Today, as foot-weary visitors to the Brookfield Zoo board the quiet-running trams that provide both a sightseeing perch and transportation, some of them may be surprised to learn that there was once a time when an alternative method of travel existed. No, not foot power, or even the old, pushable rolling chairs of the zoo’s early days.
Within the confines of the zoo borders from 1962 to 1985 there ran steam-powered locomotive engines, complete with open-air passenger cars. Why? Well, back in 1962, Elliott Donnelley of Illinois Bell telephone book publishing fame was a steam train enthusiast, and presented to the zoo its own miniature narrow-gauge railroad, providing the money for its acquisition, establishment and maintenance.
So “All aboard!” became the conductor’s cry that was to echo for the next 23 years. This first pint-size train was set up to take visitors on a limited tour of the grounds, beginning at a site west of the North Gate. From there, the train proceeded westward, then south, “along the range animals, around Wildfowl Pond, behind Wolf Woods, to the Seven Seas [Porpoise] Panorama,” as the zoo’s 1964 guide book stated. This train did not travel around the entire perimeter of the zoo.
The first locomotive to travel on the rails of this “Zoo Line” was a replica of a Union Pacific No. 1 engine, complete with diamond-shaped smokestack, bell and cowcatcher. However interesting the train looked, it was still in miniature form, with the engineer’s head and shoulders towering above the cab. Small as the train was, and limited in its site-to-site travelling ability, it still managed to bring in about $50,000 annually. Adults could ride the Zoo Line Railroad “between Brookfield Zoo points” for 50 cents.
Three years later, in 1965, Donnelley joined the Chicago Zoological Society and, after two more years, became a trustee and a member of the Executive Committee. He thought it was about time to upgrade the railroad line with larger steam trains and passenger cars. Nothing exactly full-size, but something that wouldn’t look like it was part of a kiddie amusement park.
In early 1968, the Zoo Line began to see great changes, as an entirely new railbed was blazed through woods and dense underbrush. It was expected that this new railroad would carry in the neighborhood of a half a million passengers every year. It sounds like an incredible number, but even in its first year of operation, 1962, the miniature train managed to carry 267,529 paying passengers.
While the new route was being prepared, Donnelley obtained two authentic, rebuilt steam engines, with six new 28-35 passenger excursion cars. To add to this new rolling stock, hand cars were brought in to be used for working on and inspecting the new, wider, 2-foot gauge train tracks being laid along the expanded two-and-a-half mile long route, that was now made up of approximately 26,000 feet of track.
The new route would now completely encircle the zoo, saving the trouble of turning the engine around between the destination points, as had been done previously. Also, it was said that the train would now travel through the zoo’s soon-to-be-developed western section.
On Oct. 11, 1968, Donnelley, Zoo Director Peter Crowcroft and officials from the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the zoo christened and dedicated the new “The Brookfield, Salt Creek and Western Railroad.”
The track work was complete. The firm of McFadzean and Everly Ltd. had designed the sheltering “round house” and work began on 10 days later, on Oct. 21, 1968. The line was up and running. The charge for the 24-minute train ride was now 60 cents for an adult fare, and 45 cents per child.
Donnelley had located and acquired a diesel switching engine, Burlington No. 999, and also the Milwaukee Road “Hiawatha” steam engine No. 1. Each engine weighed about 20 tons. These were both painted with the authentic, actual paint colors used on the full-sized train engines used by the Burlington and Milwaukee Road.
The Hiawatha engine (soon nicknamed “Granny”) had been built in 1918, and had seen service in Germany’s Black Forest. Now it had been rebuilt and been put back into good use. It burned Pocahontas range coal to reduce air pollution from sulfur, which was good, but the cost of the “smokeless” coal was more expensive to buy.
The six new passenger cars were reproductions of true excursion cars, with flat roofs and flatbed bodies. Also, a mainline signal system was installed along the route. When the train came to roads used by visitors, full-sized crossing gates lowered, just like they did in the “real” world.
By the summer of 1969, the western development section was still not completed. In the August 21, 1969 issue of the Citizen newspaper, Zoo Director Peter Crowcroft stated that “[The railroad] is going to help open up the west! For the first time, zoo lands to the west of Salt Creek are now accessible. As soon as funds are available, this area will be developed into an American Prairie exhibit.”
