Several suburban Chicago communities have undertaken an effort to capture a significant but little-known nationwide tourist market: people who travel to watch trains. They are known as “rail fans.”
“When we realized we have one of the most densely packed railroad regions in the United States, we began to explore ideas how we could capitalize on it,” says Scott Bort, public relations manager of the Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The visitors bureau and communities worked to form the Illinois Central Railroad Trail. It links a rail museum, a site important in the history of rail travel, observation platforms that have been built just to watch trains, and a restaurant in a 1906 railroad station next to an active track.
Bort says all sites can easily be visited in a day by car. Or, for the most devoted rail fans, several locations are within walking distance of stops along the Metra Electric District commuter line.
Steve Berry, editor of Rail and Railroad Magazine, says there may be as many as 20 dedicated rail observation areas across the country. “However, I am not aware of another area where several communities have joined together to attract rail fan tourists in a concentrated area,” Berry says. “The Illinois Central Rail Trail will also attract subgroups of rail fans like those who collect rail memorabilia or are model train enthusiasts.”
“It is also a great activity for families visiting Chicago with children,” Bort says.
There are six stops on the Illinois Central Rail Trail.
1. Pullman Historic District Visitor’s Center, 11141 South Cottage Grove Avenue, Chicago; Pullmanil.org
The Pullman Palace Car Co. was headquartered in southern Chicago where the plant manufactured railroad cars, including luxury sleeping cars. The museum is a block from the architecturally magnificent clock tower that remains on the site of the plant, which is being considered by the National Park Service as a new national park. The museum exhibits relate to the firm’s history. You can also watch a video about the factory town built by Pullman for plant workers. The village of brick row houses was once known as the “world’s most perfect town.”
Walking tours of the neighborhood can be arranged at the museum visitor center.
2. Blue Island Rail Crossing, Broadway Street between Vine Street and Maple Avenue, City of Blue Island
Known as one of the most active rail-watching hot spots in the Midwest, the crossing features nine intertwined tracks. The tracks lead in different directions after crossing through five side-by-side 1935 truss railroad bridges over the Cal Sag Channel. All tracks cross within a span of 100 yards.
There is no dedicated rail fan spot to watch the trains, but several grassy areas along the tracks provide safe viewing areas for the 90 trains that chug past every day.
3. Dolton Rail Crossing, 14014 Park Avenue, Dolton
A train rumbles through this train-watching spot every 10 to 15 minutes. Frequently two, and often three trains pass simultaneously. Many of the trains stretch almost two miles and number more than 180 freight cars.
The Dolton City Hall parking lot borders the tracks and is a preferred rail fan viewpoint.
4. Homewood Rail Fan Park, Ridge Road and Harwood Avenue, Homewood; homewood.il.us
Situated between the vibrant downtown area and the public Ravisloe Country Club golf course, this elevated railroad viewing platform lets train spotters get an up-close glimpse of nine pair of busy rails. When a locomotive passes, the proximity is close enough to make you want to move to the back of the platform. A speaker overhead conveys an audio feed of the conversations of the engineers.
The area is a hub of continuous rail activity. A large rail switch yard just north of the platform ensures locomotives are continuously chugging up to the platform, and reversing direction as they couple freight cars together before departing.
Near the viewing platform a 1926 Spanish Revival Amtrak station is a stop for the Metra commuter line.
5. Flossmoor Station, 1035 Sterling Avenue, Flossmoor; flossmoorstation.com
Built in 1906, this station is now the Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery. Large windows look out onto the shared and busy Amtrak and Metra Electric District commuter line that passes within 5 feet of the building.
The boarding platform, which takes rail fans to the middle of the tracks, is accessed via a tunnel underneath the restaurant. A pair of tracks dedicated to freight trains also passes the restaurant.
Restaurant décor features historic photos of steam engines and the station’s history. An extensive classic American menu is divided into “all aboard” appetizers, “whistle stop” salads, “dining car” entrees and more.
Award-winning beers originate in what was once the station’s baggage storage room. Gelato and soft serve frozen yogurt, as well as the brewpub’s Goober Brau root beer, are served inside a refurbished caboose.
6. Park Forest Rail Fan Park in Matteson, North and Homan streets, Matteson; villageofparkforest.com
Atop a 40-foot hill, this covered observation deck overlooks a circular “cloverleaf” of train tracks completed last year by the Canadian National Railroad. One of the few such rail intersections in existence, the layout allows trains entering the cloverleaf to be routed in any direction without stopping.
Canadian National, which has its U.S. headquarters in nearby Homewood, dedicated several acres of land plus an immaculately restored Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad caboose as the centerpiece for the park.
“It was CN’s idea to build the observation platform,” says Rob Gunther, director of parks and recreation in Park Forest. ‘‘They thought the unique cloverleaf of track would be of interest to rail fans. We had no idea this was a tourist market segment, but when they explained it to us, we were all for it.”
A rails-to-trails bicycle path known as the Old Plank Road also skirts the park.
IF YOU GO
Chicago Southland CVB • VisitChicagoSouthland.com; 1-888-895-8233
Where to stay • The Comfort Inn and Suites, 18400 Spring Creek Drive, is centrally located for all stops on the Illinois Central Rail Trail. 1-708-342-1425
Other area attractions:
• Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Govst.edu/sculpture: Situated on 105 acres of Illinois prairie surrounding Governors State University, 29 monumental works are connected by walking trails. The sculpture titled “Yes! For Lady Day” by Mark Di Suvero features the body of a railroad tank car that moves in the wind.
• Homewood murals; village.homewood.il.us: Acclaimed New York muralist Richard Haas has painted 13 trompe ‘l oeil murals throughout the Homewood streetscape. Many appear as three-dimensional buildings that tourists try to enter.
• Historic Downtown Frankfort; villageoffrankfort.com: The historic 1855 village features meticulously maintained homes and boutique shops. The railroad station and railroad track in the center of town have been converted to a gift shop and 30-mile bicycle and walking path.
• Choo Choo Johnny’s, 20831 South La Grange Road, Frankfort; 1-815-806-9005: This railroad-themed family restaurant delivers meals by model train to those sitting at a 100-foot round counter.