The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 145

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© January 18, 2010   

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"The Last Miniature Railroad"
the story of Chicago's Final Fallen Flag
 

A Wagner 4-8-4 Northern at the Kiddieland Station for a special Halloween Weekend.
Photo ©Michael Brown and Mickey B. Photography used here by permission.   ©Kiddielandtrain.com all rights reserved.

Written by Jim O'Connor
with help from L. Andrew Jugle
photos by Michael Brown, Dan Crean, Carey Williams

Chicago's Kiddieland was likely the first amusement park in the country with that name and became the prototype for family friendly amusement parks during the baby boomer years of the late 40's and 50's.  Located in suburban Chicago, it was unique catering to young families with small children, unlike "thrill ride" parks that attracted mostly young adults.  Kiddieland had over 30 rides, mostly "kid sized" such as little boats and cars that operated in a small circle at low speeds.  It also featured a beginner's wooden rollercoaster called the "Little Dipper".  But the centerpiece of Kiddieland was the 14" gauge miniature train.  The train station was in the front corner of the park and the train traveled through the parking lot offering a preview of the fun that awaited you as you pulled into the park. Kiddieland may be why I got into the Rideable Scale Railroad Hobby. When you're exposed to something wonderful at an early age, it might just change you a little.  In 2008, Kiddieland celebrated its 80th year of operation.

Land Value vs. Park Rides

WGN-AM reported in May of 2009 that a "family feud" would be ending Kiddieland's 81 year run.  "A long-standing feud between two branches of the family that own and run the park reached crisis point this year, according to Tom Norini, one of the owners and managers of Kiddieland," WGN radio reported. Apparently, two relatives of the founder that own the land that Kiddieland sits on decided not to renew the 2010 lease to the other relatives that own and operate the rides.  At first, it was reported that the park might relocate in Utica Illinois, but that never materialized. 

Was the feud about money? I don't know, but it's interesting to note that Kiddieland park was situated on 17 acres of premium suburban commercial land worth millions.  


Click image to enlarge. Photo © D. Crean  used here by permission. 
 © www.Kiddielandtrain.com all rights reserved.

Everything above the ground had to be sold.  The train however would not be sold at auction with the other rides.  It had reportedly been sold weeks earlier to William J. McEnery of Frankfort Illinois, founder and president of Gas City (a national chain of gasoline stations). On a dreary November morning the trains were loaded on flat bed trucks and taken to an undisclosed location. The exact sale price of the Kiddieland railroad including track, signals, engines, and cars is not known. It was said that it sold for more than the Carousel at $320,000.

On November 24, four days after the trains were removed, all 21 of the remaining rides and other equipment were sold at auction. The Bumper Cars (1962) sold for $18,700, purchased by an amusement company in Loganville, Ga.   The Little Dipper Rollercoaster (1950) built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. was sold to Six Flags for $36,300.  The Carousel (1925), also from the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., went for $320,000.  The next day CBS 2 reported that a Costco store would be built on the old Kiddieland site.  It was a very sad week to be a kid from Chicago.


Click image to enlarge. Photo  © 11-20-2009, C. Williams.
 ©Kiddielandtrain.com all rights reserved.

Kiddieland's Early Years

The official story from the Kiddieland website says that at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, Arthur E. Fritz, a builder and contractor, was in financial trouble. With the little money he had, he purchased six ponies and offered rides to children. Like going to the movies, the pony rides offered something to do that helped parents and kids forget about their troubles and have a little fun.  Another story goes that founder Arthur Fritz won his original pony ride in a poker game. Fritz figured the pony ride could help him until the economy picked up and he could continue his contracting business.  In either case, the Fritz pony rides were a big hit with families.
Click here to see a photo of the pony ride.

