“What was the ‘Museum & Santa Fe Miniature Railroad’?” by S.M. O’Connor

The Great Train Story, the massive model train set in the Transportation Gallery (which takes up the whole of East Court) at the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.) in Chicago is not the first model train set at the M.S.I. as it replaced the Museum & Santa Fe Miniature Railroad, also known more simply as the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad, which was on display from 1941 to 2002.  The M.S.I. famously has a number of whole real vehicles on site, including a submarine, a diesel-electric train, a steam locomotive, and multiple cars and airplanes, but with a model railroad and model ships gallery, it is able to fully demonstrate to guests the roles these vehicles serve in society.

The Museum & Santa Fe Railroad was the largest model railroad of its kind in the world, as it covered 2,340 square feet of floor space, and included 1,000 feet of track, when it opened in 1941.  The exhibit was in the shape of a massive square that took up much of the Central Pavilion’s East Court.  The square layout was fifty-by-sixty feet.[1]  It was O-gage two-track, which is 1/48 scale.  This means ¼ of an inch represented a foot. An automated control board operated its forty switches. The exhibit encompassed all aspects of railroad involvement in the transportation of industrial and agricultural freight in the desert environment of the American Southwest.  It included the Midwest (but notably did not include Chicago), the Great Plains, the Arizona desert, the Grand Canyon, and California.  The exhibit cost $58,000.[2]  The exhibit had 20,000 ties, twenty electrically operated switches, nine model steam locomotives, three model diesel electric locomotives, fourteen model passenger cars, sixty model freight cars, 250 feet of 132 wire cable, 10,000 feet of switchboard wire, 5,500 miniature trees, 350 relays, 150 telegraph holes, 660 square feet of stainless steel, 800 square feet of plate glass, and 5,000 soldered connections. The exhibit weighed approximately three tons.

Jay Pridmore pointed out in Inventive Genius, that the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad, which opened early on in Major Lenox Lohr’s administration on January, 29, 1941, was built by famed “model railroader Minton Cronkhite” as a result of a relationship with the Santa Fe Railroad had been “initiated” by “Philip Fox and Rufus Dawes.”[3]  About two months before he died, Rufus Cutler Dawes (1867-1940), President of the M.S.I.’s Board of Trustees, signed a contract provided in a letter from E. J. Engel, dated November 4, 1939.[4]   [Edward J. Engel (1874-1947) was President and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company from March 28, 1939 until his retirement on August 1, 1944.[5]] It called for the railroad to pay the sum of $50,000 to pay for Minton H. Cronkhite to fabricate and install a model railroad covering approximately 49’ x 60’ of floor space in the East Court of the Central Pavilion.[6]  Cronkhite lived in Pasadena, California.  He estimated the fabrication and installation would take four to six months.  It was anticipated that when the New York World’s Fair ended, the M.S.I. would be able to acquire elements of the Railway Business Association Exhibit for incorporation into the industrial section of the Santa Fe model train exhibit.[7]

Credit: San Diego Model Railroad Museum Caption: This short video concerns Minton Cronkhite’s 40’ x 70’ diorama and model Santa Fe train at the California Pacific International Exposition (1935) in San Diego’s Balboa Park.  Corkhite’s grandson donated his Santa Fe Super Chief train to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

To celebrate the Museum’s first model train set beginning operations, the Museum held a luncheon for the president and directors of the sponsoring organization, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company on January 29, 1941. E. J. Engel formally presented the exhibit to Major Lohr.   The Right Reverend Edwin J. Randall, S.T.D., Suffragan Bishop, of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States Diocese of Chicago, gave the invocation.  Entertainment came in the form of music provided by Josef Koestner’s Orchestra, songs sung by the soprano Vivian Della Chiesa (1915-2009), and Artists of the National Broadcasting Company (of which Major Lohr had been president until he became president of the M.S.I. in 1940) performing the “dramatic presentation” Romance of the Rails. Fred Harvey broadcast the event over the radio.[8]

A number of changes were made to the exhibit in 1953.  General Exhibits & Displays, Inc. re-laid model tracks and installed switches, switch machines, and resistors for $3,950. Central Locomotive Works provided locomotives for the Hump train ($480), a lounge car for the El Capitan model train ($26), 200’ of steel rail ($21.00), and a freight train for the Hump yard ($420).  Simonsen Model Supplies provided complete models of the Texas Chief ($500) and Super Chief ($485). [9]


Figure 1 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is the past layout of the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad.  The Texaco No. 13 and another airplane can be seen suspended from the ceiling of East Court.


