Monday, January 19, 2015

Visit to MSI

 About 14 years ago, Frank and I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and reported on railroad preservation there in an article for RyPN.  Unfortunately that article has now disappeared into the ether, and it's time for another one.  There are a few changes to report, and we'll have many more pictures this time. 

MSI has a small collection of railroad equipment, but all of it is very historically significant.  And of course it is all very well cared for, kept in a controlled environment.  MSI is a huge operation, the largest museum of its type in the Western Hemisphere, they say, and railroads form only a small part of the total collection of science and technology of all types. 


 The first thing you notice on entering Railroad Hall is the 999, a NYC eight-wheeler built in 1893 for service from New York to the Columbian Exposition.  As built, it had 96" drivers and was claimed to have reached 112.5 MPH in a speed run.

Its restoration was masterminded by our friend Dave Conrad many years ago.  The engineer behind the glass wall is one of the many talking mannikins used by the museum.


This locomotive is generally too little known.  It dates back to about 1834, and unlike the other older locomotives in the collection, it is not a replica.  Its origin is uncertain, but the major parts are thought to have been built in England by Braithwaite and Milner, and shipped to the US for assembly as a kit.   As such, it is significantly older and more primitive than the Pioneer.  It operated out of Natchez, then Vicksburg, and was used during the Civil War.  When its railroad was acquired by the IC, it was donated as an historic artifact and displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in this same building.  They claim it ran from Mississippi to Chicago under its own power.

There was never any cab; the engineer stood on the platform alongside the boiler.  The pop valve and (presumably later) steam gauge are on top of a steam dome directly over the firebox.

A second steam dome farther forward has the throttle projecting out, and the reverse lever in front of that.  I suppose it was safe enough as long as the engine doesn't go much more than 10 or 15 MPH.

It has certainly been modified in several ways over the years, and the signage in particular must be modern (c. 1934?), but all in all this is an extremely interesting and historic artifact.

Replica Locomotives

The next three locomotives are replicas made in the 1927-1934 time period, of early 1800's prototypes.  One or two were made for the B&O centennial in 1927, I believe.  (I wish I had my notes from the RyPN article available....) 

Stephenson's Rocket, of course, is generally considered the first successful locomotive design.  I believe this replica used to be able to operate under its own steam.

In any case, you can now watch the wheels turn and the valve gear operate:

 John Stevens of Hoboken was a pioneer in railroad engineering, and built this locomotive as a prototype.  Mr. Stevens for some reason did not believe that wheel on rail adhesion would be sufficient, so the locomotive used a rack even for level track.

 Note the three try cocks on the vertical boiler.  This is the only way of checking the water level.

The York is a replica of another first generation steam locomotive, with its vertical boiler.

The large lever is for shaking the grates, I imagine.  Since these are replicas from about a hundred years later, the accuracy of the details is open to question.  But they are now so old that they are historic artifacts in their own right.

Street Railways

This is a cable grip car from Chicago, and was completely restored in 1933 for the Century of Progress exhibition.  At this late date, the dividing line for some of these cars between thorough restoration and complete rebuilding (or replica) is not clear.  Our "1859" horsecar is an excellent example of  this. 

 Horse car #10 is generally taken to be a replica, as is cable trailer 209.


Here we have the right-side running gear from a C&EI Atlantic.  It's tragic that the rest of the engine wasn't preserved, but it makes an excellent and informative display. 

The cab from a PRR K-4 provides an opportunity for kids of all ages to play engineer.

And finally, there's a huge model railroad layout.  The original O-scale Santa Fe layout, which I remember from my youth, has been replaced with a newer HO-scale layout sponsored by BNSF, which includes downtown Chicago, downtown Seattle, and the prairies and mountains in between.

The L cars operate, and there's a lot of action to see.

The layout even includes a tourist line, the "Prairie Town Dinner Train", with its typical consist running back and forth on a disconnected piece of track.   IRM it ain't. 

And here we are at the Indiana Dunes.  But where's the South Shore???

As before, though, you can look down on the layout from the body of a 727 suspended overhead, as though you're flying at about 5,00 feet, a nice touch.

Pioneer Zephyr

 Finally, we have perhaps the star of the show, the original Burlington Zephyr, on display in its own hall underground, alongside the new parking garage.

In the baggage compartment, "Zeph" the animated donkey tells the kids his story.

The interior of the train is beautifully restored in every respect.  This is the kitchen/bar for the buffet grill.

And this is the smoker/buffet compartment.


In the coach, we have these figures, and more in the rear parlor compartment, which wasn't open.

Up front, the prime mover, and the RPO section.

A display alongside the train shows how a Diesel-electric locomotive works.  It's too spread out to see the whole thing from one vantage point.  This is the primer mover driving the generator; the throttle control is on the right, for people to play with.   The traction motor and wheels are off to the left.

 In conclusion, a visit to MSI is always worthwhile.  The displays are very well done, and there is lots of information posted relating to the artifacts.  And it is professionally targeted at visitors of all ages and levels of sophistication.  Of course, they have resources available far beyond what is conceivable for an operation like ours, but it provides plenty of ideas on what could possibly be done better, and some goals to aspire to.


patentable said...

Just a minor "nit" - the aircraft at MSI is not a 707 - it's a smaller plane - an early 727. I remember when it went to the museum. They stripped it down to light weight it, landed at Meigs Field and per the Museum -, "...the 727 is towed across Lake Michigan and over Lake Shore Drive to the Museum, where it is cantilevered to the east balcony as part of the Take Flight exhibit."

As a kid visited the museum on an almost weekly basis. Thanks for your review of the museum's transportation exhibits and causing me to reminisce a bit. I remember the 2903 being outside on the east side of the museum with the 999 and the U-505 before IRM moved it to Union. They too realized that "stuff" sitting on the outside without cover deteriorates over time and moved the 999 and the Zephyr inside.

Patrick Cunningham, CIP, FAI said...

The Zephyr is a nice preservation, but it is a shame that it is effectively stuffed and mounted.Would love to be able to see it roll down the tracks under its own power. Eons ago, I took a museum class in grad school and we got to see the back rooms of MSI. There's a ton of stuff tucked away from view. It's a cool thing to see.

Chris said...

Things about a place like MSI that are worth paying attention to for other preservationists is how they handle fund raising and scholarly stuff. Progress in both of those things are very dependent on each other.

Tony Gura said...

The "Pioneer Zephyr" may never run again but an almost identical sister train, the Boston & Maine "Flying Yankee" is being restored in New Hampshire with the hope of returning it to operation.

Tony Gura

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that most of the MSI transportation exhibits are well-displayed but protected from the wear and tear of visitor traffic - except for the cable car. Kids and other folks are climbing all over it and jumping on the seats. The ends sag badly and the deterioration is quite evident. It's been this way for a long time.
Dan Buck