Whatever happened to ... Hoot Toot & Whistle Railway
What ever happened to ... April 03, 2009 | By Vikki Ortiz
When Nancy Eliason was a young mother in Elmhurst in the late 1960s, she and her husband were always looking for ways
to entertain their three sons on a limited budget. When Eliason's father mentioned a train ride he had noticed on Lake Street
in Bartlett, the Eliasons decided to check it out. The Hoot Toot & Whistle Railway quickly became a family favorite.
The boys -- and parents -- could climb into the miniature steam engine for a ride around a 1 1/2-mile wooden track.
The engineer pointed out amusing sights along the way: a cluster of rocks painted yellow for "Yellow Stone Park", a
water tower where the engine got its steam, a depot where riders could buy refreshments from the engineer's wife
behind the counter.
Years later, Eliason returned to where the railway once stood and found an RV sales lot. "It was such a disappointment
not to see the train station or the train waiting to take its passengers on a special ride," said Eliason, who wondered if I
could find out what happened to the little engine. Of course there was only one way to respond to such a request: I think I can.
According to Bartlett History Museum records, The Hoot Toot & Whistle Railway was the lifelong dream of a man named
Robert Buchmann. After running a hardware store in Elmhurst for nine years, Buchmann and his wife sold the business
in 1954 and bought a 16-acre wooded lot in an area so undeveloped they had to describe it as "east of Elgin" in order for
people to understand where it was.
The couple built a ranch with a basement in which a train could be lowered for storage. Robert Buchmann hired a man
named Norman Sandley in Wisconsin Dells to build the engine, and another man to lay 15-inch-gauge track around his
property. About a year later, Buchmann's 32-passenger dream began whistling its way into the hearts of visitors who
drove from near and far for a loop on the mini-railway.
"It was really popular," said Pam Rohleder, curator of the Bartlett History Museum. "It was a simpler time back then.
Something as simple as that could bring people out."
The Buchmanns, who had no children, ran the Hoot Toot & Whistle until the early 1970s, when Robert Buchmann worried
that if he died unexpectedly, he might leave his wife with a grueling business to run and sprawling property to maintain.
So when a local resident, Harry Blizzard, offered to buy the property and railway to house his side business of RV sales,
Blizzard and his young family also loved the Hoot Toot & Whistle and marveled at the number of people, 15,000 a year,
who used their loose change to take a ride on the train. He put his children to work selling popcorn and tickets in the depot
and persuaded a mechanic from the mobile home business to be the conductor.
"A burly looking guy, he put on the bib overalls and the cap and the red handkerchief and he looked the part," recalled
Blizzard, now 82 and still living in Elgin. "He didn't care how much he made, he was having fun."
But as the RV business grew, it became harder to operate the railway. The large mobile homes could barely fit under
the railway's trestle. After four years, Blizzard decided it was time to let the little train move on.
"It was sort of sad when I saw them come in with their cranes," he said. "I sold them the rail, the railroad spikes, they took
everything." There was some consolation in who bought the train: Norman Sandley, the man who built the Hoot Toot &
Whistle engine years earlier. He had heard that a backup train was needed to transport visitors at the World's Fair in
Knoxville, Tenn., so he sold it to fair organizers, Blizzard said.
But the engine never did run because organizers overestimated the crowd size and didn't need it. The little engine moved
on again, this time to Wakarusa, Ind., to a restaurant owned by Delton Schrock. He loved the Hoot Toot & Whistle from
Day One and invested thousands of dollars in its restoration. For years, diners at the Come and Dine restaurant were treated
to rides on the railway. But Schrock died of a heart attack in his early 40s, said David Simerson, general manager of the
Riverside and Great Northern Preservation Society, Inc. At that point, Simerson and other volunteers at the non-profit
railway museum in Wisconsin Dells decided it was time to bring the Hoot Toot & Whistle home.
The Great Northern Preservation Society is on the property where Sandley built his trains decades ago.
During all its travels, people in Chicago's western suburbs never forgot the Hoot Toot & Whistle. Customers at Abel RV
Center often bring it up. Employees respond by taking them to the old depot, which still stands in the middle of the property
and serves as the business' office. Though the RV lot has changed ownership several times over the years, no one has ever had
the heart to tear down the depot.
Blizzard chuckles about how, even though he worked years as a civil engineer, played a major role in the construction of
Interstate Highway 355, and built two major RV parks in other parts of the country, he's most recognized for the little railway
he owned for a few years. Blizzard has a second home in northern Wisconsin, and each time he drives past Wisconsin Dells,
he's tempted to stop.
"One of these days, I'm going to take two or three hours and I'm going to go and see my old train," he said. "It's still clucking
away, I'm sure." That it is, says Simerson, who spent the winter polishing the Hoot & Toot's brass and repairing its doors.
At the museum, they refer to the Hoot Toot & Whistle as Engine 98, and along with Engine 192, also built by Sandley, it gives
rides all summer long.
"She's home," Simerson said. "She came back home, to where she was born. She's not retired, either. She is a worker."
"Whatever happened to ..." runs Fridays in the West Chicagoland Extra. If you have a fond memory from the area
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that you'd like reported and updated, send it to Vikki Ortiz at email@example.com.