Argonne National Laboratory's Abandoned Railroad Tracks

If you ever find yourself for a walk at the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in southern DuPage County and listen closely, you can often hear the sounds of trains rumbling by. This isn't too surprising, since the very busy BNSF Chillicothe Subdivision lies just to the south. 

Additionally, a spur line from the Chillicothe goes through the western park of the Preserve, serving the Argonne Industrial District.

Almost always, with a caboose in tow. (FRRandP photo, 2014)

But, upon further inspection, if you look closely at the trail in the southern part of the Preserve, you may notice that there are railroad tracks much closer than you might think.

As in, right beneath your feet.

No need to worry, however, about a train barreling down these tracks. These tracks, which spurred from the Chillicothe Subdivision (at the time owned by the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway), were constructed in the 1950's, when Argonne National Laboratory was moved to its current campus, after having been formerly located within the University of Chicago. 

A 1962 photo of one of the buildings, showing railway tracks that lead to it. FRRandP Photo Collection

I first discovered these tracks with some friends in 2012 while walking along the preserve, which Google Maps labeled as "Railroad Drive". This was quite some time before I began tracing abandoned rights of way, so I had no idea what these tracks were, or why they existed.

As I very much love hiking around Waterfall Glen, I kept running into them, and eventually my curiosity piqued, such that I contacted Argonne and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to see if they knew why railroad tracks were running into Argonne, and what, if anything, they transported. 

My guess is they never transported Weed Whackers.

According to an email from Argonne Historian Dan O'Rourke, "The tracks which entered the site along Railroad Drive were installed in the late 1940s and were used to bring in the construction material needed to build the lab." There actually existed two spurs, which I was unaware of, as I was unable to follow the tracks inside the fences at Argonne. 

The railroad tracks in red. The East-West spur jettisoning out from the rest of the line was the first line to be abandoned. This is shown as Quarry Rd and Bluff Rd on Google Maps. (Source: Argonne National Laboratory) 

According to O'Rourke, the lines were abandoned by the 1980's. While there are no specifics onto what, if anything the line was used for, outside of transporting construction materials, the railroad spur is mentioned in the 1972 Environmental Impact Statement for Argonne. A 1982 Environmental Assessment details that the tracks were used at that time to fire the boilers for the heating system. "Associated facilities outside Bldg. 108 [heating facility] are the coal-storage and -handling equipment and the oil-storage tanks. The coal-handling facilities include railroad tracks, a railcar-unloading structure, coal hoppers and storage areas, a coal crusher, and conveyors to transport the coal between the various areas and the storage bunkers in Bldg. 108." (DOE/EA-0181)

1982 EA map of Argonne. The train tracks are faint, but visible, in this view.

According to the Impact Statement, the land was being proposed as a potential industrial development. This would have been before the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County bought the land, converting the entirety around Argonne into the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. I'm happy to say that action was not taken, and myself and future generations are able to enjoy the land as a forest preserve.

In this Chicago Tribune photo, you can see railcars on the right of way if you look closely enough inside the oval.

So now you're probably all thinking, how does one find these tracks?

Take the road (seemingly) less traveled, of course.

You can enter the Forest Preserve from Cass Ave and Bluff Road. Bluff Rd west of Cass is fenced off for cars, but is accessible on foot, leaving an otherwise abandoned road as your walking path. Before the creek, there is a path which connects to the actual Waterfall Glen Trail, as well as the Rocky Glen Trail, which will allow you to view the waterfall and explore the rest of the preserve. 

Beyond the creek, the road forks, take the southern fork. This will become obvious as the fence barring entry into Argonne is quickly seen to those taking the northern fork.

The road is in rough shape, but more than suitable for a hike.
After a half mile or so, you will hit a 4 way intersection at Bluff Rd and Railroad Dr. Railroad Dr is aptly named, as this is where the railroad tracks are. Following Railroad north or south will allow you to see evidence of the past embedded in the trail.

Bluff Road looking west from Railroad Dr
Be aware though, at first glance, there isn't much. You really have to keep a close eye out. My best advice is to go in the winter time when there is no snow on the ground, as the brush makes the tracks quite difficult to spot in the summer months. In spite of that, my photos were taken in August '17 and June '18.

The tracks become much clearer at the southern end of Railroad Dr by the active Argonne Switcher line.

Here, the track leaves the brush and enters the trail surface, right before the Argonne Local. This is just south of the Waterfall Glen's Main Stem, but accessible on foot.

The tracks end here. But the line crossed the Argonne Switcher and connected with the Chillicothe Subdivision, a little ways west from here. 
Looking north from Bluff Rd on Railroad Dr toward Argonne's entrance.

I came back to the area in September, 2021, and a utility project has made Railroad Drive far larger than it used to be. I don't believe the rails were pulled as a result of the project, but I also don't know for certain either. 

Here's how Railroad Drive has been expanded as of September, 2021. It's still not open to traffic, but you may find a utility vehicle or two if you choose to walk along it.

As to why these tracks still exist and were never removed, I cannot say, but it's quite possible that the most of them no longer remain. The tracks are best viewed at the south end of Railroad Dr, but spikes are visible pretty much up until the Argonne gate.

Railroad spikes in the ground. 
Hey buddy! While there are spiders and snakes on the trail, they aren't numerous, and you shouldn't worry too much about crossing them. Do bring bug spray, as the mosquitoes are numerous. 

One can't go too far north without reaching Argonne's fence, and two "No Trespassing signs".

As Argonne National Laboratory is fenced off and government property, this is where my photos end. A special thanks to both the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and Argonne National Laboratory for their quick responses to why exactly there were railroad tracks leading into the lab, and a thanks to you as well for reading!


  1. I have friends that lived at Waterfall Glenn apartments, and then the town-homes. I've walked Waterfall Glenn countless times. I believe that the rails were used to move the equipment from downtown since rail is secure. Once it was fully operational by the late 70s the rails were no longer needed. The tracks were never pulled because of environmental issues. .

    As far as that development, it was for only the parts near the tracks, as far as I remember reading.

  2. The map has enough resolution that I could read "Heating Plant" in the key. But not enough resolution for me to read the number and find its location. I'll bet for years the railroad regularly delivered coal hoppers to this plant to provide steam to all of the buildings on the campus to heat them.


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