By Thomas Dyrek
Chicagoland is home to countless railroad junctions, both in service and long abandoned. In Northwest Indiana particularly, one can find several busy diamonds and overpasses. One of the most popular was–and still is–the town of Griffith, located in central Lake County.
At its peak, Griffith was home to a five-way intersection between the New York Central, Erie, Grand Trunk Western, Elgin Joliet & Eastern, and Chesapeake & Ohio railroads. From the 1940s through the early 1960s, one could see as many as 180 trains a day through town.
Today only the EJ&E and GTW tracks remain, but railfans still come to Griffith regularly as both remaining lines are still heavily trafficked.
Griffith became especially popular for railfans throughout the 1960s as the Grand Trunk Western hosted several steam excursions over the line between Chicago, South Bend, and points east. Railfan favorites such as the 5629, 4070, 2102, and 6323 were regulars on this route. By the 1970s, Griffith had been visited and documented by several famous railfans and while its train frequency has declined over the years, its popularity in the railroad community continues to grow today.
While waiting for the next train, one can check out the Griffith Depot Museum, located directly to the north of the diamond.
Maintained by the dedicated members of the Griffith Historical Society, the Griffith Depot Museum is a welcoming place for any railfan or history buff. The museum started in 1979 when a group was formed to save the GTW depot from demolition. At one time, Griffith had five depots in the same area to serve each railroad, but by 1975 all but the GTW building had been demolished or destroyed by fire. Once the depot was relocated to the museum’s property, a few watchman shanties and an Erie telephone booth were saved and relocated to the museum’s grounds. After a couple years of restoration work, the museum was opened and dedicated in 1982.
The museum purchased some land adjacent to the depot in 1994 to create a railroad park, and the EJ&E donated rolling stock for display over the next few years. Today, an EJ&E cupola caboose, transfer caboose (lettered for the Erie), and a Pullman troop sleeper call the museum grounds home.
EJ&E cupola caboose number 503 was built in 1956 and was used all over the EJ&E system. Following retirement in the 1980s, the caboose was stored at the EJ&E’s Kirk Yard in Gary, IN before being donated and moved to the museum in 1995.
The Pullman troop sleeper was built in 1943 and after the war was sold to the EJ&E who used it in wreck train service before retiring and donating the car in 1996. Today the car has several small exhibits inside.
The EJ&E transfer caboose was built in the mid-1950s and was one of many such cabooses on the EJ&E roster. Donated to the museum in 1997, the caboose has since been restored to look like an Erie-Lackawanna transfer caboose.
In 1999, word got out that the Griffith interlocking tower was slated for demolition. Closed on December 31 of that year, the grand old brick tower of 1924 vintage was donated by the EJ&E and successfully relocated to the museum the following summer. It has since been restored to its original appearance and provides a good example of what an interlocking tower was like for those who are unfamiliar with such operations. In 2004, the museum was able to get the depot and tower put on the National Register of Historic Places and the Indiana Register of Historic Sites and Structures. Plaques on each building indicate that they are on both registers.
Today, visitors can find several indoor exhibits inside of the depot and the trains, mostly memorabilia and historic photographs. Each summer, the museum hosts a Railroad Days festival which has several model train vendors and other railroad-oriented activities. Retired railroaders hang out in the tower and explain to visitors how it worked and share stories of their experience working for the railroad. Can’t make it to Railroad Days? Fear not. The museum is open on Sundays from 2:00 to 4:00.
Even if the museum isn’t open, the park is worth a visit. The grounds are kept up nicely and the buildings and equipment look as good as new. The depot was recently painted into a sharp red with yellow trim and the trains, tower, and shanties look great as well. For railfans, the park allows for a nice view of passing trains and the stairs leading up to the tower are open 24/7 and allow for a great view of the diamond.
Whether you’re a railfan, history buff, or just curious, the Griffith Depot Museum has plenty to keep you busyboth indoors and outdoors. While not an operating railroad, the museum will still take you on a journey back in time to when railroads were the backbone of Northwest Indiana.
The Griffith Historical Society offers a membership program and is always accepting new volunteers to help out at both their main museum and the depot museum. For more information, go to https://griffithhistoricalsocietyinc.wordpress.com/.