Passing through: Chicago's Union Station as Amish transit hub

The nexus of rail lines provides an opportunity to meet our regional neighbors.

July 7, 2014

By: Katie Klocksin

(Flickr/kafka4prez)

Editor's note: In producing this story, producer Katie Klocksin quotes several people of Amish background. In a deviation from most journalistic practice, Klocksin and editor Shawn Allee chose not to publish the sources’ names out of respect for the Amish culture's longstanding premium on humility, as well as possible social consequences for participants. The decision was made in consideration of comments on the issue made by Dr. Steven Nolt, Professor of History at Goshen College and author of numerous books on the Amish.

Paul Vaccarello of LaGrange, Illinois, sees Amish people when he passes through downtown Chicago’s Union Station — the nexus of several Amtrak and Metra commuter rail lines.

“I’ve just always been curious about where they’re going, why they’re here, if they’re actually coming to Chicago or if this is a stop on their way to somewhere else,” he said.

This led him to ask Curious City:

Is Chicago a large transportation hub for Amish travelers?

Reporting an answer provided Paul an opportunity to hear from people that Chicagoans and suburbanites don’t ordinarily cross paths with. Members of the religious group seek to maintain a close-knit rural lifestyle and, though there are Amish settlements sprinkled throughout the Midwest, the nearest one lies 90 miles from downtown Chicago. As we approached an answer — by checking in with experts and Amish travelers themselves — we couldn’t help but feel we were meeting our regional neighbors for the first time.

A separate pattern of life

Dr. Steven Nolt, Professor of History at Goshen College and author of numerous books on the Amish, reminded us that adherents belong to a Protestant religious community that is “sometimes referred to as ‘the old order Amish,’ which means they have tried to maintain what they consider the old patterns of life.” Typically, they limit their use of modern technology and their communities tend to be in rural areas. These “old patterns of life,” Nolt said, “would be things that encourage community and cooperation and collaboration.”

Nolt noted, though, that there are few technologies that the Amish consider wholly bad. “It’s their attempt to try to control technology or engage technology on their own terms,” he said.  

Relevant to Paul’s question, Amish people generally don’t own or drive cars, although some will hire a vehicle and driver for transportation. It’s common for the Amish to travel on trains or buses. “The problem isn’t the thing,” Nolt said. “The problem is when we own and control something, then, that heightens our sense of individual autonomy.”

Nolt described an aspect of Amish life that posed a problem for reporting this story: “Amish people, when speaking to members of the media, almost always decline to be identified by name or photographed in ways that would highlight them as an individual. Their concern there is one of humility, of not appearing to present oneself as a spokesperson for the whole group, not wanting to call attention to themselves.”

Traveling by train

Paul and I made several trips to Union Station and found Amish people each time. Most were happy to talk with us, provided my large microphone was turned off. Most people, as predicted, declined to give their names. Everyone we talked to confirmed our theory: Chicago is a hub for transportation among the Amish. The people we interviewed at Union Station were all waiting to switch trains. One woman put it succinctly: “A lot of Amish travel from one state to the other on Amtrak. …Every train comes into Chicago and leaves Chicago.”

Our map can clarify this: There, you can see how Amtrak lines cross near or through midwestern Amish communities. Nolt added, too, that more than 60 percent of the Amish live in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania: states with Amtrak lines. So Paul was onto something: Amish people, by avoiding cars, travel by train throughout the Midwest and the country. Many Amtrak trains converge in Chicago, thus Amish regularly wait for trains and transfers at Union Station.

Map: U.S. counties with extant Amish settlements as of 2010, overlaid with unofficial map of Amtrak rail system lines. Amish population data: Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Rough Amtrak line map: Rakshith Krishnappa.

Nolt points out that Amish people aren’t likely to use the word “vacation.” Instead, he says, they talk about trips. “I think on one level it’s because ‘vacation’ suggests leisure type activity that doesn’t fit with their rural way of life,” he said, adding, “Their worlds are not as neatly divided as many of the rest of ours are between work and leisure, home and work. There’s much more fluidity and overlap between the domains of their life.”

Nolt says it is common for a long-distance trip to be centered around business travel. There are all-Amish trade shows, for example, which are similar to standard trade shows except they are hosted by a local community and attendees stay with local families. "Most people bring their whole family and it kind of turns into a reunion of visiting," he said.

For the most part, though, Paul and I met people traveling to visit family members in other states. We met a large family returning home to Kansas from a wedding in Indiana. An Amish woman from Ohio was traveling with several of her grandchildren to visit her cousin and see the Grand Canyon.

A few Amish people we met were seeking medical care, including a man from Kentucky. “We were in Mexico for medical purposes,” he said. “I don’t like to see it, but medical expenses in the States anymore are so phenomenal that an ordinary person cannot afford it.” He was returning from Tijuana after a successful operation.

Another medical traveler, an Amish man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a constant grin, cracked jokes with us for a while. After we parted ways with him, though, we ran into him throughout our stay at Union Station. It’s not an exaggeration to say he seemed to know every Amish person there that day, which perhaps reveals a benefit of Union Station’s being a hub: For the Amish, it provides a space to serendipitously meet far-flung neighbors.

Our question comes from: Paul Vaccarello

Paul Vaccarello told Curious City he visits Union Station about twice a month, adding that “pretty much every time, I see groups of Amish people.” While he was curious about whether the Amish travel by train, he also wondered if Chicago was ever the destination for Amish people on the road. “It was interesting to hear they sometimes stop in Chicago to sightsee, go to the Sears Tower and John Hancock building,” he said.

Paul said he’s not someone who would normally talk to strangers in the train station, and striking up a conversation with someone from a clearly different background can feel like crossing a barrier.

“It’s cool to see they’re so willing to talk, and that they don’t even really see the barrier,” he said.

Katie Klocksin is a freelance radio producer. Follow her @KatieKlocksin.