The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Palatine, Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad

The Palatine, Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad connected its namesake villages in northern Cook County and Lake County. It first operated in 1911, forming a line from just northwest of Palatine Station, north to Wauconda for a route of just over 12 miles in length, generally paralleling modern-day US-12 and Old Rand Road throughout its trek through the county. 

An image of "Old Maud", its most famous steam engine, which was scrapped along with nearly every item of the railroad. Photo: Palatine Historical Society.

I've wanted to do a blog on this rail line for some time, but I've been stopped by the fact that a great blog on the topic was already written by Diana Dretske of Lake County History, so I needed some material to discuss on my own if I was to prevent this from being too duplicative of a blog. 

ROW of the Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad on our Abandoned Railroads Map with Bing Light Canvas Basemap.

I've also briefly touched on the line in my blog on the Forgotten Railways of Lake County. But I finally feel like it's time to bring this blog to light.

This is Deer Grove Forest Preserve, where 98 years ago [as of 2022], the Palatine, Lake Zurich and Wauconda Railroad ran, before becoming largely obsolete with the building of US Highway 12.

 Unfortunately, the original track of the line is almost completely grown over, and only small sections of the preserve’s trail use the actual right of way. I know there are supposed to be at least 1-2 structures of the line still intact, but thus far I haven’t been able to find them. (FRRandP photo, 2020)

LiDAR image of the ROW through Deer Grove. (ILHMP LiDAR Data)

The P, LZ & W was part of an ambitious plan that ultimately failed to reach its intended target: Fox Lake. An equally ambitious plan was to connect Fox Lake with Waukegan via the Waukegan Fox Lake & Western

Palatine Station, the terminus of the PLZ&W, where riders could connect to CNW trains into Chicago - or points west. Photo is looking west from Slade Street. Ethel Baumann family photo.

Each of these lines were part of a larger umbrella known as the Waukegan, Rockford & Elgin Traction Company. Plans even included for a southerly extension of the line to Schaumburg. Each of these projects were intended to be built as electric interurban railways, which were the popular form of rail building at the time. However, aside from a small bit of interurban rail in Waukegan, the P, LZ&W represents the only part of this plan to actually be constructed - and operational, albeit with steam locomotives as opposed to electricity. 

"This is a capital stock certificate of the Palatine, Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad Company. This ill-fated business venture began on May 10, 1913 - Railroad Day in Wauconda." (Wauconda Area Digital History)

The best quote about the plight of the Waukegan Rockford & Elgin Traction company I could find comes from the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society. "Unlike most of the “pie-in-the-sky” interurban ventures of its era, however, the WR&ETrCo actually ran a railroad – from 1911 to 1924. But it never reached Waukegan, never reached Elgin, never reached Rockford, and never used traction!" (Shore Line Interurban Historical Society)

"Golden Spike" ceremony for the Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad upon its completion on May 10, 1913. (Wauconda Area Digital History)

Like many railroads we have discussed, this was hampered by mismanagement and poor economic conditions, but if one were looking for a reason why the line failed after just over a decade of service, they wouldn't have to look too deeply, as in the time this railroad operated, in addition to the aforementioned conditions, a World War, a global pandemic, a major blizzard and a tornado would all occur on or near the railroad's property; and that is before one considers how the prospects of the railway would have fared amid automobile competition which was ramping up towards the end of its life.

1920 Palm Sunday Tornado Damage at Wauconda. (Wauconda History)

The appeal of this line was for economic development, as the land was almost entirely farmland during the early 20th century, and the roads were unpaved, whereas the more developed regions of Lake County were less enthusiastic about another railroad, as many options for transportation existed already. Many of the farmers who owned land adjacent to where the railroad wanted to build donated their right of way, enthusiastic for the ability to reach Chicago via the Chicago & Northwestern Railway at Palatine.

Ground broke on the railroad in August 1911, not without opposition, however, most notably from the adjacent Lake Zurich Golf Course, who created a graveyard on the property from medical cadavers to legally prevent the PLZ&W from building on it. It was in their words to "foil the vile machinations of a huge and heartless railroad corporation who, through the iniquitous law of the right of eminent domain had thought to seize this beautiful spot for its own fell purposes." (Nancy Burgess) This turned out to be but a minor footnote in the history of the railroad, as it was able to quite easily build around the burial plot.

Another steam engine shot of the Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad. Unknown photographer.

The railroad opened as construction progressed northward, so while it wouldn't be completed until 1913, the first revenue service train operated just a month after construction began. (Shore Line Interurban Historical Society) 

Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda Timetable, 1914. Alan Follett scan.

The railroad would use hand-me-down equipment from the C&NW to supply its rolling stock, which also hampered operations, as occasionally equipment malfunctions would require patrons to walk along parts of the right of way if the engine couldn't support their weight, something that would be unthinkable in today's railroad operations.

