When Frank Sirinek was a little boy, he used to love riding the West Towns streetcar, which until 1948 snaked through Cicero, Berwyn, North Riverside, Riverside, Brookfield, LaGrange Park and LaGrange from Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road to the area near the LaGrange train station.
“That was my first love when I was growing up, the trolley, because we used them in Chicago every day,” said the 78-year-old Sirinek, who grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
“I was intrigued to get on this car, because it brought us out to the country to visit our more wealthy relatives who had beautiful homes,” said Sirinek, who would take the Chicago streetcar until he reached the Western Electric Company at Cicero and Cermak and then board the navy blue-and-white West Towns streetcar, which bore a sign saying “Direct to Zoo” and would deposit visitors to the Brookfield Zoo just outside the South Gate as it headed west into Brookfield.
After 1948, when West Towns scrapped its streetcar fleet in favor of buses, the old streetcars were sold off. Most were junked, but about 20 were distributed to farmers along Route 53 in DuPage County, said Sirinek, serving a variety of uses, from makeshift quarters for migrant workers to storage sheds.
Just one of those street cars has survived — Car 141 — thanks in large part to Sirinek, and after more than 60 years, Sirinek, and anyone else for that matter, can again ride a West Towns streetcar. It doesn’t run through the Chicago suburbs anymore, but it will begin to ferry passengers around a 1-mile loop of track at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.
At 1 p.m. on June 1, the museum will officially dedicate Car 141 during a ceremony. Sirinek will don his motorman’s uniform and take the first lap.
“I said to myself, ‘Someday I want to see this car operational and running.'” Sirinek has been leading the restoration effort for Car 141, which was manufactured in 1924, since it was first purchased by the Electric Railway Historical Society in 1959.
“We found it in Lisle on Ogden Avenue,” Sirinek said. “It was just a shell.”
For the first 12 years of its life as part of the museum’s collection, the streetcar sat under a tarp out in the elements. In 1973, when the Illinois Railway Museum bought the collection of the Electric Railway Historical Society, it was moved to Union.
Then the hard work started. Since the streetcar had been stripped of everything, replacement parts had to be found or manufactured based on original schematics. It took 30 years and the parts came from everywhere.
During a 1983 tour of the streetcar system in Milan, Italy, Sirinek found an authentic G.E. controller, the same ones used on the West Towns cars and manufactured for streetcars used around the world.
“We found the unit under a car that was going to be junked,” Sirinek said.
For three years, refurbishing the controller was the job of Bill Thiel, a 71-year-old Rolling Meadows resident who has been helping Sirinek with the restoration for the past 35 years.
“Frank’s been the godfather of the project since its inception,” said Thiel, one of more than a dozen people who helped with the restoration over the years.
They found a fare register in San Diego, and obtained the door-handle opening mechanism from an attic in upstate New York — it had been pilfered from a streetcar by a former Cicero resident who used to ride the West Towns line and wanted a memento.
Other parts simply had to be custom fabricated. In all, said Sirinek, it cost about $300,000 to complete the restoration, much of it funded through donations.
The finished product looks like it was just rolled into the old car barn on the northwest corner of Cermak Road and Harlem Avenue back in 1948, probably better.
Inside and out, the restoration was meticulous, from the West Towns decal on the side of the car to the canvas-covered roof to the coal stove which used to heat the streetcar and the woven cane seats, which the museum had been collecting since 1953. Luckily, the West Towns cars used a type of seat that was the industry standard and was fairly easy to obtain.
Reproduction ads — including some for businesses that still exist, like Vesecky’s Bakery and Klas Restaurant — above the seats add another touch of nostalgia.
Sirinek is hoping for a good turnout on June 1, perhaps from those who still remember riding on the line (just an FYI, they didn’t make things particularly handicapped-accessible, or senior-accessible back in the day).
The Illinois Railway Museum is located at 7000 Olson Road in Union. The museum’s website is at www.irm.org.