They were once a center of activity in rural America, until the highways came to town. Loved and then abandoned, train depots are finding new life thanks to dedicated citizens. Jon McGinty explores five places where depots have found new life.
Prior to the mid-1800s, travel and trade in the Midwest were done primarily by following waterways – rivers, canals and the Great Lakes – or by following dusty or muddy roads and trails. By necessity and convenience, settlements also were located along these connecting routes.
The arrival of steel rails and the iron horses that rode them changed much of that, and rather quickly. The Old Northwest Territory (now Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) had few railroad tracks in 1840, but by 1860 they contained 11,000-plus miles, more than one-third of the entire country. Twenty years later, Illinois alone had more than 8,000 miles of railroads.
Because of the powerful effect on the growth and prosperity of communities which connected to a railroad, villages and towns often scrambled to influence the paths proposed rail lines would take. Towns literally appeared, disappeared or moved, according to the vagaries of railroad routes.
“There was a lot of politicking back then,” says Roger Cain, volunteer at the Oregon Depot Museum. “Railroads would approach political and business leaders, offer them positions with the railroads to convince them to choose that railroad for that town. There were a lot of unsuccessful attempts by many railroads who came in promising a lot but delivering nothing.”
Stops originally were established about every 10 miles to provide water and wood (later, coal) for steam engines. Railroads eventually built depots to handle passenger and freight traffic, to conduct railroad business, and to facilitate communication along their lines. In many communities, the first telegraph, and later, telephones, were located in a depot, connecting it to the outside world.
Depots quickly became the central point in a settlement. The first main road started or stopped at the depot. Agriculture and manufacturing products were loaded and unloaded there. The first impression of a town or city to many immigrants was its depot. Soldiers left for war and returned in uniform or in coffins, all at the depots.
When roads and highways improved, passenger, mail and freight traffic shifted to trucks, cars, and later, airplanes. Railroads declined, from peak U.S. track miles of 254,000 in 1910 to 170,000 today.
So did the need for depots. Eventually abandoned by the railroads themselves, neglect, decay and vandalism took their toll. In some enterprising communities, however, small groups of citizens organized ways to save their depots, restore them to their former glory, and preserve them as repositories for local history.
Here are a few local examples.
Amboy Depot Museum
Like many Midwestern towns and cities, Amboy, Ill., owes its location and early prosperity to the arrival of the railroad. The Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) was started in 1851 to connect Cairo, Ill. with East Dubuque, and by 1854 this charter line reached Amboy. When completed a year later, it was the longest railroad in the world.
That same year, the ICRR built a three-story depot/hotel in Amboy to accommodate personnel for its Northern Division headquarters. During peak years, it employed more than 400 workers and became the most important employer in southern Lee County.
“It was a company town,” says Carol Biester, longtime volunteer at the Depot Museum. “Amboy wouldn’t exist without the railroads.”
The original depot burned down in 1875, and the current building was constructed in its place. The unique two-story brick and limestone edifice contained 17 rooms, with a wide circular staircase connecting the two floors. Eight chimneys serviced wood-fired stoves to heat the rooms below.
“My grandfather had a dray [wagon] business that worked out of the depot,” recalls Linda Disney, chairman of the Amboy Depot Museum Commission (ADMC). “He would bring his dray up against the freight house, remove goods from the freight car, and deliver them to local businesses.”
In 1867, Amboy depot became the founding location for the Order of Railway Conductor and Brakeman’s Union, the direct predecessor of the current United Transportation Union.
“At the 100th anniversary of that event in 1968, they held a ceremony here,” says Peggy Horstman, secretary of the ADMC. “My dad spoke at the event. They brought guests here in passenger trains that hadn’t been running for years.”
Due to increasing competition from other railroads, the ICRR decided to restructure its organization in 1894. Amboy lost its status as division headquarters, and the building’s use was readjusted accordingly. Passenger service terminated in 1939, and the depot was eventually abandoned to face years of neglect, vandalism and decay.