"Grandpa Fritz" operated the pony rides on vacant property until 1936 when he purchased land on the outskirts of Chicago in Melrose Park, Illinois. Urban sprawl had steadily pushed west prior to The Depression, but Melrose Park had not yet become part of it.  Farmland in the soon to be "suburb" was still cheap (especially in The Depression). Fritz found property across the road from the county's horse racing track and bordering the Wisconsin Central Railroad right-of-way.  Within a year of that purchase, Fritz had his first miniature railroad installed using 14" gauge track.  To see his property from the air as it looked in 1938, click here.  (Image © HistoricAerials.com, unauthorized use is prohibited.)
Just a few months before WWII broke out in 1941, the new large Wagner (Wagner and Son Manufacturing of Plainfield, Illinois) Steam Locomotive was delivered. The 4-6-4 Hudson type was a replacement for an under powered Wagner that had been running since the 30s. A second locomotive, an even larger 4-8-4 Northern (right), was ordered at about the same time but was delayed by the war effort for 9 years.  It was finally delivered in 1950 and remained at Kiddieland until it closed in 2009.


Photo © D. Crean used here by permission. ©Kiddielandtrain.com all rights reserved.

A year after the war ended, Fritz ordered a train set from the Miniature Train Company (MTC) of Addison, Illinois.  Delivery on that train was delayed for 2 years while MTC relocated their plant to Rennselaer, Indiana to keep up with the post-war demand.  The G-16 finally arrived in 1948 and had the look of the modern diesels of the day.  It was modeled after the F-2, which was still being developed by GM at the Electro Motive Division (EMD) in its famous La Grange factory.  It's interesting to note that the MTC G-16 debuted before any full size F-2s hit the rails.


Photos © D. Crean used here by permission.  ©Kiddielandtrain.com all rights reserved.

Fritz then ordered #704, a "C" unit.  Fritz wanted to make the first A-B-A "Transcontinental" MTC train in 1953 (above).  These new gasoline powered "G-16" trains were an instant hit with park visitors. Like the Wagner engines, these new trains would run on Kiddieland's 14" gauge track (actual gauge 14-1/8").

As the modern looking G-16s became more and more popular with the crowds, the steam-powered Wagners which needed more maintenance, were used less and less.  The Wagners were being slowly "phased out". Many fans of the old steam trains continued to ask about them and, due partly by public demand, the larger Northern was refurbished and taken out on special "steam" weekends. Figuring they would never run both steamers at the same time and because keeping two steamers in running condition is much harder than one, the smaller and older "Hudson" was sold off and ended up in the hands of the Hesston Steam Museum in Northern Indiana (approximately one hour from Chicago) where it still runs most weekends in the summer.

Fallen Flags

Names like the Pennsylvania, New York Central, Chicago & Northwestern, and The Milwaukee Road all were a huge part of our area, economy, daily lives and history. They all are now fallen flags. Yes, when a "real" railroad goes under or gets absorbed by another it's referred to as a "fallen flag"; this [Kiddieland] railroad, albeit small, is definitely one of those cases. Providing children and adults alike with fond memories and family experiences is no less important job then hauling tons coal out of the Appalachian Mountains. Make no mistake, this was a railroad, in all of its glory. We must now add it to the long list of fallen flags all around our area. How can we replace the feelings and experiences that it evoked in us and our families?

T. Rita, Hesston Steam Museum

Kiddieland's Legacy

Dozens of "Kiddielands" sprang up in the late 40s and 50s. Many were even called "Kiddieland" (Fritz failed to get the name registered) and all of the new Kiddielands had miniature trains as the showpiece ride. Most had MTC G-16 diesel trains. MTC would even help with the design and set up of a park as long as you purchased MTC train rides. There are still some "Kiddieland" style parks around the country and there are lots of miniature trains, too.  At one time, Chicago had about a dozen little train rides scattered around the city and outlying areas (read about the zoo train, now gone).  Today, all those little train rides are closed down. Kiddieland was the last public miniature railroad in the Chicago area where a kid could get a train ride.  With the high cost of real estate, there's really no profit to be had in miniature railroads.  It would appear that in Chicago some folks put dollars ahead of miniature trains and the kids that love them.

Written by Jim O'Connor
with help from L. Andrew Jugle
photos by Michael Brown, Dan Crean, Carey Williams

 

Information for this article also came from:

KiddielandTrain.com

WGN-AM

CBS 2

Kiddieland.com

HistoricAerials.com

Hesston Steam Museum

 

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