On Sunday, I had a vision of the suburb of West Chicago. Thousands of people regularly visited the community to see railroad displays and learn about the influence of the railroad on local history, the Chicago region, and the nation as a whole. Both regular and special trains drew onlookers. Local businesses, some with railroad themes, some not, benefited from extra visitors. Even as the car has dominated suburban life for decades, West Chicago remained an exciting testament to the power of the railroad in American life.
This vision may seem outlandish on a regular day but not so this past Sunday. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever built, spent several days parked at the Union Pacific facilities just outside downtown West Chicago. On a hot summer Sunday, a large crowd gathered to see the locomotive and several passenger cars. Multiple generations turned out. People waited patiently to walk through one of the passenger cars. People stood next to the giant Big Boy and cheered when it released steam.
A community roughly thirty miles west of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the community was founded as Junction around a railroad junction linking several other lines to the first railroad line in and out of Chicago (the Galena & Chicago Union). Workers came for railroad jobs. Factories and industrial facilities located near the railroad lines (including the later-arriving Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway). The community developed an identity around the railroad, with a Main Street that backed up to the railroad, the annual Railroad Days celebration and the prominent locomotive on the city seal. If there is a Chicago area suburb that can claim the railroad as its own, it is West Chicago.
Why doesn’t the suburb attract more visitors with such a rich railroad past? It may not be for a lack of trying. A display on Main Street featured a locomotive for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, local groups developed plans to create a downtown railroad theme with one committee member saying West Chicago could become “Railroadsville, Illinois.” In the late 1980s, DuPage County planners said a railroad theme had great potential to offer something unique to families and visitors.
These efforts never quite came together. The suburb still benefits from its multiple transportation advantages – the railroad, DuPage County Airport, proximity to multiple major roads including Illinois Route 59, Illinois Route 64, and Interstate 88. But, the Illinois Railway Museum is located miles away to the northwest. West Chicago’s downtown struggles. The most attention many suburban residents pay to the railroad involves impatience when roadways are blocked by long freight trains or regular passenger trains.
When Big Boy leaves later this morning, perhaps it takes with it any hope that West Chicago can become a railroad tourist center. There is a minor chance it could happen; West Chicago has a history to build on. There is a market: thousands of visitors came out to see Big Boy. However, it would take sustained effort, resources, and some good timing.
Update 7/31/19: An estimated 45,000 people visited West Chicago to see Big Boy.