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Living History by Rail

WW II Living History Days at the Illinois Railway Museum salutes the major role trains played in the war.

On May 18-19 you can capture a piece of this World War II nostalgia by attending WWII Living History Days at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. As a salute to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and patriotic Americans of World War II, the Illinois Railway Museum, in cooperation with local re-enactors, will present a very special program called Railroads to Victory.

Here you will experience the part trains played in the war. Military and civilian living historians will set up field camps and home front displays, and recreate battle experiences, along with period civilian and military vehicles and artifacts. The museum will be rolling out special period railway rolling stock, including restored period passenger railroad and streetcars.

A highlight of the Victory weekend includes a recreation of Nebraska’s special North Platte Canteen. Ride the train, enjoy the music and interact with the many soldiers on their cross-country trip as they stop at the canteen and mingle with the museum guests. Catch a trolley ride and witness historical events unfold as both Axis and Allied re-enactors create realistic World War II scenes, from bivouac to battles.

“All Aboard, Next Stop North Platte!”

Our train had a code name, M702, the M stood for ‘Main Train.’ We had a green light, giving us the right-of-way, all the way, as we barreled across America to a secret destination. Every bridge we crossed and every tunnel we passed through was well guarded against sabotage. We were all part of a vast fleet of trains moving 2 million troops a month over an endless ribbon of steel, the American railroad.

We were mostly green troops riding the rails, kids from every walk of life: clerks, teachers, farm boys. The hardest part of the deployment was saying goodbye to our moms and dads, our wives and kids – the last-minute kisses and tears we tried to hide. The emotions we felt that morning were of pride, excitement and overwhelming heartache, as most of us had never been far from home. Finally, we were puffing along, the sound of the brass band that saw us off was long gone – that’s when we were told our destination. Heck, the destination didn’t matter much, as most of us had never even heard of the place. All we knew is we were heading west.

Riding a troop train in 1942 could be as long as five to seven days and was not exactly a picnic. We sat, ate and slept in day coaches; troop-sleeper cars wouldn’t arrive till 1943. Our meals were provided from the troop kitchen, a converted baggage car, located in the middle of our train, complete with U.S. Army cooks using two standard army coal-burning stoves. As the train rumbled on, we would file through the kitchen, our mess kits open, receive our food, then wobble back to our seat.

Air conditioning was unheard of and as the day grew hotter, open windows did provide a breeze, until smoke from the coal-fired locomotive drifted in, mixing with the hot air, burning your nose and eyes. We’d write V(ictory)-mail, clean our weapons, play cards, nap in our seat or on a pile of duffle bags in the rear coach. There were short stops for fuel, water, maybe a train-crew change. If possible we’d run out, stretch our legs and get some fresh air. The stops were brief, mostly at towns with no station. The boilerman would swing out a massive water spigot and with the jerk of a chain, water would flow – we called these Jerkwater towns. Ten minutes later, we were back on our tired way.

On the third hot July evening, the best thing ever happened when we pulled into a town called North Platte, Neb. Here we were, in the middle of the American Plains, stopping at another isolated patch of the Union Pacific main line, but this time was different. We saw moms and dads, and sisters and brothers, all waving, smiling and greeting us as we pulled in. We almost felt as if we’d arrived home. There were pretty girls in dresses, with nicely starched blouses, carrying bushel baskets full of fruit – ladies with treats, homemade cookies, cigarettes, even pitchers of iced tea. Some of us who were transferring trains were able to run into the station, get a fresh-made sandwich or two, those who couldn’t were served right there at their train window.

We all were asking, ‘What is this place?’ And the girls would shout in unison, ‘Why, it’s the North Platte Canteen!’ We wanted to pay, but they wouldn’t even take our money. More than once we heard, ‘You mean this is all free?’ Gosh, it was great, there was even big band music drifting across the background. Maybe it was the treats, maybe it was the warm, friendly folks of North Platte, all we knew is, it was the best time we ever had in the service.

From before sunrise to well after midnight, every day of the year, rain, sun and snow, the people of North Platte and the surrounding farms and ranches greeted and fed each and every troop train, giving hope and joy to more than 6 million U.S. servicemen and women.

–Sources: “What Life is Like on a Troop Train: Speeding Over the Water Level Route,” Saturday Evening Post, 1943; and

Impressive Track Record: 60 Years for IRM

This year marks a very special postwar celebration – the 60th anniversary of the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM). Founded in 1953, IRM made its permanent home in Union 50 years ago.

The concept for the museum goes back to 1941 when a large interurban rail line was abandoned and work began to preserve one of its electric trolleys. The idea moved up a notch in 1948 when Chicago, the undisputed railway center of the world, celebrated its status by sponsoring the Chicago Railroad Fair. The fair commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first railroad to enter the city: the Galena and Chicago Union Railway. For several years after the fair, there were serious discussions concerning the development of a permanent railway historical facility.

As electric traction cars (trolleys) began to disappear, railroad enthusiasts were determined to preserve some remnants of electric lines. The museum began by gathering and storing cars in North Chicago while looking for a permanent location. Through generous contributions, determination and the stewardship of dedicated museum officers, the railway museum was able to purchase six miles of the abandoned Elgin and Belvidere right-of-way in Union.

By 1961, the scope of the museum included all forms of rail transportation and in 1963 the museum’s permanent home was established in Union. In 1965, a drive for funds raised enough money to purchase an additional 26 acres of land for a terminal area and materials required for the first two miles of rail line. In 1967, the 100-foot-long Marengo Railway Station was carefully taken apart and reassembled at the museum.

Everything about trains is big, from huge engines to heavy wheels. There are thousands of parts to be stored and big repairs to be made in even bigger buildings. Big timbers must be hauled in for trestle bridges, and just to get the museum started 1,300 heavy wood railroad ties were placed and 3,000 feet of track laid. Through contributions and dedicated volunteers, more land has been graded into railroad yard, more storage and display buildings built and more history brought back to life. There is now more than a mile and a half of tracks under roof and besides the large train yard, a mile of streetcar loop and more than five miles of main line for you to ride on. From guest access to trains and cars to winding landscaped sidewalks and handicap accessibility, the museum offers its guests more than a day’s enjoyment. Ride a train, catch the trolley, learn something new ­­– there’s always something to see and do at IRM.


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