by Brian "Fox" Ellis
The Monticello Railway Museum, in Monticello, Illinois, is a truly unique museum that celebrates our nation’s long love affair with the railroad. Although there are more than 100 railway museums in North America, this museum is matchless in many ways, so allow me to count just a few of them for you.
I was lucky enough to be there on a day Ted Lemen was present. He was one of the founders of the museum and he eagerly gave me a tour of the entire facility. When I asked him what makes the Monticello Railway Museum different from all the others, he was quick to rattle off several examples of exhibits you will not find anywhere else, including:
“Our train ride is the premiere thing,” he said, traversing rolling farm fields, a wooden trestle over Camp Creek, two restored depots for passengers both at the museum grounds and in downtown Monticello, a steep hill to climb and beautiful hardwood forests that cover the ride with a green canopy. And, though many museums offer rides, the Monticello Railway Museum is one of very few who have both restored steam engines and diesel-electric locomotives pulling vintage cars on this delightfully scenic excursion.
You can also reserve time to drive the train yourself! (More on this later).
Each year, the museum entertains and educates the public about trains with its biggest weekend of the year, Railroad Days, and this year it's September 20-21, 2014. Both diesel- and steam-powered passenger and freight train will operate from the museum grounds into Monticello and north towards nearby White Heath. An all-day ticket lets visitors ride as many trains as they like from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. both days. Special all-caboose trains, mixed freight and passenger trains and motorcar rides are included, and the museum's Hodge cars allow kids to hand-crank their way around a loop of track near the food tent, open both days.
One railroad supply company was testing their wheel and brake parts at a test track, so they put a glass plate floor into the baggage compartment of a car to watch their new design move down the track. Now riders can watch the wheels on the train go round and round as the train travels into town in this former Illinois Central Railroad car donated to the museum by American Steel Foundries.
They have a special ‘open-air’ car, rebuilt from a flatcar, so folks can be outside as the train heads from the museum grounds into historic Monticello. It's also the best car to see and hear their completely rebuilt 1907 Baldwin steam locomotive, which was returned to service in 2010.
With the 100th anniversary of World War I just around the bend, one significant display is a pine-plank box, decorated with bunting, which carried home the coffin of the first Monticello resident killed in the war to end all wars.
They have two railroad office cars, with sleeping quarters for the company executives who were out inspecting the railroad or entertaining potential customers, with an elegant dining room outfitted with silver and china, and a small office with period desks and typewriters.
They have a fully-operational machine shop that can build any piece of train equipment they need to keep the trains in tip-top running order. Most importantly, they have dozens of volunteers who know a thing or two about arc welding and running a metal lathe.
And my favorite piece of equipment: the John G. Shedd Aquarium car outfitted with fish tanks on board so they could bring live fish from the Gulf of Mexico to Chicago. There is still the pleasant scent of the sea in the air about the cabin! The museum hopes a fund raiser will allow the restoration of the inside of the car, complete with all of its fish tanks
They also have all of the usual displays that you would expect to see at a railway museum: A sleeper car with large and small compartments for folks traveling along with their families. Like something right out of a Three Stooges comedy, some of these compartments have thick curtains that conceal the open bunks. There is a dining car with linens and china, and a hand-car which two people pump to make it go.
They have a railway post office car with hooks, nooks, and crannies, where they picked up mail from one town, tossed the delivery bag to that town, and then quickly sorted like maniacs the bag they just picked up so the right mail was dropped off at the next town.
There are two lines of train cars in the depot that are open for you to peruse and manned with volunteer docents who will answer all of your questions, sharing their love for railway history. This is all under a roof so you can enjoy the tour rain or shine. There are lots of graphics and posters to help bring that history to life. And new this year is a three track, 500 foot long building so they can display more of their unusual rail cars. This also allows them the advantage of leaving together whole train sets ready for the next trip.
They have two train depots, one at the museum and one at the other end of the line in downtown Monticello. Both offer hands-on museum displays, including timetable, railroad silver, lanterns and other artifacts. The depot at the grounds has a gift shop with many train only gift items you will not find anywhere else.
On the day I visited there was an interesting mix of guests. As one might expect, there were a number of fathers with their young sons sporting Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirts, wanting to go for a train ride. There were several older gents who had spent a lifetime working on the railroads and wanted to share that piece of their personal history with their families. There were the usual folks who just happened by and were more than a little curious. There was a group of railway engineers from the University of Illinois railroad engineering school doing volunteer work. And there was a woman celebrating her birthday with her kids and grandkids. She got to drive the train!
