A spectacular salute to the Iron Horse

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Chicago Railroad Fair was a months-long, over-the-top, "make no small plans," World's Fair-like lakefront exposition celebrating all things train.

In hopes of drumming up interest in his infant railroad — a long-shot gamble — William Ogden on Nov. 20, 1848, sent a secondhand locomotive pulling a couple of baggage cars hastily fitted out with seats on an excursion trip along Chicago's first eight miles of track.

Chicago had been immune to the railroad-building fever gripping other cities, compelling Ogden, a former mayor, to raise funds for the venture in the East.

"We recall very distinctly, what uncertainty, doubt and foreboding of loss were manifest by those gentlemen who started, five years ago, this past summer, the project of building this road," the Tribune noted in 1852.

Yet in its first year of operation, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was able to pay a 10 percent dividend to Ogden's investors, and on the 100th anniversary of its inaugural run, Chicago threw a civic bash in honor of the role of railroads in the nation's life.

"America was a raw undeveloped country when the brawny track crews pushed the threads of steel across the wilderness to knit the east and west and all the land between," the Tribune gushed on July 20, 1948. The occasion for such excitement? The opening that summer of the Chicago Railroad Fair, a months-long, over-the-top, "make no little plans," World's Fair-like lakefront exposition celebrating all things train.

That kind of enthusiasm is lost today. For most, trains mean traffic headaches, unwanted noise and dangerous crossings. Occasionally railroads bring tragedy, like the recent collapse of a Union Pacific Railroad bridge that killed a suburban couple. But the lacework of tracks that converge on Chicago made the city prosper. Within a dozen years of the Ogden railroad's first run, Chicago had become the nation's transportation hub, a role it never relinquished.

So in 1948, a railroad fair made perfect sense. The fairgrounds, which stretched from 20th to 30th streets, the approximate site of the 1933-34 World's Fair, sported numerous attractions, including generations of Iron Horses like the "Pioneer," the very locomotive pulled into service by Ogden back in 1848.

"Even the ancient locomotives which have been asleep in museums for years have come alive for the fair, and will snort and puff as steam once again courses through their ancient boilers and pipes," the Tribune reported. A Loop parade opened the fair. Its grand marshal was the widow of Casey Jones, the folk-hero engineer killed in a train wreck on the Illinois Central Railroad at Vaughan, Miss., in 1900.

"A sprightly 84, she chain-smoked cigarettes and asserted she 'ain't suffering for want of drinking whiskey,'" the Tribune reported of her appearance.

Inside the 50-acre fairgrounds, participating railroads advertised tourist attractions along their routes. The Burlington, Great Northern and Northern Pacific's exhibit featured a rodeo, singing cowboys and a working replica of Old Faithful, the famous geyser of Yellowstone Park. The Santa Fe Railroad constructed an Indian village, populated by 100 Native Americans from several Southwestern reservations who performed ceremonial dances, wove Navajo rugs and made moccasins. Shortly before the fair opened, a Tribune headline read: "Train Load of Indians to Arrive Today."

The fair's big event was "Wheels A' Rolling," a pageant performed four times daily in an amphitheater seating 5,000. The cast included 150 actors, 56 oxen and horses, 20 antique autos and 18 locomotives. The latter ran on three parallel sets of rails laid across the stage.

"Moving swiftly before the spectators in thrilling, action packed kaleidoscopic review will be the people who saw the railroads make history: Indians, trappers, Yankee peddlers, itinerant preachers, frontier garrisons, scouts, cowboys, early settlers, Harvey girls, railroad presidents, road gangs, Civil War soldiers and fashionable women of the gay '90s," the Tribune promised fairgoers.

Edward Michalski, then 12, was the millionth visitor, and got a set of encyclopedias for that distinction. "I remember the Wild West show with Indians attacking the trains and everything," the 76-year-old Michalski said last week.

The public ate it all up. Originally scheduled to run from July 20 to Sept. 20, the fair was extended two weeks and drew 2.5 million visitors. More than 2.7 million visited in 1949. Afterward, there were various proposals to keep the fairgrounds intact for future exhibitions, which, though not realized, helped identify the site for the later construction of McCormick Place.

In fact, not long after the fairs, railroads began to lose their hold on Americans' imaginations. Passenger travel shifted to autos and airlines. No longer could Chicagoans boast, and others complain, that travelers from one coast to the other had to change trains in Chicago.

Freight trains still rumble through the Windy City in huge numbers. But children now play with video games, not Lionel trains. They don't grow up to be the rail fans the Tribune boasted of at the opening of the Railroad Fair, dedicated model railroaders who "own and operate enough track to reach from New York to San Antonio, Tex."

rgrossman@tribune.com

Editor's note: Thanks to Alice Aubele, of Woodridge, Francis Philipp, of Bowmanville, and Frank Rossner, of Des Plaines, for suggesting different aspects of this Flashback.

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