NWI History - by Mike Schafer

     What is today the North Western Illinois Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society is the brainchild of one-time Rockford residents Jim Boyd and Mike Schafer. The clubís genesis dates from late 1968 when, during a discussion with Boyd, Mike was lamenting how relatively few railfans there seemed to be in the northern Illinois area. Time has rendered some aspects of this history a bit hazy, but one of the two--who by this time had been active railfans since the early 1960s--suggested that they form a club. However, it was indeed Boyd who suggested that the group be a chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, a Philadelphia-based organization with which Schafer was unfamiliar.

     Things moved quickly in those days, and Boyd and Schafer set out to get something going. Not well known is that Boyd suggested the group be very goal oriented, and the goal he had in mind was both visionary and ambitious: to obtain and preserve an Alco PA-type passenger locomotive. Schafer agreed, and the two went so far as to looking into storage facilities, possible donors (Santa Fe was then in the midst of dispersing its PA fleet), etc. Thus, one of the first proposed names of the intended club was . . . "PA Chapter-NRHS"!

     When it quickly became evident that the formation of the new group should not be so closely hinged on this speculative (if noble) goal, Boyd, Schafer and other area fans, including a surprisingly active contingent from Dixon, Ill. (Boydís home town), set upon another name for the group. One of the runners-up was Prairie State Chapter, but another situation influenced the present-day name, and that was the almost simultaneous formation of the Black Hawk Chapter, then to be based in Aurora, Ill., a Chicago "satellite city" about 70 miles southeast of Rockford, which itself is some 90 miles west-northwest of Chicago.

     Alas, the powers-that-be at the National Railway Historical Society, apparently unfamiliar with American geography west of the Appalachian Mountains, frowned upon having two chapters competing in the Chicago area and gave both groups the brush off. This move forced the the future NWI to establish a "territory" that the NRHS would perceive as non-threatening to the Black Hawk group, and we did so by calling the new club the North Western Illinois Chapter. In essence, that gave the Black Hawk group all of northeastern Illinois, including Chicagoland. (It should be noted that the Black Hawk and NWI groups themselves never considered each other as rivals, and the two groups have always had a good relationship.)

     The strategy worked, although both groups were admonished by the NRHS for having simply assumed they could self-declare themselves as chapters of the national organization. We were told we had to be sanctified at the national convention in Denver later in 1969. With that in mind, we officially named and incoporated ourselves as the "North Western Illinois Railway Historical Society" with blessings from the Chicago & North Western Railway to use the shape of its logo as NWIís logo.

     And so, in February 1969 a modest group of northern Illinois railfans from Rockford, Dixon, Belvidere, and (chuckle) Chicagoland assembled at Loves Park Savings & Loan (Loves Park is a suburb of Rockford) for the first monthly meeting. Still well-known for his exemplary leadership qualities, Jim Boyd served as the groupís first president. With his natural bent of writing, editing and photography, Mike Schafer was put in charge of the groupís newsletter, christened--naturally--the Northwestern Limited (that "Northwestern" here is one word and not two as in the groupís title was intended, but weíre not sure why now), named for the overnight Chicago-Twin Cities flyer of the C&NW.

     Through publicity, word-of-mouth, and an early merger with the Rockford Society of Model Engineers, NWI grew like a prairie fire and began drawing members from southern Wisconsin as well as all over northern Illinois, Black Hawk Chapter notwithstanding (some were members of both clubs). Then, in September 1969, both NWI and Black Hawk were awarded "chapter" status by the NRHS at the Denver convention, attended by several members of both new groups.

     Interestingly, the goal of preserving an Alco PA quickly fell by the wayside when it became evident of that goalís monumental complexity. Instead, NWI became--and remains--closely associated with quality railroad photography and publications. To this day, the work of many of NWIís hundred-plus members is featured in railroad books, magazines, calendars, and videos, including NWIís Guide to Railroad Photography. But regardless of the photography skills--or lack thereof--of club members, the real crux of NWI is that it serves as a lighthearted, warm social group for anyone who simply loves railroading. You donít have to be an accomplished photographer to join. The goal is to learn about railroads and have fun doing it.

NWI - Alco PA Epilogue (by Jerry Pyfer 03.29.21)

The Streamliners at Spencer event of May and June 2014 would bring Doyle McCormick’s Alco PA east from Portland, Oregon to join in on the event.

During a photo session, I made contact with Mr. McCormick with the intent to offer a token financial assistance from the NWI Chapter to restore the PA to operating condition. Doyle was skeptical as he wanted to stay away from donors expecting a return on their investment. I explained about this chapter’s original intent of saving a PA and this would satisfy that desire, without any strings attached. He would accept our offer, thus fulfilling in a small way, our desire to save an Alco PA locomotive.

Chapter address

North Western Illinois Chapter - NRHS
P.O. Box 5632
Rockford, IL 61125-0632