Throttle Time is one of those unique options that only a few museums offer. Folks are encouraged to make reservations months in advance as the few slots tend to sell out quickly. First you ride in the engine for one roundtrip to watch the engineer and learn, then you ride a second round trip to town while the engineer allows you to sit in his seat and run the train.
Leslie Poppenhouse, from Springfield, Illinois, purchased this opportunity to drive the train for her mother. She said, “Her grandpa worked on the trains, so I thought this would be a fun birthday present the whole family could enjoy!” Her grandfather would let her mother ride in the engine on the old Wabash trains years ago—part of the Norfolk Southern Railway line that still runs through Monticello. Poppenhouse added, “We had fun in the caboose, and my daughter did not even know what a caboose was! It was also fun to look out into the woods, to look for wildlife, and see the stream running under the bridge.”
Maybe it was my note pad, or maybe it was the excitement of riding a vintage train car through the country side, but several other passengers felt compelled to share their enthusiasm for the experience.
Diana Bennett from Effingham chimed in, “This is such a beautiful view. It would be nice to come back in the fall. We live by the train tracks, but we never had a chance to ride on them until today.”
Gesturing towards his young son, Kyu Aak, from Savoy, Illinois smiled broadly and said, “Oh, he likes trains a lot, we came maybe ten times last summer, so this year we bought a membership.” As you might imagine, a membership allows you to ride as often as you like and is a great way to help support the all-volunteer museum.
One of those volunteers, Matthew Greve, added this, “It is very important for people to understand that the railroads have been and continue to be a driving force in the economy.” Greve should know, he is the President of the Student Chapter of Professional Society for Civil Engineers. On this day they had students from 17 countries inspecting and replacing old railroad ties on one of the storage tracks. Greve also said, “We organize this workday so students can get hands-on experience repairing tracks.” This practical experience may lead to future research for the engineers.
When the train stops in Monticello there is time to explore the depot, play with a telegraph set, ring a locomotive bell and change the signals that control the trains. You can catch a later train back to the museum and take advantage of the extra time to explore and enjoy the pedestrian friendly town square, where there are several local restaurants and bars. And if you like a little longer walk, just a few blocks away is the North State Street Historic District with more than 30 homes built by many of the industrial giants of the area. Truly a millionaires’ row with gorgeous architecture, each home has a story, and because of the train you rode in on, these wealthy folks could live here and easily commute to Champaign, Decatur, or even into Chicago.
One of the more famous millionaires who lived in the area donated several hundred acres to the University of Illinois to create one of the state’s crown jewels, Robert Allerton Park. Allerton Park has miles of hiking trails, dense woods along Lincoln's Sangamon River and an array of artworks out in the woods. Robert Allerton and his son, John Craig Allerton collected the art in the 1920's. After a day on the trains, I enjoyed a quiet hike under the ancient oak, hickory, maple and sycamore along the river. Allerton Park also boasts a sunken garden amphitheater where Allerton brought musicians and opera singers to perform for him. There are formal English gardens, a sculpture garden and a diverse population of both resident and migratory birds in season.
Just two miles south of Monticello along what is now IL Rte. 105, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met along the dirt road and agreed to meet again the next day in Bement, IL at a home where they signed their historic agreement for their famous 1858 senatorial debates. The Bryant Cottage is now open as a state historic shrine and is staffed by volunteers. This is one of many places in the area to walk in Lincoln’s footsteps! And, just a little further south, Amish country begins near Arcola. Horse-drawn buggies are as common on the streets as automobiles. Gift, craft and foods shops are everywhere, just one more reason to make it an overnight visit. Using the Best Western hotel right outside the museum grounds is the best was to enjoy the railway museum and the many other points of interest, all within an easy drive from Monticello.
“Planning Your Adventure:
The Monticello Railway Museum is located at the end of Iron Horse Place, a frontage road at exit No. 166, just off of I-72.
Monticello Railway Museum Nelson Crossing - 900 Iron Horse Pl - Monticello, IL 61856
View maps, schedules, and purchase tickets on line at www.mrym.org
Railroad Days, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, September 20-21, 2014 with a food tent and special trains in action!”