When my husband, daughter and I turned into the parking lot for the Fox River Trolley Museum, I was skeptical. It looked like a graveyard for unwanted, rusted-out train cars. But our visit was one of the most fun, unique family outings we’ve had in a while. Read on to find out why.
Name: Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, an outdoor museum devoted to electric trolley cars and featuring a 4-mile round trip along the Fox River.
Location: Along Route 31 in South Elgin, on the west side of the Fox River. The address is 361 South LaFox Street, three blocks south of State Street in South Elgin. The museum is on the east side of the road and is marked by flags.
Hours: On Sundays from Mother’s Day through the first Sunday in November, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Saturdays from the last Saturday in June through Labor Day, from 11 a.m to 5 p.m. (The last trolley leaves about a half-hour before the museum closes.) Also open on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. See the “Special Events” section below for info on holiday-themed events in October and December. Check the museum visitor's guide for more details, too.
Amenities: The museum has a number of shaded picnic tables and a vending machine that sells cold soda. In the ticket office, there are a few candy treats available for purchase, as well as souvenirs. There is no running water at the site. There are two portable restrooms. The museum says that County Park, a few hundred yards northeast of the museum grounds, features restrooms with running water, but I was unable to check those out in person. The trolley trip makes a stop at the Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve, which features covered shelters with fire places and grills, as well as dry restrooms. Basically, don't forget your hand sanitizer.
Price: I suppose you could wander around the museum grounds for free, but the real highlight is the 4-mile round trip on a trolley along the banks of the Fox River. One ride for an adult on the trolley is $4. Seniors are $3. Children ages 3 through 11 are $2. Children 2 and under are free. If you’d like to ride the trolley twice, you can add just $1 to your ticket, but that decision has to be made when you make your initial purchase.
Good For: All ages. Most of the trolleys require you to climb a few stairs to reach the car, and there are some gaps between stairs and the platform. These are very old cars, in various stages of renovation (or disrepair!) So a 1:1 adult to child ratio with small children, or extremely curious ones, would be ideal.
The Takeaway: I’ve driven by the Fox River Trolley Museum a number of times, and even though we aren’t particularly train buffs, we had an awesome time this past weekend during our 90 minutes at the museum.
The museum is devoted to the electric trolley cars that once connected towns and cities all over the country. The museum owns about two dozen trolley cars and other pieces of railroad equipment, all in various stages of renovation. On the day we visited, four trolleys were open for visitors to climb in and take a look around: One featured plush seats and dated from 1926; it used to run between Chicago and Milwaukee. Another was a 1959 model used for decades by the Chicago Transit Authority, mostly on the “el” line in Evanston. There was also a steel caboose from 1957 that we got to check out.
We purchased our tickets for our trolley ride at what’s called the “Castlemuir Depot” as soon as we reached the museum. We had to wait about 20 minutes for the next departing trolley; they run approximately every 30 minutes. During that time, we climbed aboard the trolleys that were open to the public, took photos and “played train” with our daughter, who especially like the caboose.
Our trip to “Blackhawk Station” in the Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve was aboard the 1959 CTA car. (It alternated trips during our visit with a car from the 1920s.) The excited look on our daughter’s face as the trolley started to move and the wind rushed in through the open window was priceless.
The trip to the forest preserve took about 10 minutes; during that time the friendly conductor told us about the history of the museum, which dates back to 1961, and the train line. The tracks the trolley runs along are part of a 40-mile line that once connected Carpentersville, Elgin, Aurora and Yorkville starting in 1896.
There were only about 10 people on our trolley, which glided quite smoothly through some lovely wooded areas and prairie along the Fox River. Once we reached the forest preserve, you could stay on the car, get out for a few minutes to stretch your legs and head immediately back, or stay at the forest preserve and catch a later trolley back. Next time we visit the museum, I plan to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at the forest preserve and head back on a later trolley.
On the return trip, the kids got a special treat: The trolley was stopped, and they got to head up front to where the driver sat and pull on the (very loud) horn.
Once we got back to the station, we bought a soda and sat in the shade to watch the next trolley head on out. It was truly a very fun, relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
For Train Lovers: The Fox River Trolley Museum is a not-for-profit organization operated entirely by volunteers. Membership for a family is just $40, and for individuals $25. That includes unlimited rides on museum trains throughout the season, discounts at the store and a quarterly newsletter. But here’s the really cool part: Adult members can lean how to operate a train! Wouldn’t that be a neat birthday gift?
For younger train fans, I think this would be an awesome place for a birthday party. The museum offers charter and group rates. The birthday boy or girl could ride the trolley with his or her guests to the Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve, where you could have the cake, games and open gifts before catching a later trolley back to the museum grounds. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Special Events: The museum has special events and fares for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day and during South Elgin’s Riverfest Express on Aug. 20 and 21. On Oct. 8-9 and Oct. 15-16 in 2011, it will run a “Pumpkin Trolley” featuring a pumpkin patch.
The museum also runs a few special events that require reservations: The Halloween Haunted Ghost Story Train will run the evenings of Oct. 22-23 and Oct. 29-30 in 2011. Go to the website to make a reservation for this train, good for children ages 3 and older.
The most popular event is its “Polar Express” trolley ride, featuring a trip to the “North Pole,” a reading of the classic and a visit from Santa Claus. Children are encouraged to ride their pajamas. Those trains are scheduled to run Nov. 26, Dec. 3-4, 10-11 and 17-18. Tickets are already on sale on the website, and I plan to reserve mine this week.
Editor’s Note: We had so many good photos at the Fox River Trolley Museum that we created a special Flickr album.