Figure 2 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is how the Grand Canyon looked in the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad.


Figure 3 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is how the Foundry looked in the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad.


Figure 4 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is how the Car Shop looked in the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad.


Figure 5 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad.  The Living Periodic Table of Elements can be seen in the background in the Grand Rotunda.

Estimating 25,000,000 people had visited it (or, more accurately visitors had seen it 25,000,000 times since some people would have seen it multiple times), on January 27, 1966 the M.S.I. celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Santa Fe miniature railroad’s debut.  The cake was served by “by a Harvey Girl, dressed in the picturesque costume of the Harvey Girls of Western frontier days,[10] and a trim Santa Fe courier nurse of today’s ultra modern railroad era.”[11]

In 1988, the Santa Fe Railroad committed $150,000 to updating the exhibit, placing a contract with Circuitron, a manufacturer of miniature railroad supplies based in Chicago’s western suburb of Riverside, Illinois.[12] Ron Grossman interviewed seventy-four-year-old Barney Stuempel, a scratch-model maker who used a homemade vacuum-form process to fabricate miniature railcars for the renovated Museum & Santa Fe Railroad; Circuitron President Steve Worack; and several other men were involved for a Chicago Tribune article published March 9, 1989.[13]  A newly renovated Museum & Santa Fe Railroad, sponsored by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, opened on April 12, 1989.[14]  According to a Museum press release, the exhibit would now feature 1,200 feet of track winding “through a reconstructed setting of miniature mountains and flatlands” representing “Santa Fe’s present-day operational mainline” stretching “through the industrial Midwest, the Plains, the Arizona terrain, which includes the Grand Canyon, and on to California.”[15]  The exhibit had increased in size to a total of 3,000 square feet.[16]  New conditions of freight train transportation were reflected with the depiction of “containers stacked two high and trailers riding on skeletal frame cars.”  An intermodal transportation center demonstrated the “transfer of steamship containers from rail to trucks” showing “the interplay of highway, shop and rail transportation.”[17]

After the 1988 renovation, there were four trains, each of which had a diesel locomotive that hauled up to fifteen cars.  Two trains would be operating at the same time.  An electronic switchboard controlled the choreography.  An intermodal facility demonstrated how cargo transferred from railroads to highways, which is how commodities and goods shift from trains that bring them to regional hubs to trucks that bring them to factories, warehouses, and retail stores.  Working plants in the landscape included a cement factory and an oil field and refinery.

The Museum & Santa Fe Miniature Railroad no longer exists because it and four whole exhibits that had to be dismantled to make way for the United Airlines Boeing 727, which was installed in the East Court in 1993.  To move the 727 airliner inside, the doorway of the Central Pavilion’s West Court had to be enlarged, a thirty-two-ton column had to be temporarily removed, and four exhibits had to be dismantled.  It was from the 17th of October to the 5th of November in 1993 that the Pepper Construction Group removed the column and widened the entrance.[18]  The four dismantled exhibits were the original Farm, Civilization through Tools, Conquest of Pain, and Chicago. [19]  The Museum & Santa Fe Railway was cut into quarters and placed in storage.[20]    


Figure 6 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is how the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad appeared from above around 2000.

According to Scott Orr, the M.S.I. spent $100,000 to rebuild the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad, with new wiring and tracks, but it never worked right again. [21]  After the M.S.I. chose to build a new railroad sponsored by the B.N.S.F, the Museum retained a square yard of plaster that had Cronkhite’s signature.[22]  It auctioned off the rest of the pieces of the Museum & Santa Fe Railroad on eBay in 2002 and thereby raised $21,500.[23]  The structure that received the highest bid was Grain Elevator A, which fetched $1,036.[24]

Often stylized as the “Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago” or the “Museum of Science + Industry” the institution is located at the northern end of the Chicago Park District’s Jackson Park, on the south side of 57th Street, between Lake Shore Drive to the east and Cornell Drive to the west, in the East Hyde Park neighborhood of the Hyde Park Community Area (Community Area #41) on the South Side of Chicago.

