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Elmhurst History Museum exhibit tracks history of Chicago railways

Conductors wait on the platform at Elmhurst’s Chicago & North Western station circa 1911. Photo provided
Conductors wait on the platform at Elmhurst’s Chicago & North Western station circa 1911. Photo provided

ELMHURST – For those hoping to let off some steam this winter, the Elmhurst History Museum’s new exhibit may be just the ticket.

“On the Right Track: By Rail to Chicago & Beyond” examines the role of railways in building Chicago’s population and its suburbs. The exhibit, which opened Nov. 14, explores 170 years of history.

“This exhibit takes a broader, regional approach to railways in this area,” said David Oberg, executive director of the Elmhurst History Museum. “The different train lines throughout this area stitched us into the fabric of America.”

Created by staffers at the museum, “On the Right Track” draws attention to the impact railways had on the Midwest, from the creation of the suburbs to the rise of commuter culture.

“I’d go so far as to say without railroads that Elmhurst may not be on the map – or certainly as busy,” Oberg said. “The railroad is a game changer for Elmhurst and for a lot of surrounding suburbs as well.

When Elmhurst was still growing, it was much more challenging to travel and participate in the economy. But when the railways came through town, Oberg said it changed the way the community functioned.

“Not making that bone-jarring stage coach route on St. Charles road, which took hours and hours to do – I mean, imagine being able to go the exhilarating rate of 25 mph at that time,” he said. “The ability to travel and ship opened the area up to add farming settlements, and suddenly you can ship and receive. Then a little downtown started to grow around the station.”

The story “On the Right Track” tells goes far beyond Elmhurst’s city limits.

“This is not simply an Elmhurst story. It’s a broader Chicagoland story,” Oberg said. “We take for granted transit, but trains brought growth and economic prosperity. Imagine for every train car there being yet another semi-truck on the road. Think traffic is bad now? Wait for it without those railroads. It puts us on the map.”

The exhibit looks at railroads, including Galena and Chicago Union, Milwaukee Road, Chicago and North Western, Illinois Central, and Chicago, Aurora and Elgin, among others, according to a news release.

To pull off an exhibit as extensive as “On the Right Track,” Oberg said a lot of original research was required. In addition to information aggregation, collaboration with other museums and societies with interest in railroads such as the Illinois Railroad Museum and the Illinois State Historical Society took place. It took more than a year to secure some items that are being displayed in the exhibit.

“To tell this whole story, we needed to round up an interesting and rare collection to put together and a good-looking exhibit with lots of depth and interesting information,” Oberg said.

Though the artifacts may be off limits, the museum still wants children to come see the exhibit, and to ensure they do, the exhibit will be family-friendly. The exhibit will include an interactive track-switching game, a working telegraph that can send Morse code and a wooden train play area overlaid on a map of the Chicago rail system.

In tandem with the exhibit, musical programs and informative speeches, including one given by the exhibit’s curator, will be given throughout the four months the exhibit will be open.

“I want people to leave with a greater appreciation for how important the railroad is for the growth of our area and our country, how it works and functions,” he said. “And hopefully have some fun along the way.”

If You Go

What: “On the Right Track: By Rail to Chicago & Beyond”

When: Nov. 14 through March 29

Where: Elmhurst History Museum, 120 E. Park Ave., Elmhurst

Cost: Free

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