Two railroad trestles “of approximately 125 feet long, with major spans of 51 feet” had been built over the creek, and it was believed that an entirely new animal viewing experience would be possible. The Citizen revealed that plans indicated that the animals would not be caged or enclosed.
“Deer, elk, moose, buffaloes, coyotes and other indigenous and compatible animals will be allowed to roam at will.”
But the creation of the new railroad had hardly been problem-free. Over a year earlier, during the first week of April 1968, one of the new trestles over Salt Creek had caught fire, causing an estimated $25,000 worth of damage to the $33,000-valued structure.
Repairs commenced immediately, with a completion date of June 1. Also, there was some competition from the three new rubber-tired “Safari Trams” purchased from the Chance Manufacturing Company in 1967, and all in service by mid-August 1968.
In time, “Brookfield Zoo’s Western Frontier” was no longer just a plan. Over the following years, it did evolve into giving a fascinating look at life on the American prairie. The train would actually go up to a fenced-in area, and travel across the land. You could see buffalo, for example, up very close, sometimes right next to the train.
There were precautions taken, of course. Three thin strands of electrified wire separated you from danger. There exists a legend that tells of the day one buffalo walked right through the wire and stepped up on the running board of one of the passenger cars.
Besides the massive buffaloes, camels, “Father David’s deer,” prairie chickens and even turkeys roamed around. It was all quite impressive, as was the manure barn when the train happened to pass it when the wind was right.
In 1972, a new engine, No. 242, came to ride the rails of the “B. S. C. and W.” It was blue, with red and gold wheels. Soon after, it was tagged with the nickname, The Blue Goose.
October of 1975 saw work begin on “a replica of an old-time railroad station” at the North Gate. The Pepper Construction Company of Chicago did the carpentry and concrete work on the one-story, all wood structure, also refurbishing the station’s interior with old railroad equipment. Dubin, Dubin, Black and Moutoussamy of Chicago served as architects for the project.
Donnelley died that same year, and his ongoing spirit of enthusiasm and generosity were immediately missed. Somehow his favorite toy, his Zoo Line Railroad, rolled on the rails for another 10 years, until it was announced that in late 1985 the train had to cease operation.
The year before, in August 1984, word had leaked out about the train’s imminent demise. Jeff Williamson, associate director of administration and operations, initiated immediate damage control. He stated there were no plans “so far” for eliminating the train, but that “we are literally evaluating the operation all the time. At some point in the future, if it is operating at such a deficit, we may decide to make that recommendation. But I’m not at a point now to make that recommendation.”
The die, however, was cast. Blame it partly on the fact that the railroad was a financial drain on the zoo’s budget. Replacement parts often had to be custom-made. A more compelling reason was simply one of practicality. The new Seven Seas Dolphinarium, a necessity since the old Seven Seas Panorama building was increasingly showing its age and outdatedness, was being constructed where the tracks were, at the northeast corner of the zoo.
However, Williamson declared in the Chicago Sun-Times as late as August 1987, that there was a very real possibility that “the train may even chug-chug again some day. People still get very nostalgic about it and ask about it. And that interest causes us to take our time on its future.”
Over the years, some local residents had complained about the sound of the steam whistle tooting throughout the spring, summer and fall. But some didn’t mind it at all. Even today, there are people who remember and miss the haunting sound of that very whistle, that spread across the suburban landscape, like an echo from the past.
In 1984, Dea Rufo of Berwyn, one of the trains’ engineers, had an idea about an “adopt-an-engine” program, similar to the animal adoption program run by the zoo. She began a letter-writing campaign to the media, as well as train clubs and celebrities.
“There are a lot of people here on the railroad who care about what they are doing,” Rufo said in an article from the Aug. 18, 1984 Suburban Life newspaper. “It would be a big loss for the zoo if they decide to sell. And once it’s sold, it’s gone for good.”
The signals, track and crossing gates were still in place in 1987 and 1988, but saving the train seemed a lost cause. And so came the last call for the Brookfield, Salt Creek and Western Railroad. Within a few more years the gates vanished and the rails were torn up piecemeal, section by section. Elliott Donnelley’s favorite toy, which had generously been shared with millions of zoogoers, was to become no more than a fond memory.
Well, almost. Some people believe that there no longer exists anything of the old railroad line in the zoo, that every trace is gone. This is not so. Over west of the North Gate, the railroad station house, constructed in 1975, still stands like a silent memorial to a time when the best, most charming, and charismatic way to see the zoo was to ride the rails.