Rising From the Ashes: Chicago Aurora & Elgin 309
By Frank Hicks
Originally published July 28, 2008
The Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad abruptly and without warning ceased passenger service just after noon on Friday July 3, 1957. The CA&E, an electric interurban line that carried commuters from the western suburbs of Chicago to the city via a connection with the Chicago Transit Authority, had been operating its fleet of wood and steel interurban coaches for 55 years when it finally received permission from the court to suspend passenger operations. All trains were immediately returned to the shops in Wheaton, IL, stranding thousands of passengers in downtown Chicago with no way to get home. Though court battles dragged on for several years, the first of the big three Chicago interurban lines was gone. The Illinois Railway Museum (IRM), a small but fast-growing collection of mostly interurban cars, chose one car to represent the CA&E in its collection. The car chosen was car number 309.
Car 309 was a 52’ long wooden interurban coach built by the Hicks Locomotive & Car Works (no relation to the author) in 1907. Hicks was a small carbuilder in Chicago Heights, IL which only built two electric cars, 309 and 310 for the CA&E. The cars were delivered essentially as railroad coaches and fitted with electrical equipment at the Wheaton shops. They entered service in early 1908 and operating until the railroad ceased passenger operations 49 years later. By 1957 car 309 had seen fewer modifications than most of its fellow CA&E wood cars; though its stained-glass windows were covered over on the outside, its interior retained a great deal of mahogany woodwork and it kept its elegant “Empire” curved ceiling. It was chosen by IRM, which also ended up acquiring a CA&E steel car that was donated by museum members, because it epitomized the famous fleet of CA&E woods.
Car 309 was moved to the museum’s site north of Chicago and later to the small town of Union when IRM relocated in 1964. Within a few short years trolley wire had been strung and IRM was operating several of the streetcars, interurbans and “L” cars in its expanding collection. In 1970 attention turned to the big CA&E interurban coach that was sitting in the museum’s Yard 2. A crew of volunteers began work on the car over the winter, trying to get the interior repainted in time for the car to be used during the summer of 1971.
As it turned out, restoration would take longer than anyone thought. On March 13, 1971, a crew of volunteers arrived and lit a small portable oil stove that had been placed inside the car to keep it warm while it was being worked on. The volunteers left to gather tools, and when they came back they found smoke pouring out of the car. Oil had spilt from the stove and caught fire, and by the time the fire was extinguished the interior of the car was gutted. The bulkhead between the car’s smoker and main compartment (near the stove) was burnt through, as were the door and walls of the toilet compartment; about half of the car’s ceiling, including curved paneling and art-glass clerestory windows, was destroyed; nearly all of the seats were badly damaged; and every last window in the clerestory was shattered or cracked from the heat. Holes were also chopped in the roof and walls in an effort to root out any smoldering embers. After the fire the holes were patched up but work to restore the car - suddenly a far larger project than most were willing to tackle - ceased.
Car 309 wasn’t forgotten, although work was largely suspended. It was later moved into the museum’s first barn, built in 1972, and afterwards work began on stripping the exterior of the car to repaint it in the CA&E’s 1940s-era livery of blue, red and light grey. An event of great importance during this period, though it may not have been obvious at the time, was the addition of a relatively new IRM volunteer to the crew working on car 309. His name was Randy Hicks, a graduate student at the University of Illinois who began making the three-hour trip to Union regularly. After a few years, he took over as project leader for the car’s restoration.
Work on car 309 progressed steadily; the car was painted blue and work started on the roof in preparation for a new canvas covering. During 1976 and 1977 much of the car’s roof was rebuilt, some of the woodwork being done after hours in the workshop at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory where Randy was working on his doctoral thesis. The center roof section was covered with new canvas and trolley poles were put back on it. In early 1978 electrical work began on the car. Fortunately the fire had not damaged any of the motor or control wiring on the car, and after some testing and cleaning car 309 ran for the first time at IRM on May 26, 1978.
The car was now painted and operational, but it was still essentially a shell, the interior gutted by the fire and virtually empty. Randy continued work on the car and began focusing on the interior, by now largely working alone on the project. Initial work concentrated on the smoking compartment, which hadn’t been damaged too badly by the fire since it was shielded by a bulkhead. Between 1978 and 1980 the “smoker” was cleaned up, the walls and ceiling were repaired and repainted, new mahogany veneer was applied to the charred bulkhead and the few salvageable seats were reinstalled.
