Train Signs

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The photos and links at this page are meant to accompany an article that I wrote for the Society for Commercial Archeology's Journal.

South Shore Line
Union, IL
The South Shore Line is an electric interurban railroad which runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. It was established in 1903 and is still operating. This sign was originally installed at a station in Gary, Indiana. It is believed to have been built in the late 1930s. While there were other neon signs built for South Shore Line stations, this is the only one known to feature a depiction of train cars. The double-sided sign is approximately 19 feet wide and 10 feet tall.

The train cars on the South Shore Line sign represent the coaches which were in service from the mid-1920s until 1983. When the Gary station was being demolished in the early 1980s, the construction company donated the sign to the Illinois Railway Museum. In 2009, restoration work began on the sign which hadn’t been lit since the 1970s. It cost more than $20,000 which was paid for through fund-raising. The sign features red neon and approximately 130 chasing bulbs. The bulbs are sequentially lit in opposite directions along the top and bottom of the sign. The text and the train’s headlight and taillight are static. The train’s windows are backlit from bulbs inside the sign cabinet. The restored sign was installed at the museum in 2010. It joined a collection of other restored railroad signs. For more about the museum's signs, see this page. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3.

Choo-Choo Grill
Des Plaines, IL
The Choo-Choo restaurant sign features a stylized steam locomotive. The sign was built in 1956 when the restaurant moved here from a few blocks away. This was the third location built in the Chicago area and it is the only one left. The first restaurant was built in Skokie in 1949. The other locations in Wilmette and Des Plaines opened in 1951. What made these restaurants unique was the use of a model train to carry food. Train cars continue to deliver baskets of burgers and fries to customers seated at the counter and a few booths.

This train sign was unique to the Des Plaines location. It is double-sided and about six feet long. The sign had fallen into disrepair over the years. The panels became stained with rust and the neon was broken. Around 2001, the sign was restored with replica panels and new neon tubing. While the neon is static, the bulbs surrounding the sign flash in rapid sequence. In 2008, the restaurant seemed in jeopardy. The City wanted to expand the fire station next door. However, those plans were set aside indefinitely. For more, see this website. [map]

Original Whistle Stop
Pasadena, CA

The Original Whistle Stop model train store features a more realistic representation of a steam locomotive. It depicts the C.P. (Central Pacific) Huntington which was built in 1863. The double-sided sign is about 18 feet tall and nine feet wide. The store opened in 1951 and this sign was installed around 1953. The train’s neon smoke is lit in three-part animation. The train’s middle wheel and connecting rod are also animated to create a spinning effect.

When the store moved to its current location in 1984, the owners battled with the city to relocate the sign. The City Council deemed the sign an “eyesore” even though it had always been well-maintained. When the sign was designated a California Historical Landmark, the store won the right to move the sign. For more, see these websites: 1, 2, and 3. [map]

Friedrick's Restaurant [gone]
Fennimore, WI
Chattanooga Choo-Choo
Chattanooga, TN
The Friedrick's Restaurant caboose sign was 15 feet long. It was built in the late 1980s for Carol's Custard Depot. The restaurant building was meant to resemble a train depot. When the place became Friederick's Family Restaurant in the 1990s, the sign was adapted. Neon lettering was added at that time. The train was still there in 2013. It was gone by 2018 and there was a simple text panel instead.

The Chattanooga Choo-Choo sign is installed on top of the former Terminal Station. The railroad station operated from 1909 until 1970. In 1972, the building was purchased and renamed the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. It was adapted for restaurants, shops, a convention center, and a hotel. Hilton Hotels had this sign built around 1979. There was originally an "H" on the coal car. This letter was painted over when the hotel became a Holiday Inn. It is now independently operated as the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel.

The single-sided sign is about 60 feet long and 40 feet tall. There is about 1,700 feet of neon tubing operated by 33 transformers. There are also 1,300 flashing bulbs which create the illusion of puffing smoke and moving tracks. In 2016, the sign went dark. The owner is debating about whether to restore or replace it. For more, see this website. [map]

Caboose Motel
Durango, CO
Nicholas Smith Trains
Broomall, PA
The Caboose Motel was previously known as the Illinois Motel and later as the Royal Pine Motel. It became the Caboose Motel in the late 1960s or early 1970s. This sign was probably built at that time. The name was most likely a reference to the city's famous narrow-gauge railroad which still operates today. The sign is about 10 feet wide with letters that lit at night with green and orange-red neon. [map]

Nicholas Smith Trains was established in 1909, selling model trains and toys at a store in Philadelphia. In the 1970s, the store was moved to its current location in Broomall, Pennsylvania. This sign was built then. It features a three-dimensional representation of an Atlantic style locomotive. The metal train is about 15 feet long. Its windows were originally lit from inside. The train continues to be lit with spotlights at night. The plastic panels above the train have always advertised for the owner’s auto parts business which shares the building with the train store. [map]

Sattler's Trains & Hobbies
Haddon Township, NJ
Lionel Electric Trains [gone]
Kirkwood, MO
Sattler's Trains & Hobbies opened in 1954. These neon signs may be from then. For more, see this website. [map]

This Lionel Electric Trains sign was installed in the window of Hobby Station. It was lit at night. These signs might have been mass-produced. However, I have not seen any others like it. Hobby Station closed in 2011 and there is a drug store in the building now. The sign was saved by the store's owner. For more, see this website.

Frank the Train Man
San Diego, CA
The Frank the Train Man store opened in 1943. This sign was installed in 1946. This sign is extremely similar to the Lionel Electric Train sign that was in Kirkwood (see above). I don't know which came first but apparently one was modeled after the other. The Frank the Train Man sign has animated, neon rods on the train's wheels. Although the store has moved to another location, the sign remains at the original building and is still lit at night. For more, see this website. [map]

Prestige Hobbies [gone]
Anaheim, CA
Prestige Hobbies opened around the early 1990s. This rooftop sign is probably from then. This sign may have been inspired by this sign in Minneapolis, MN. The store closed in 2018. By 2022, the sign was gone.

More Train Signs:
Union Station Restaurant (Denver, CO) [gone]
Zephyr (Denver, CO) [vintage; gone]
Franksville (Chicago, IL)
Caboose Bar & Grill (Anderson, IN) [gone]
Choo Choo Grill (was Grand Rapids, MI; now private collection)
Rock Island Fruit & Produce Terminal (Minneapolis, MN) [vintage; gone]
Rich's Hobbytowne (Parsippany, NJ) [vintage; gone]
Railroad Pass Casino (Henderson, NV) [vintage; gone]
Overland Hotel (Las Vegas, NV) [vintage; gone]
Hamburger Choo Choo (Huntington, NY) [vintage; gone]
Rib Train Restaurant (San Antonio, TX) [gone]
The Caboose (Cle Elum, WA)
French's Lionel Train House (Des Moines, WA) [vintage; gone]
400 Club (Altoona, WI)
village sign (Melton Constable, England) [map]

If you know of any others, I'd love to hear from you.

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