The Forgotten Railways of Lake County, Illinois

As the County immediately north of Cook County and the City of Chicago, as well as south of Milwaukee, and with Lake Michigan to its east, Lake County has a ton of railroad history, as many lines passed within its borders. To this day, the railroad industry remains an integral part of the county's transportation infrastructure, as four passenger lines run within the county, en route to Chicago.

Map of McHenry and Lake County's Railroad System in 1854. Source: Illinois Digital Archives

Today's blog will be a focus on the history of Lake County's railroads. Thanks to Metra for providing some of these histories on their website.


Railroad service came to Lake County in the 1850's. In 1854, the Chicago & Milwaukee Railway began operations between its namesake cities, and the Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad followed shortly after, running trains from Chicago to Janesville. 

Both of these pioneering railroad companies are long gone; but their routes remain to this day. Each railroad, The Chicago & Milwaukee, and Illinois & Wisconsin would be predecessor routes for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. When Union Pacific merged with the Chicago & Northwestern in 1995, these lines became the Union Pacific North and Union Pacific Northwest Metra lines, respectively.

Chicago & Northwestern Railway Station in Barrington, IL in 1915, on the former Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad and future Union Pacific Northwest Line. Image: Illinois Digital Archives

In 1872, the Milwaukee Road (at this time named the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad) came to Chicago from Milwaukee, and then changed their name to the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul. Today's Milwaukee District North Line runs along the same trackage, but is owned by the Canadian Pacific as the Milwaukee went bankrupt in 1989. In 1880, Milwaukee Road would expand its operations, creating its own route to Janesville diverging from the mainline at Rondout. Nowadays, that line runs primarily passenger traffic, although did run two freight trains a night from the Wisconsin Southern Railroad (as I soon learned living near it).

Milwaukee Road Depot in 1904. Today, the Depot has been demolished and Libertyville Train Station is located west of Milwaukee Ave. Image: Illinois Digital Archives

1886 would add yet another line running through Lake County, as the Wisconsin Central would build a competing line through central Lake County between Chicago & Milwaukee. It was later merged into the Soo Line, and merged once more into Canadian Pacific. Reorganization occurred in 1987, creating the Wisconsin Central Limited, which is now a subsidiary of Canadian National. In 1996, passenger service was restored along this line as Metra's North Central Service.

Canadian National would steadily increase its presence in Lake County through its purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway in 2008. The Lake County portion of this line would get its start in 1891 as the Waukegan & Southwestern Railway. It was acquired by the EJ&E shortly thereafter, with passenger service ending in 1909. It nonetheless remains a very busy freight line in Lake County west of Leithton junction. East of Leithton, the line only serves a few customers a week in Waukegan.

The Elgin Joliet & Eastern Bridge over the Des Plaines River in 1911, east of Vernon Hills. Photo:
While most of the large railroad lines still in service today would be built in the 19th century, in 1904, the Chicago & Northwestern would split their mainline between passenger trains and freight traffic, which still is the case today.


The Early 20th Century saw an abundance of interurban and electric railroads in Lake County, some successful, some not. One of the least successful lines was the Waukegan Fox Lake & Western Railway, which ran along Washington St in Waukegan. Owned by the predecessor to the Chicago Milwaukee & North Shore Line (A much more successful interurban), tracks were laid through Waukegan on Washington St, with plans to be extended into Fox Lake. It would be muddled by a lack of funds and public opposition, and would ultimately be abandoned in 1916, leaving no traces, no photograph and very few maps of this line.
The Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway Company was purchased in 1916 and reorganized as the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee, known as the North Shore Line. This electric line would be one of the most successful interurbans in the country, surviving and thriving during World War II, connecting the North Shore communities to the major metropolitan centers of Chicago and Milwaukee. Nonetheless, the North Shore Line couldn't beat the automobile, and the line folded in 1963.

Thankfully, due to the efforts of many individuals and organizations, such as the Illinois Railway Museum, and the book Days of the North Shore Line, the history of this route is quite well preserved.

Days of the North Shore Line

One can also take a ride on the cab, in black and white, from 1945.

Image: Kevin Piper
An EJE Locomotive crosses the North Shore Line. Today, this is the intersection of MLK Jr. Dr and Commonwealth Ave in North Chicago.

Today, the North Shore Line in its entirety is part of Lake County's trail network. The Robert McClory Bike Path uses the line which paralleled today's Union Pacific North Line, the North Shore Bike Path uses the Libertyville Division spur which ran from Mundelein to Lake Bluff, and the Skokie Valley Bike Path parallels Union Pacific's freight branch.

On the ROW of the Libertyville division just west of the junction with the Robert McClory Bike Path.

Lake County, like most places has a significant amount of abandoned lines, like the aforementioned North Shore Line. All of the lines which I've found have been listed on the map above. 

