History of the IRM - A Museum In Motion


Chicago Transit Authority 4410, 4412
The lifeblood of the Illinois Railway Museum is not the collection of artifacts, or the buildings, or even the paid staff. It's the energy and enthusiasm coming from it's dedicated cadre of volunteers.

From the early days in North Chicago, it has been the volunteers who have motivated this ambitious enterprise. Indeed, the volunteers are considered so important that the only way to obtain voting membership in the Museum's parent corporation is to have worked as a volunteer for a specified length of time, and then be accepted into regular membership by the board of directors.

Financially, the volunteers have often made up for shortages of development funds, both by digging into their own pockets, and by providing professional expertise that would otherwise have to be purchased on the outside at great expense to the Museum.

A CPA volunteers time to act as the Museum's treasurer; a company president acts as budget director; a machinist at a government arsenal restores steam locomotive parts; a consultant installs overhead electrical systems, a radio newsman helps with publicity and a former department store window dresser builds displays.

Through the years, their ranks have numbered in the hundreds, but they all share a special trait: they volunteer service that would command good wages outside the Museum, and they do it in the belief that their contribution to the Museum will make an impact on the world around them. When their hours are enumerated as to the fair market value of the work performed, the total comes to more than a half million dollars a year!

A project like the restoration of Chicago Surface Lines 1374, for example, requires the skills of wood-workers, sheet metal workers, finishers, electricians, sign painters, machinists, as well as a manager. If at all possible, the team tries to secure donations of parts and materials, to complement the donated labor. If all else fails, and parts and materials must be purchased, the team then becomes fund raisers. Thus each project is financially independent and is supported by the General Fund only after all other sources are exhausted.

The self-supporting nature of each restoration team is even more important since each project is in competition for funds and materials with other projects. To complete a project requires a total team effort over a number of months or even more likely years. After a number of volunteers have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to a project, the completed electric car, locomotive or train has one additional ingredient, love!

Volunteerism has yet another aspect, however. Sometimes there is simply no training ground for the skills needed at the Museum. The skills have become obsolete in the real world, or are those not readily available in volunteers. The answer then is that we train our own personnel in the skills necessary for historic restoration.

Visitors to the Museum are often surprised to discover that all of the railway equipment operators and train crews are volunteers, as are all of the other docents. Only a handful of these have come to the museum as experienced railway personnel; most we have had to teach and test in the skills of railroad operations.

Each year, the Museum trains a number of new railway operators, and while these people may be unpaid volunteers, their training is no less vigorous than that on common carrier railroads. In fact, because of the antiquity of the equipment and the unavailability of repair parts, the Museum maintains even higher standards for train operators than would be required just to maintain safe operations. TLC, tender loving care, is the watchword here. Or to put it another way, "If you break it, you fix it."

Milwaukee Electric Railway 972
Unlike the common carriers, therefore, the crew member in dress blues on one day is often the same person covered with axle grease on the next day. In short, your operator can often tell you not only how to make it go, but why it goes.

The standard of training can be somewhat daunting, and in the past a number of prospective operators dropped out without completing the training course. In recent years, the Museum has tried to improve that percentage by requiring prospective operators to complete fifty hours of on-board service as a car host before starting operator's training. People without the dedication to complete the training, usually fail to complete the initial fifty hours.

The result is a level of professionalism from volunteers that even professional railroaders would envy. The benefit to the Museum is a World-class physical plant and collection of artifacts.

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