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Landmarks: Metra aims to showcase suburban attractions along Heritage Corridor in an excursion into history – Chicago Tribune

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I grew up in the south suburbs within walking distance of what we simply called “the IC.”

Now part of the Metra commuter rail system, the Electric District line was a handy route downtown, both for my dad, who worked downtown, and for my own early adventures along the lakefront.

On one such trip, a group of my high school pals and I took the train to the Museum of Science and Industry to check out a film at the brand new Omnimax theatre. Taste of Chicago was also happening, and we wanted to hit that afterward. But if we purchased another train ticket we wouldn’t have enough money left for lunch and to get home afterward. So we walked the 8 miles up the lakefront, enjoyed some deep dish pizza and walked some more around downtown before hopping the southbound IC, which stood for Illinois Central, heading for home.

Throughout the early 1990s, it was a direct line to cool things happening away from the sleepy suburbs. My friends would drive over from Chicago Heights, park at my house and we’d take the train to Blues Fests in Grant Park, Grateful Dead concerts at Soldier Field and other events.

When I moved back to Homewood a few years back, I was happy to find a house once again within walking distance of the train, and I’ve used it for museum trips and conveyance to concerts. There’s plenty of things to do in the city.

Last week, I received a news release from Metra touting a new effort to reverse the flow of excursionists. Rather than urging people to ride trains from the suburbs into the city as they do for mundane weekday activities such as work, the rail service is trying to raise the profile of south suburban destinations along its Heritage Corridor Line.

Normally served by just a few weekday rush hour trains between Chicago’s Union Station and Joliet, the Heritage Corridor also stops at stations in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont, Romeoville and Lockport.

For the next three Saturdays, Metra has scheduled special Saturday trains they’ve dubbed Rail, Trails and Ales excursion trips, leaving from Chicago’s Union Station at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., making all stops along the way.

It’s a great way, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said in a news release, to “explore some areas that aren’t normally served by train on weekends.”

A silhouette of the I&M Canal's chief engineer, William Gooding, stands near the recreational trail that skirts the waterway in downtown Lockport.

A silhouette of the I&M Canal’s chief engineer, William Gooding, stands near the recreational trail that skirts the waterway in downtown Lockport. (Lori Rackl / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune)

To boost the “trails” element, they’re running “bike cars,” which have capacity to carry riders’ bicycles, and a handy guide at Metra.com lists attractions along the way and how long it will take people to access them by foot or by pedal. The list includes forest preserve trail systems, breweries and restaurants, coffee houses and entertainment facilities such as The Forge: Lemont Quarries zip line park.

After a fulfilling Saturday in the suburbs, fully exercised, entertained and lubricated day-trippers can head back into Chicago on trains starting from Joliet at 1:45 and 7:30 p.m., once again making all stops along the way.

Unlike my formative years, when every jaunt off the train required another ticket in order to ride again, the round trip — hopping on and off at will — can be had for a mere $7 Saturday pass. It’s an “unbeatable bargain,” the Metra release advises, and I agree. Things have improved dramatically since my 8-mile forced march up the lakefront back in the ‘80s.

One of the drawbacks of living adjacent to such a beautiful city is Chicago draws attention away from the cool things available in the suburbs. The idea of biking alongside the old I&M Canal in Lockport or Willow Springs might be a hard sell for people used to two-wheeling amid the magnificent scenery of the downtown lakefront. And why travel for suburban beer when there are so many quality beverage options in the city?

In both cases, the difference is, well, that it’s just different out here. The experience of riding or strolling along the I&M Canal — one of the earliest public works projects in the Midwest and a development that helped put Chicago on the map — is nearly the opposite of the downtown lakefront. Rather than crowds and spectacular modern vistas, a ride through Lockport, with its old limestone buildings abutting the canal bed, is almost like traveling through time.

And many of the brews being produced around these parts are every bit the equal of those found in the city. In some cases, they’re far superior.

I hope city dwellers take advantage of the Saturday excursions down the Heritage Corridor and that it becomes popular enough to become a year-round offering. Perhaps they’ll venture onto some of the other Metra suburban lines that already have regular weekend service to check out some of the other stuff going on outside of Chicago.

It would be a return to the days when most of the recreational traffic flowed out of the city.

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Posters still popular today extol early 20th century excursions to the summer wonderland of the Indiana Dunes along the South Shore Line for fun on the beaches.

Just as they did decades before, Chicagoans used the Metra Electric line, previously known as the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, to get to Olympia Fields Country Club for the 2003 U.S. Open.

Just as they did decades before, Chicagoans used the Metra Electric line, previously known as the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, to get to Olympia Fields Country Club for the 2003 U.S. Open. (Todd Panagopoulos / Chicago Tribune)

A century ago, Chicagoans would arrive on the IC in droves to the golf clubs just steps away from train stations in Homewood, Flossmoor and Olympia Fields. Many of those golf courses are still here, and some, such as Ravisloe Country Club, are open to everyone who wants to spend a day on the links. Electric District Line trains also stop at Flossmoor Station Brewery, an excellent place to kick off a tour of the Dixie Highway Brewery Trail.

Or, they could start at Blue Island Beer Co. along the Rock Island Line, which also features stops in quaint suburban downtowns in Tinley Park and Mokena, among other places.

Orland Park may be known for its retail offerings, but a stop along Metra’s Southwest Service Line in that village offers access to McGinnis Slough, one of the best places around to spot waterfowl and shore birds, according to the Forest Preserves of Cook County. That line also can take people out past to the suburbs for a trip out to the country, ending in Manhattan.

If you look closely, there’s places to explore and things to see and do in every direction. And many of them are just a train ticket away.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at peisenberg@tribpub.com.


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