Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Aurora Roundhouse - From Railroad History to Walter Payton and Today

As with any building, it's time and purpose comes and goes. The railroad industry is no exception. Such was the case for the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Roundhouse and Locomotive Shop in Aurora, IL.

The Aurora Roundhouse in the 1930's. Image: https://www.theclio.com/web/entry?id=26944
The Roundhouse and it's subsequent buildings were first opened in 1857 for servicing locomotives on the Chicago & Aurora Railroad, not to be confused with the later interurban railway the Chicago Aurora & Elgin. The C&A was the first predecessor railroad which would develop into the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and it's Chicago to Aurora route is to this day one of the busiest in the United States, both for freight and passenger traffic.

Locomotives using the roundhouse. Image: Matthew Powers
There were actually two roundhouses in the complex by the 1870's. But an 1880 fire would destroy many of the original structures. The 2nd roundhouse was replaced with a newer one in 1925. (Link). As diesel engines began to replace steam engines, the importance of the roundhouse complex dwindled, but it nonetheless maintained CB&Q's fleet of Zephyr locomotives through most of the mid-20th century.

But by 1974, the need for the Roundhouse Complex had ceased, and it was closed by CB&Q's successor railroad, the Burlington Northern.

Image: Wikipedia Commons
While most structures were demolished, the iconic Roundhouse remained upright, albeit in very bad shape.

Image: historic-structures.com
Roundhouse in the late 1970's. Image: Vicki Moore

The building would lay dormant for 21 years, a reminder of the area's manufacturing and railroad history, but nothing else, until 1995, when an investment group led by Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton purchased the building with the intention of turning it into a restaurant.

It would be called the Walter Payton Roundhouse and later America's Historic Roundhouse. The complex had an open-air pavillion, brewery and museum, which also had some of Payton's memorabilia in it, such as his Super Bowl XX ring.

The complex would receive a National Preservation Award on October 22, 1999, ten days before Walter Payton's untimely death to liver cancer.

The restaurant was acquired by Two Brothers Artisan Brewing Company in 2011, who still owns it. We visited the restaurant recently and had a great experience, except for the parking lot which is far too small. 

Entrance to the Roundhouse. The history of the place is well documented in it's logo, but there are little mentions of it's past life inside. It's website nonetheless tells the story well.

Much of the original limestone structure is still intact, although the restaurant area is on wood platforms slightly above the shop floors.

One of the beers available is a nod to the Illinois Prairie Path, itself a redeveloped piece of railroad infrastructure.
A light, crisp ale that is apparently gluten free.
Visiting at night, I didn't have a chance to take many pictures of the complex, but I hope to return in the summer and grab some more shots in the daylight. Even so, while the restaurant is worth a visit, it is the history of the place that makes it a truly unique experience.

As always, thanks for reading!

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