Vandals, Thieves Stop Museum in Its Tracks


By Carolyn Starks

Date of Publication: April 18, 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune


The Illinois Railway Museum has long stood in the shadow of big-city museums, the little kid on the block visited mostly by train buffs who know the difference between a Nebraska Zephyr and an Electroliner.

But here just outside Union, where the streets remain ungoverned by stoplights, a recent rash of vandalism and thefts of valuable artifacts has brought the museum unwanted attention. And the volunteers who built the museum into the largest collection of railroad cars in the country are shaking their heads in disbelief.

"This is horribly unfortunate that anyone would do something like this to a museum," said Kevin McCabe, the museum's president.

The history of Union always has been intertwined in the steel rails that once connected it with Chicago. The trains stopped coming to Union around World War II.

The idea for the museum surfaced in 1941 when a group of rail fans set out to save a high-speed electric railroad car. They formed a not-for-profit organization, and word of their preservation efforts spread. As their collection of cars grew, they needed some type of shelter. In 1964 the group acquired a 26-acre farm near Union in the southwest reaches of McHenry County.

With little money but great passion, the volunteers shaped the museum to its current 120 acres, with the largest collection of historic rolling stock in the United States--preserved, maintained and operated by about 175 volunteers. As much a park as a repository for historic railroad equipment, the museum has 2 miles of track under its roof and about 2 miles outside for displays, plus a 4.5-mile main line.

Some trains in the museum have been in restoration for decades, taken as junk from railroad companies, stripped of modern modifications and restored to their original elegance.

McCabe likes to call the museum "the best Lionel train set in the world."

Volunteers were horrified to discover in January and again in March that vandals had spray-painted bold letters and big, detailed designs in many colors across the sides of about four rail cars outside, some of which were being refurbished. More recently, several train horns were taken from atop the engines of other railroad cars.

"We're average people. The volunteers who do this give their spare time and money out of their pockets," Doug Geren said.

The trumpet-shaped air horns, about a foot and a half long and wide, that sound the train's "whistle" were stolen from the tops of diesel locomotives that were used from the 1950s to the 1970s, McCabe said.

"The trains were used at various locations throughout the country," he said. "The horns are considered collectibles."

McCabe would not comment on the value of the horns or on the museum's security. Police said the thefts are under investigation, but the volunteers believe they were stolen by a collector.

Just as devastating was the vandalism Jan. 11 and March 29 that almost destroyed several Chicago Transit Authority elevated train cars from the 1950s. The cars are part of a display that includes the original 50th Avenue "L" platform from Cicero.

McHenry County Sheriff's Detective William Lutz said he believes an organized group vandalized the trains because the designs were detailed--almost artistic--and more than 40 empty spray paint cans were found on museum grounds.

Lutz said other evidence, which he would not discuss, has led him to believe the group had damaged public property before.

"These vandals view their work as art when, in reality, it is costing thousands of dollars to have it restored," he said.

Museum volunteers spent two days removing the paint with pressure washers and scrubbers. They could not remove all the damage to original CTA lettering and decals, which are irreplaceable, McCabe said.

Volunteer Barbara Lanphier, whose father worked for the North Shore line that ran from Chicago to Milwaukee, said she was dumbfounded when the damaged cars were discovered.

"You work so hard to make something look good and to preserve it for people so they will know what things were like in the past," she said. "To have someone come in and damage things in that way is mind-blowing."