Chicago, acknowledged rail capital of the United States, was the site of the great Railroad Fair of 1948 and 1949. Sponsored by some 38 railroad companies along with suppliers such as The Budd Company and The Pullman Company, the fair drew thousands to its Lake Michigan shoreline location for a celebration of "100 years of railroad progress."

The lengthy "Wheels-a-Rolling" pageant, written by railroad historian and visionary Edward Hungerford, presented an overview of rail and other transportation developments set against the panorama of American history and geography. It featured historic locomotives and equipment — such as the New York Central & Hudson River's famous speedster No. 999 — as well as the latest in motive power technology — Chicago Railroad Fair, 1948including not only new diesel power but the Chesapeake & Ohio's experimental steam turbine electric. Exhibits sponsored by individual railroads or firms highlighted regional color in the areas they served, as well as their equipment and other enticements for the traveling public. An operating steam narrow gauge railroad, called the "Deadwood Central," carried passengers the length of the 50-acre site.

President of the Railroad Fair was Lenox R. Lohr, president of Chicago's distinguished Museum of Science and Industry. The fair's Board of Directors included such railroad industry luminaries as John W. Barriger, then president of the Monon Route; Wayne A. Johnston, president of the Illinois Central; and for the 1949 season, William N. Deramus III, then president of the Chicago Great Western.

The 1948 season of the Railroad Fair was so successful that the fair was repeated the following year from June 25 through October 2. As a 10-year-old I visited the 1949 fair with my father, Dr. Richard D. Leonard, who saved a copy of the 18-page Official Guide Book for the 1949 season that was the impetus this web site. Some time later Steve O'Connor of Rochelle, Illinois, provided scans of the 20-page Official Guide Book for the 1948 fair, from a copy saved by his father, Roderick Arthur O'Connor, who lived in Chicago at the time. Chicago Railroad Fair - Second Great Year, 1949Both of these Guide Books are linked below, and you can navigate through them by clicking the buttons on each page. All pages are reproduced except the back covers, which contain only the seals reproduced on this page. Also below is a map of the 1949 fair, viewed in larger form on pages 10-11.

Roderick O'Connor also saved booklets distributed at the 1948 fair by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (Burlington Route) and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island Lines), plus leaflets describing the Great Northern Railway, Illinois Central passenger trains, the Pullman Company, and the Chesapeake & Ohio steam turbine electric locomotive. These have been provided by Steve O'Connor, and are linked below.

My father apparently took no photos of the Railroad Fair, but in 2006 I learned that my friend Gary Thompson of Normal, Illinois, had attended the 1949 fair with his father Paul F. Thompson, a conductor on the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Mr. Thompson took some 35mm photos of the event, and Gary kindly loaned me the negatives. Additionally, he provided some postcards from the Fair. I started this site with those materials and my father's copy of the 1949 Guide Book.

Once the site was established Larry Bangert, originally from the Effingham, Illinois area and now living in California, sent me photos from the 1948 Railroad Fair taken by his mother Emma June Bangert with a Kodak Brownie camera. Subsequently Ron Preece provided four images from the 1949 Fair taken by his father, Harry G. Preece, a fireman for the Milwaukee Road and, later, a trainman for the Southern Pacific. Tim Podolske of Madison, Wisconsin sent a CD of color transparencies taken by his grandfather, the late Lyman Humphrey of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Mr. Humphrey, a high school teacher, visited the Railroad Fair both years; we have selected fifteen of his best shots, which come from the 1948 season. Then R. Trank provided one view from the 1948 Fair by E. Mezner, Joe Nemec submitted another 1948 image by Joseph Veverka, and Bob Rees provided a 1948 image by Jim Purcell. Forrest L. Becht of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, provided several views of the 1948 Fair taken by his grandfather, John J. Becht (for Forrest Becht's rail photography, click here).

My thanks to all who have generously contributed materials for this Chicago Railroad Fair site. To view the Guide Books, photos-postcards, and other materials click the applicable button below.

Other resources for the Chicago Railroad Fair are available:

  • A DVD, Wheels-a-Rolling, was issued by A&R Productions of Kensington, Connecticut, in 1993 and is in their catalog. It uses footage from the pageant, but concentrates on locomotives and railroad interest rather than the general history of American transportation.
  • A portion of an earlier film from around 1950, which includes more about the whole scope of the pageant, is available online through the Chicago Film Archives collection.
  • A 1948 Educational Documentary is available on YouTube.
  • A Chicago Tribune Flashback presents some photos from the Railroad Fair.
  • Photos from the 1948 fair are available at American History Online.
  • There is a Wikipedia article about the fair.

Dr. Richard Leonard