THIS AND THAT: When you think of trains, does Thomas come to mind?
Wagon train, train of thought, train your dog, gravy train, basic training are all trains I am familiar with. But Thomas? Not so much.
Thomas the Tank Engine is something I never imagined riding on much less writing about. But when we visited our daughter and family in Chicago last week, I discovered the magic that is Thomas.
With our visit set and flights booked, Corey was looking for new Chicago-area things for us to do when she came upon A Day Out with Thomas in Union, Illinois. She said it would be fun for her son Ezra, 3, and interesting for us. I’m pretty much game to try anything involving grandchildren, so Thomas was fine, although I was still unsure what we would be doing.
She also mentioned that the site for Thomas’ visit is at the Illinois Railway Museum, which touts itself as North America’s largest collection of historic railway equipment. It sounded like an opportunity to see some impressive vehicles that helped build this country into what it is.
On an overcast Saturday morning we headed to Union. Out of the Windy City, we took Interstate 90 west, exited at U.S. 20 and turned onto E. Coral Road. The miles of fields verdant with tall corn and soybeans gave little indication that trains were anywhere nearby. Then we turned onto Olson Road and saw a cluster of huge buildings – barns they call them at the Railway Museum.
Hundreds of cars were already parked with parents and grandparents taking tykes to see Thomas and take a promised ride on cars pulled by the beloved character. For those who don’t know much about Thomas, he and his friends Percy and Toby, are fictional train engines that have adventures together. They share their journeys in books and on TV with kids around the world who love to get a glimpse of the blue engine.
After getting our bearings in the wide streets of the Railway Museum, we followed the signs to Thomas and our noon ride. When Ezra caught sight of Thomas, he was elated and an ear-to-ear grin erupted on his face. While our grandson was delighted with a view of Thomas, his 1-year-old sister Aviv was simply interested in the variety of people on hand.
Thomas was at the head of seven full-size passenger cars with a helper engine in the back of the train just in case the little guy needed help. We piled into the last of the cars and took our seats. As one would expect, Thomas pulled out right on time for our 20-minute ride.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Thomas – he has a face and talks. As one looks at the front of Thomas the Tank Engine, he sees two bright eyes and a mouth and hears Thomas’ voice along with a toot from his whistle.
Thomas (with the help from the engine in the back) pulled the full passenger cars through the museum grounds. Everyone outside the train stopped and waved as we passed, and those seated in the cars waved back. We crossed Olson Road, causing the traffic to stop and wait for us, then rode past a huge corn field.
With a squeak of the brakes we came to a halt, then slowly reversed our direction. The train again crossed Olson Road and moved along tracks inside the museum. Waving was still in vogue as kids and parents stopped to take in the sight of Thomas and those he was conveying. Precisely 20 minutes after we had begun our journey, it ended.
Those of us on board got Jr. Engineer certificates. As we left our car there was another group of riders waiting for their turn on the 12:30 ride.
Ezra and the other kids on the train were delighted with their Thomas adventure. The rest of the afternoon as we walked along the streets of the Railway Museum, each time Thomas passed, Ezra waved. It never got old.
The barns mentioned earlier were huge buildings – 200 yards of more long and 50 yards wide – that held some of the storied locomotives and cars the Illinois Railway Museum is known for. We walked through a Pullman car and saw the china used on various train lines’ dining cars. We saw the sitting cars, the private cars complete with furnished bedrooms and the business cars where deals were discussed and made.
Most impressive was the barn that held the engines. From steam locomotives to diesel they hauled cargo and people across the continent and made the distance from east to west, north to south, much shorter. With wheels taller than I am, these massive engines rose 15 feet high and some weighed in excess of 200 tons. It takes a lot of muscle to pull a train.
Although there was much more that we could have taken in, after four hours the kids and the adults were all ready to go back to the city. With thoughts of our adventure fresh in mind, we bade farewell to Thomas. The next time someone mentions trains to me, he is the first one I will think of.
For more information on other locations for A Day Out with Thomas and Friends, visit thomasandfriends.com.
Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.