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Railroading Through the County

Did you know that two railroad engineers from Harvard—“Casey” Jones and Tom King —operated the first American locomotive in France? It was 1917-18, during the Great War.

This comes to no surprise considering the vital role railroads had played for decades in the county and the number of young men from that era who had followed the “call of the rails.”

Fast Tracks to Prosperity

Simply put, the railroads shaped McHenry County. Communities like Nunda, Huntley, “West” McHenry and Harvard sprang up in the 1850s in partnership with the railroads and quickly became the economic engines driving the region. Typewriters from Woodstock; ice from Crystal Lake; hogs from Hebron; bass, trout, and sunfish from the Spring Grove Hatchery; and dairy products nearly every morning from practically every station in the county reached distant markets thanks to freight trains bound for Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond for decades.

Passenger trains helped establish McHenry County as a playground for the rich. Big-city elites built summer homes and resorts along the Fox River, the wooded shores of our many small lakes or, as was the case with Charles S. Dole, grand estates around which cities would prosper.

Boom Towns Abound

In 1856, the first McHenry County depot for the Chicago, Saint Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad was shipped out on flatcars and erected at the site of present-day downtown Crystal Lake. This small, prefab building served as accommodations for workmen. No town existed yet—just tracks in the wide-open prairie—so builders roped and staked the depot’s walls to the ground for fear that strong winds might topple them over.

Yet, around this simple stationhouse, a hamlet was born, with a lean-to serving as post office. Businesses sprang up, and the village of Nunda was eventually platted and merged with nearby Crystal Lake in 1914 after a decades-long rivalry. Called the Pacific Northwest Line today, running 63 miles from Chicago to Harvard, this station’s successor serves Metra’s longest route and more than 1,000 commuters per day.

Similar scenes played out across McHenry County. In the early 1850s, Thomas Stillwell Huntley deeded land for a depot along the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad and platted a village there called Huntley Station. Likewise, a local farmer named William Cary, noting the prosperous gravel pits dug around his land, platted a town site in 1856 called Cary Station along the Chicago, Saint Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad.

The first train puffed through Harvard in 1856. By 1912, 47 trains passed through the city daily. Nine sets of tracks running straight through Harvard’s main street secured its status as the busiest rail yard in the Chicago & North Western’s McHenry County track system. This led the “WPA Guide to Illinois” to accurately predict in 1939, “Harvard, 60 miles out from the city, may eventually become a long-range suburb of the metropolis.”

Meanwhile, villages bypassed by the tracks—with names like Coral, Greenwood and Franklinville—decimated in population and losing trade to the “railroads towns,” remained mere hamlets or were reduced to virtual ghost towns.

An Occasional Train Wreck

Comedy ensued when the Fox River Valley Railroad extended a line through McHenry County across the right-of-way of the Chicago & North Western. Despite a different grading that allowed the Fox River Valley to run under the existing line without interfering in its operation, the Chicago & North Western refused to cooperate. Determined workers for the FRV tunneled beneath the existing tracks, only to have Chicago & North Western men, according to the old county histories, “fill the excavation as soon as it was made.” This continued for days. Finally, the Fox River Valley “rallied its troops on the Sabbath,” dug all the way through unopposed and built a pile bridge to support the Chicago & North Western tracks passing above their new line. Satisfied, the Chicago & North Western offered no further objection, peace was made and a proverbial train wreck avoided.

Yet, the occasional train wreck did occur. On September 11, 1911, for example, an empty passenger train waiting on the Chicago & North Western line in Crystal Lake was struck by an outbound steam engine from Chicago. Evidently, the switch light was obscured by fog, causing the accident, and three coach cars were totaled. There were no serious injuries but plenty of interest by local residents sifting through the wreckage.

“If the collision had happened five minutes later,” says Diana Kenney of the Crystal Lake Historical Society, “there most certainly would have been fatalities, as the local was just getting ready to board passengers.”

Interurbans, the electric lines popular in the early 20th century, were plagued with such accidents. A number of head-on collisions occurred between eastbound and westbound cars of the Elgin and Belvidere line, which ran from 1907 to 1930 with stops in Huntley, Marengo and Union. In each case, the motormen leapt to safety mere seconds before impact. On January 9, 1908, an eastbound car was actually derailed by a herd of livestock at Keating Crossing near Huntley; there were no fatalities, fortunately, save for a pair of unfortunate mules.

Moving History

With all this rail activity, it’s only fitting that McHenry County is home to the largest and most dynamic railway museum in America. Moved in 1964 to 26 acres in Union, the Illinois Railway Museum is a sight to be seen. Its main campus encompasses more than 60 acres today.

“What we built here over the past five-and-a-half decades with virtually 100 percent volunteers is truly amazing,” says Ray Piesciuk, Illinois Railway Museum President. “Imagine taking an empty field and abandoned railroad right-of-way and turning it into what we have today with a lot of sweat, muscle and donations.

“Although the museum is technically run by an elected board of directors, in my opinion, the heart and soul of the museum are the hundreds of volunteer workers that keep the place going,” says Piesciuk. “Those of us on the board make some general decisions, but where the steel meets the rails is all the volunteers. Before becoming more involved in the general operation of the museum, I had no idea whatsoever of the incredible number of people it took to run the place. I encourage everyone to come out and visit for several reasons. Obviously, to experience the grandeur of our collection, which we believe is the largest in the country, at more than 400 pieces. We also believe that we have the widest range of equipment encompassing steam, diesel and electric locomotives; interurban, rapid transit cars; freight and passenger cars; motor and trolley buses; and even freight tunnel equipment from the Chicago freight tunnel system. Also, take a ride on some of this equipment. Our motto is ‘A Museum In Motion.’ You can look at a piece of equipment and say ‘I’d sure like to ride that’—and you just might be able to!”

The Illinois Railway Museum (, 800-BIG-RAIL) opens to the public on weekends beginning April 4, 2009. Steam and diesel trains start running on Saturday, May 2. And, the museum maintains a well-stocked research room at the Strahorn Library in Marengo (815-568-1060).

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