Fort Sheridan Line - 
Image: Illinois Digital Archives
A very short spur connected Fort Sheridan near Highland Park and Lake Forest with the Union Pacific North Line. Constructed in the 1940's, its crossing at Sheridan Rd wasn't officially closed until 2001. Fort Sheridan today is mostly disused, and the former barracks are now luxury townhomes.

Buffalo Grove Spur - 

Source: USGS Highwood Map from 1900

Sadly, I have no information on this line, other than it no longer showed on topo maps after 1928.

Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad -
Image - Ela Area Public Library
The Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad was originally envisioned as an interurban line, which would have extended all the way up to Fox Lake, and connected with the Fox Lake and Western (itself never reaching Fox Lake, or out of Waukegan for that matter). Instead, it was built as a steam line to Wauconda, opening up southern Lake County to the railroad network and a connection to the Chicago & Northwestern Railway in Palatine.

Image - Ela Area Public Library

Sadly, the line could not compete with the automobile, especially as local roads in the area improved. The line, built in 1912, only ran until 1924 before being abandoned. There are scant few traces of the line today, most of which parallels Old Rand Rd and the current US 12. 

Illinois Beach Railroad Tracks - 

This spur was used to transport sand, gravel, and beach-goers to and from Illinois Beach, but was abandoned very early in the 20th Century. Nonetheless, the tracks have appeared from time to time at very low tides, but are generally buried under dirt, rocks, and sand. These tracks were the subject of my second blog. 

Washed up tracks on Illinois Beach, 1997 (photo: A. Foyle)
Another spur existed closer to the Wisconsin State Line in Winthrop Harbor, but to my knowledge, all traces and trackage from that line are gone. 

California Ice and Coal Company Spur in Antioch
Source: USGS Antioch Map From 1920

The California Ice and Coal Company operated an ice house in Antioch, using Channel Lake and Lake Catherine for production, and shipping via railroad. No trace of this spur exists, but the neighborhood to the east of Lake Catherine is to this day known as the California Ice and Coal Subdivision. 

Ice house spurs also existed in Fox Lake and Round Lake.

Armour's Ice House in Round Lake, IL. Photo: Illinois Digital Archives

North Chicago and Great Lakes Naval Station

In North Chicago and Great Lakes Naval Base, there exists plenty of abandoned spurs from the Union Pacific and Canadian National (former EJE) lines in the area. In most cases, the tracks are still there, but disconnected from the railroad network and disused.

Libertyville Industrial Spur

A small spur off the Milwaukee District North line existed originally to serve a lumber yard out to 1st St, and had another track which extended south to near IL 176. 

Looking east on 1st St in Libertyville, what is now apartments today. Image: Illinois Digital Archives
Looking east from 2nd St, where the railroad tracks end today. This photo was taken in 2017. The line hasn't been used since the 1980's.

Although the line disappeared from maps in the 1980's, the track still exists behind what is currently an abandoned warehouse. 


While my focus in this blog post is on abandoned railroad lines and companies, no history of Lake County's Railroads would be complete without mentioning Rondout. The unincorporated town of Rondout was once a stop on the Milwaukee North Line up until the 1980's, and is the spot where the line diverges from the main line enroute to Janesville, WI, as well as crosses the former Elgin Joliet & Eastern. 

A Metra train stops at Rondout Station, 1989.

If that weren't enough, at this junction was once a crossing with the North Shore Line's Libertyville Division as well, which goes over both tracks today as the North Shore Bike Path.

But what makes Rondout really interesting is that it was the site of the largest train robbery in US History.

Image: Historical Marker in Rondout, IL

Four robbers would walk away with over $2 Million, all but $100,000 of which would eventually be recovered. Today, next to the railroad and north of IL 176 exists the plaque which tells the story of the robbery.

I hope you enjoyed this blog, and I hope further that I didn't leave anything out about the railroad history of the county. As always, if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments! Special thanks to the Dunn Museum of Lake County for some information here, as well as a thank you to you for reading!


  1. This is a fascinating website. Thank you for all the work put into it! I am one of the few that were fortunate enough to ride the North Shore line as a child in 1962, and on an Electroliner also. I met at his home, George Campbell, aka "Mr. North Shore" and have copies of his books he wrote about the iconic interurban.

  2. Thanks for posting this excellent blog and video footage on the old North Shore Train. I rode it and the Chicago & Northwestern from Chgo. Loop to Indian Hill, Winnetka, all through the late 1960s. A joyous ride especially in the double decker CNW trains. I'm looking for footage/info on the Illinois Central, Peoria, IL to Evansville, IN line from 1900 to 1960 that went through LERNA, IL. Thanks again, I really enjoyed your posts and video.


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