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Preserving Rail History: Railroad Museums Across the United States

In our most humble opinion, a good museum balances fun and learning in ways that all ages can appreciate. While you may not be going to a railroad museum to see something like Sue the T-Rex or Hope the Blue Whale, we feel pretty confident in saying they offer more than you would expect! You might have really low expectations – a person standing behind a dusty desk with glass-encased railroad artifacts, or perhaps a model train exhibit. One of our team members had these same notions, and instead found themselves thrilled to be riding on a restored steam locomotive, and walking in rows upon rows of refurbished railcars!

Railroad museums can be found throughout the United States. Chances are, there is one near you! While we wish we could share absolutely all of them, we are going to highlight a few favorites for you today (but check out our handy map for a few more)! Dive in with us, and then start planning your next museum day!

Illinois Railway Museum

Honestly, did you expect us to start anywhere outside of our own backyard? This little gem is about an hour’s drive outside of Chicago. Our CEO and his family actually stumbled upon it a couple of years ago when they went apple picking outside of the city. Located in Union, IL, the Illinois Railway Museum is the largest railway museum in the United States. Having been in operation for nearly 75 years, the museum features an original, 150 year old train depot, vast exhibits of locomotives and railcars, and the option to take a jaunt on an electric, diesel, or steam locomotive! All aboard!

Nevada Northern Railway Museum

We want to make one thing very clear before we tell you why we get super excited about the Nevada Northern Railway Museum: trains are incredibly safe, both as a means of transporting freight and personal travel! However, we all know the stories of yore of great train robberies by bandits, and this museum does an excellent job transporting visitors back to the Old West with a live train robbery reenactment! Come for the heist, and stay for the impressively organized railroad exhibits, hailed as one of the nation’s most well-preserved railroading landmarks!

National Railroad Museum

The only congressionally-designated railroad museum in the United States, the National Railroad Museum is located on over 33 acres in Green Bay, WI. The continuously expanding collection of railroad memorabilia includes everything from locomotives – including the mightily impressive Union Pacific “Big Boy” (which weighs in at a mere 1.1 million pounds!) – and other rolling stock, to tracks, and over 100,000 pieces of smaller railroad artifacts! Daily train trips – on cars pulled by a diesel locomotive – depart the station every two hours daily from May – September.

Colorado Railroad Museum

Of everything offered at the Colorado Railroad Museum, the most impressive thing has to be that you can view live restoration demonstrations on vintage engines and other rail equipment, providing a rare behind-the-scenes look at how railroad history is preserved. Additionally, with rolling seasonal displays, visiting at different points in the year provides an opportunity for each trip to be a new experience! For the youngest rail fans, there are always weekends with Thomas the Tank Engine in the fall, and, of course, the ever-popular Polar Express during the holiday season! Weather (and staffing) permitting, visitors can also view the Denver Garden Railway just north of the main depot!

Train Mountain Railroad Museum

Not only does Train Mountain Railroad Museum offer the world’s largest collection of cabooses, it is also home to the Guinness World Records longest miniature railroad! With 36 miles of 7.5″ gauge track on 2200 acres near Chiloquin, OR, this is a train enthusiast’s paradise filled with intricate and exacting detail – in miniature! Another notable part of the Train Mountain collection comes in the form of a 100 short-ton antique, steam-powered rotary snow plow. When something needs that many adjectives, you know there is something special about it!

Keeping the Preservation Alive

If you can’t squeeze in a railroad museum this upcoming weekend, we hope you will find time to visit one in the near future. As volunteer-operated, 501(c)(3) organizations, railroad museums and their future depend on visitors and donations to stay in operation. More so, we think understanding the legacy of the American railroads is an important part of our history. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy a little adventure through time?


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