Normally, the M.S.I. is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  However, it will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Saturday, June 22, 2019 through Sunday, June 30, 2019.  The address is 5700 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60637.  The Website is https://www.msichicago.org/ and the phone number is (773) 684-1414.


[1] Ron Grossman, “They’ve Been Working on Our Railroad…Get Ready to Role,” Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1989, Section 5, p. 1

[2] Ibid

[3] Jay Pridmore, Inventive Genius: The History of the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (1996), pages 68-71

For context, Rufus Cutler Dawes (1867-1940) was President of A Century of Progress Corporation, which operated Chicago’s second World’ Fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34), and the fourth President of the M.S.I. Major Lenox Lohr (1891-1968) was Vice President & General Manager of A Century of Progress Corporation; fifth President of the M.S.I. (1940-1968); President of Chicago Railroad Fair, Inc.; and the first Chairman of the Board of the M.S.I. (1967-68). He gave up the presidency of N.B.C. upon the death of Dawes, who had been something of a mentor to him, in 1940, to assume the presidency of M.S.I.’s Board.  Colonel Philip Fox, Ph.D., was an astronomer and veteran of the First Great World War who had been a faculty member at Northwestern University and Director of Northwestern’s Dearborn Observatory before he became the first Director of the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, which he gave up to become the third Director of the M.S.I. In other words, Lohr benefitted from a commitment Dawes and Fox had received from the Santa Fe Railroad.  Fox was Director of the Museum until 1940, after which Col. Fox went back into active service in the U.S. Army and received command of an army base.

[4] Letter (File 69-H) dated November 4, 1939, from E. J. Engel to Rufus Dawes, pages 1 & 2

Museum of Science and Industry, Institutional Archives, MSI Early History Papers, Business manager Files (1927-1963), Box 1, file “Contract – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe R. R. ‘Miniature Railways’ (Industrial Participation)”

[5] The Edward J. Engel Papers, 1874-1947, are at The California State Railroad Museum Library in Sacramento, California.

Box 6, Folder 2 contains a hand-lettered resolution from the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Science and Industry that expresses condolences after Engel’s death, according to Xiuzhi Zhou’s inventory of the papers.

[6] Letter dated November 4, 1939, from E. J. Engel to Rufus Dawes, p. 1

[7] Letter dated November 4, 1939, from E. J. Engel to Rufus Dawes, p. 1

[8] Letter dated January 30, 1941 from Willard King to Major Lenox Lohr, Institutional Archives, Early Papers, Wormser-King Collections, Envelope I-V D9737 Correspondence From January 1, 1937 To December 31, 1941, I-V §54 Correspondence & Memoranda, Museum of Science & Industry, from January 1, 1940 To December 31, 1941

[9] “Santa Fe railroad model” June 1, 1953

Museum of Science and Industry, Institutional Archives, MSI Early History Papers, Business Manager Files (1927-1963), Box 1, file “Contract – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe R. R. ‘Miniature Railways’ (Industrial Participation)”

[10] This is a reference to the Harvey House chain of restaurants founded by Frederick Henry Harvey (1835-1901) in 1876.  The Fred Harvey Company was the first restaurant chain.  It operated both restaurants and hotels alongside railroads.  It had a partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Harvey Girls were waitresses at the restaurants.  They were between the ages of eighteen and thirty when they were hired.  They had to be attractive and articulate and received room and board as well as a monthly salary.  Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) wrote The Harvey Girls, published in 1942, which M-G-M adapted as the musical The Harvey Girls (1946), which starred Judy Garland (1922-1969).  Both the novel and the film had the premise that the Harvey House and Harvey Girls were a civilizing influence on the American Southwest.

[11] Museum press release, January 26, 1966, p. 1

Museum of Science and Industry, Institutional Archives, Exhibit Design Files, Group B, Box 9 of 10, file “Santa Fe”

[12] Grossman, p. 1

[13] Grossman, p. 1

[15] Ibid

[16] Museum press release, dated April 6, 1989, p. 2

Museum of Science and Industry, Institutional Archives, Exhibit Design Files, Group B, Box 9 of 10, file “Santa Fe”

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[20]Take Flight Grand Opening” pamphlet, p. 3

[21] Scott Orr, “Minton Cronkhite and Chicago’s Magnificent Museum & Santa Fe layout,” The Midnight Railroader (http://midnightrailroader.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_27.html) Accessed 06/27/19

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

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