Although the car was now capable of carrying (a few) people, there was much work left to do. The main compartment of the car had sustained the most damage to the walls and woodwork, and a total of 21 seats had to be rebuilt and/or reupholstered. To put this task in perspective, Randy began working on rebuilding the interior in 1980 and continued through 1992. In the meantime he spent several years living in New York, married and started a family. For almost this entire period he worked on the car alone, though with occasional assistance from other volunteers at the museum. After major work on the interior was completed in 1992 focus returned to the roof, which had been partly re-canvassed in 1977 but had never been completed. Between 1994 and 1996 additional woodwork on the roof was done and canvas work completed. With the car now virtually complete, Randy focused on fixing a few final small issues. By summer 1997 the car was considered largely complete - 22 years after Randy had started working on it. Car 309 was officially placed into revenue service on IRM’s demonstration railroad on July 4, 1997, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the cessation of passenger service on the CA&E. The plan was to use the car regularly to carry passengers on the museum’s main line; once again, the plans were premature.
Two days later, during an after-hours run on July 6, one of the car’s four General Electric traction motors suffered a catastrophic electrical failure. The car limped back to the barn on the two motors still usable, its brief time in use on the museum’s railroad seemingly over. Although car 309 was gingerly operated a few times by Randy during the ensuing years on half-power, it was not capable of regular use with only two of its motors working. Without the means to rebuild a two-ton traction motor, Randy turned his attention to another CA&E car that had just been acquired by IRM. He began work on similar car 308 in 1998.
The 309 story didn’t end there, though. In 2002 the museum was able to amass enough money to rebuild two traction motors for car 309 as part of a campaign to introduce new equipment for visitors to enjoy during IRM’s fiftieth anniversary in 2003. On Memorial Day weekend of 2003 car 309 made another debut, again “running on all four.” This time it was part of a two-car train, work on car 308 having progressed far enough for it to be used to carry passengers, and for several years the matching blue interurbans carried thousands of visitors to the museum. As work on car 308 drew to a close in 2006, Randy was making plans to return to his first project, car 309. Some of the work done on 309 years earlier was either not completed or not up to the quality standards established during the 308’s restoration and it was decided to refurbish the 309’s interior once work on car 308 was completed. As it turned out, more would have to be done on 309 than was first thought - on the car’s last day of operation in 2006 another traction motor failed.
Since 2006 a great deal of work has been done to finish car 309 finally and completely. The traction motor that failed in late 2006 was replaced with a motor retrieved from storage and cleaned up. Most of the work, though, has been work on the interior done by - you guessed it - Randy Hicks. Defects in ceiling and wall panels installed in the early 1980s were repaired, additional staining and varnishing work was done, and imperfections in the car’s wooden trim were corrected. In spring 2008 the car received an entirely new coat of exterior paint and on July 5 it once again rolled out of the shop to the delight of museum members and visitors.
The plan is for cars 308 and 309 to enter regular service on the museum’s demonstration railroad, hauling passengers just like they did for a half century on the CA&E. For car 309 it has been a long road of recovery from the damage it received on that fiery morning in March 1971. Most of its recovery is due to Randy Hicks, whose participation in this car’s renewal began when he was in college and has lasted for more than half of his life. Now, 33 years later, this labor of love has nearly reached its fulfillment. The result is a beautifully restored example of the wooden car builder’s art, one that will be seen and enjoyed by thousands of IRM visitors for years to come. The next time you get a chance to visit the Illinois Railway Museum, we hope you’ll take special note of this unique piece of history that has been brought back to life.
About the Author
Frank Hicks lives near Chicago, Illinois, and has been a volunteer at the Illinois Railway Museum for many years. His interest in trains originated with his father, Randy Hicks, who has volunteered at IRM since 1974. He works with his father on restoring and maintaining IRM’s three CA&E wood interurban cars. Frank is a graduate of Western Illinois University and author of “The Little Road: The Story of the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway,” published in 2006. This is his second RAILROAD.NET byline.