"Scene From Station at Lake Zurich". (Ela Historical Society) Note the embankment that allowed the PLZ&W to cross the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway tracks.

"Saturday's Special Train" Lake Zurich, IL. Ela Area Historical Society. Illinois Digital Archives.

Wauconda Terminal. (Wauconda Twp. Historical Society)

While some of the crises of the line could not be foreseen, such as the war and the pandemic, the company is one of many short-lines and/or interurbans who attempted to operate a railway on a shoestring budget and be unsuccessful as a result. As an example, the line did not have snow removal equipment, as if any winter in the Chicago area is going to be devoid of accumulating snow. 

""Digging out the tracks south of town". The Great Blizzard of 1918 left 42" of snowfall and 10-20 foot drifts which halted the train's progress. Local volunteer crews such as the men pictured here, hand shoveled the snow to clear the tracks for the PLZ&W Railroad." (Image: Wauconda Twp. Historical Society)

Later in its life, it would use gas-powered railcars in passenger operations to save money on operations costs, as the numerous stops the line made would quickly wear out steam power.

"4-Wheel Drive Model B Railbus". Ela Area Historical Society. Illinois Digital Archives.

In 1922, Rand Road (which is now Old Rand Road) was paved for the first time, which began a quick decline for the railroad, as automobile competition would be the ultimate setback for the line to attempt to grapple with - especially amid all the other things going against the railroad.

An August 1924 flood would be the nail in the coffin for this line - who hadn't been operating up until that point anyway, but the substandard construction of drainage for the line would mean its rails would be underwater for any attempt to restart service. (Shore Line Interurban Historical Society)

Wauconda Station. (Wauconda Twp. Historical Society)

The railroad changed names to the Chicago, Palatine & Wauconda Railroad in 1921, and that is the name it would use upon its final bankruptcy in 1924. At Lake Zurich, the Lions Club purchased the railroad's property, and would construct a road on top of the right of way, aptly named Lions Drive today.

Palatine Lake Zurich & Wauconda (labeled as the CP&W) on the 1924 Chicago and Cook County Sanborn Map. Note the right of way paralleled the CNW tracks to Bothwell & Wilson in Palatine - allowing a seamless transfer to their service.

1938 aerial image near present-day Deer Grove Forest Preserve. Despite being extinct for 14 years in this image, its track is pretty easy to decipher. (Illinois Aerial Imagery Viewer)

While the line was quite small and very obscure within the context of the rail network of suburban Chicago, finding this line was a bit of a watershed moment for me. I had been tracing abandoned rights of way for about a year at that point, and had figured I had found every railroad in the Chicago area, and was quite shocked to find this 12 mile spur to trace. I concluded there was always going to be more to see, more to discover, even in what essentially is my own backyard on a worldwide scale, and that documenting and preserving that history was something to work towards, which is where I find myself today, nearly four years after the fact.

Still - having rail service between Fox Lake and Schaumburg, or indeed any suburbs without having to connect via Chicago, is something that could be useful to the area even today, especially as highway expansions through Lake County have met enormous opposition in the face of high costs and environmental destruction. Should the Waukegan Fox Lake & Western's early 20th century idea of light rail serving Chicago's northwest suburbs finally be given its moment in the sun?

Further reading: Old Maud: The Story of the Palatine, Lake Zurich & Wauconda Railroad by Richard Whitney.

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. There are two remaining structures of the Wauconda station: the depot relocated to 172 W Maple St across from the present day Wauconda Grade School; and the replacement build train station erected after the Palm Sundar Tornado of 1920 that destroyed the old engine house. The replacement was built as an adjacent structure annex to Wauconda’s first manufacturing shop the DeSmet Quartz Tile Co. The structure has since been wrapped in siding @ 120 Kent Ave of the Campbell International Inc.

  2. There is a tiny remaining bit of railroad prairie in Pell Lake WI that is left from when the railroad that was built in the early 1850s between Elgin and Lake Geneva was abandoned in the mid-1960s. I visited this precious bit of history last month. The railroad went right by my son's house in Pell Lake, and my grandson found what looks to be a piece of the old railroad tie and the spike that held it down.

  3. This is one of the best and most concise pieces of research I've read on this particular railroad. It's refreshing to read a piece that is well-written and documented. I'm going to have to find a copy of Mr. Whitney's book.

  4. I believe that the section of the railroad south of Dundee road is now used for part of the palatine bike trail. Also looking at that aerial map showing where the railroad crossed the creek just north of Dundee would explain an old bridge that still exists there that found while hiking on a section of seldom used trail at Deer Grove Forest Preserve. The bridge was to substantial to have been made for the light traffic on that almost abandon section of trail. Thank for posting your research here.


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