Last revised: December 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Illinois, both historically and today, is the nation's most important state to the rail industry. Chicago evolved into the epicenter of where eastern and western trunk lines met and interchanged both freight and passengers.
This remains true today, although the number of large "Class 1" carriers serving Illinois has dwindled dramatically from several dozen to only six currently. With a rail network that totaled over 12,000 miles in the 1920s, one could reach practically any point in the United States from Illinois.
This also meant there were dozens of first-class passenger trains running in every direction to cities such as Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, Seattle, New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and numerous other markets.
Naturally, these long distance services provided the very best in on-board accommodations such as parlor cars, observations, lounges, sleepers, diners, reclining seat coaches, and cars with a combination of these layouts.
For all of the great trains to serve Illinois with names like the 20th Century Limited, Capitol Limited, Broadway Limited, Panama Limited, Super Chief, Olympian Hiawatha, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, North Coast Limited, Rocky Mountain Rocket, Denver Zephyr, Texas Zephyr, and numerous others, only a single heritage railroad in the state attempts to recreate the experience these trains offered in the way of a freshly prepared meal on-board, the Monticello Railway Museum.
In spite of this, one would be amiss if they did not also consider a visit to the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) in Union. While the organization does not host dinner trains they have one of the most impressive collection of historic rail equipment in the nation, many of which are restored to operation in their original company colors.
IRM began as the Illinois Electric Railway Museum in 1953 to preserve interurban car #65 that was originally owned by the Indiana Railroad. The organization was renamed as the Illinois Railway Museum in 1961 and focused its attention not only on preserving interurban history but also general railroads.
Among their collection, which includes operating streamlined diesels and passenger equipment, be sure to check out a rare "Electroliner" streamlined trainset that operated on the Illinois Terminal. The three-car set is sleek in appearance and has been restored in its original teal and orange livery.
The IRM's general grounds and display barns are located just east of Union along OIson Road/Hemmingsen Road although the organization also maintains a short stretch of track for excursions, which closely parallels the current Union Pacific (ex-Chicago & North Western) line through the area.
The Monticello Railway Museum, based in Monticello aims to preserve the rail history of the region. They have amassed quite a collection of equipment (more than 100 pieces) since their inception in 1966.
After these efforts failed it moved to its current location; in 1970 it became known as the Monticello & Sangamon Valley Railway Historical Society, Inc., then the present Monticello Railway Museum in 1982.
From May through October, during weekends and holidays, the organization hosts excursions over 7.5 miles of the former Illinois Central/Illinois Central Gulf between Monticello and White Heat.
One of the museum's most popular excursions are dinner trains; there are currently two such events, Murder Mystery Trains and the Valentine's Dinner Train. These trips are hosted within restored Illinois Central dining cars and lasting about two hours. The four-course meal is provided by Holly's Country Kitchen in Monticello. The Murder Mystery Train "...includes your choice of Roasted Chicken, Grilled Teriyaki Salmon, Pasta Primavera, sides, and desert."