the route,” Lynch said, standing on the platform now used for Metra’s Rock Island line.
The Joliet Rocket evoked memories far beyond the old Peoria-Chicago route.
“Look, PRR,” Stu Wright said to his wife, Missy, as he saw one of the rail cars bearing the reporting mark of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, which was based in Philadelphia.
“I grew up in Philly,” said Wright, who now lives in Chicago. “I rode the Reading Rambles as a kid. This hat,” he said, pointing to a conductor’s hat with the name Reading Railroad printed on it, “is from 1963.”
“Train stations aren’t what they used to be,” said Jim Delimata of Mokena, who as a kid went on a vacation every year on a train from Chicago to Florida. “You’d go there, and they’d announce every stop from Chicago to Florida.”
Delimata’s father worked for the B&O Railroad in Chicago.
“My dad was a car knocker,” Delimata said. “He inspected the cars and repaired them.”
The fact that it was Father’s Day weekend might have contributed to the large turnout for the Joliet Rocket.
Jim Tatum of Lewistown said it would be his first ride on a steam-powered train since 1976, when his dad took him and his brothers for a ride on a train called the Cornhusker Special from Peoria to Watseka.
“I’m a rail fan,” Tatum said. So was his father.
Matt Schoder of Sandusky, Ohio, said his dad, a railroad enthusiast, took him to see a steam locomotive in 1979.
“I was a wee 7 years old,” Schoder said. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”