The Amboy Depot Commission was formed in 1976 to prevent further deterioration, and a bicentennial grant that year became the impetus to begin to turn things around. The city took over title to the property in 1984, and by 1992 the depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thanks to many volunteers and contributors, major restorations and renovations were completed over the next decade. An extensive collection of memorabilia and artifacts reflecting the history of Amboy and the ICRR was assembled and effectively displayed throughout the two-story structure, which held its grand opening in 2003.
Since then, a 1929 steam locomotive and a 1915 Norfolk & Western caboose have been added to the rail yard outside. Also, the Museum Commission obtained and restored a freight building and a one-room schoolhouse, which also stand in the rail yard.
Depot Days, begun as a fundraising festival for the Depot Museum, has taken place on the weekend before Labor Day since 1950 (except for last year), and has become one of the largest celebrations in Lee County, due to the growth of the car show and the 50/50 raffle.
“As the event has grown, the car show committee has extended its generosity throughout the Amboy community, setting aside a specific amount for the museum each year,” says Disney. “The building was recently examined and needs expensive structural repairs to maintain its historical authenticity and stay on the National Register. Funding will begin this year.”
The Depot Museum is located at 40 S. East Avenue in downtown Amboy. It is free to visit (donations are welcome!) and open Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Groups are accommodated by appointment. Call (815) 857-4700 or (815) 857-3814 or visit amboydepotmuseum.org.
Brodhead Depot Museum
The railroad came to Green County, Wis., in 1856. At that time, two existing communities on the Sugar River, Decatur and Clarence, were in competition for the Mineral Point branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, later The Milwaukee Road. When asked by the railroad to invest in the enterprise, both villages refused.
“The result was, the railroad split the difference between the two settlements, and Brodhead was born,” says Jaine Winters, president of the Brodhead Historical Society. “The civil engineer who laid out the town promised a bell to the first church built in Brodhead – if they would name the town after him. The Methodists won the contest, and the bell is still on display in front of the Methodist Church.”
The first depot, built in 1857, was destroyed by fire in July 1881, but by September, its replacement (the current depot), was constructed. During its heyday, 12 trains passed through Brodhead each day. According to a contemporary newspaper, in 1879 it took four hours to travel by train from Monroe, through Brodhead to Milwaukee, which included 26 stops.
The depot was repaired extensively in 1914, but The Milwaukee Road discontinued passenger service in 1958. A group of local citizens started a movement to save the depot in 1976, and two years later, it was donated to the city. The Brodhead Historical Society began leasing the building in 1979, and after much work and restoration opened it as a museum in 1981, 100 years after it was built.
“Some of our original volunteers attended training workshops in Madison, run by the Wisconsin Historical Society, and learned how to manage a museum and curate exhibits,” says Winters. “When local people saw how well-cared for and displayed things were, they generously donated their artifacts to us for safekeeping.”
Current railroad memorabilia include a lamp and dishware from a Pullman dining car, and a working telegraph where young visitors can tap out messages.
Several additions to the original structure have been added since 1995 to accommodate a growing collection of Brodhead and railroad history, which includes 6,200 square feet for exhibits and 2,000 square feet for artifact storage. One recent addition, provided by funds from the Knight Family Trust, houses several examples of Knight’s unique farm implement machinery.
“We are located on windswept, sandy soil here in Green County,” says Winters. “Knight invented and manufactured a tree-planting machine to help locals prevent soil erosion, which was still in use until recently.”
Artifacts related to the history of the First Brigade Band are also prominently displayed. The Band is a world-renowned organization, founded in Brodhead in 1964, 100 years after the original band was formed to go to war. They play Civil War music on authentic vintage instruments.
“The current Bandmaster, Jon Condon, is from Brodhead, and is a retired music professor from Beloit College,” says Winters. “The band occasionally plays at milestone local festivities.”
Outside the museum on static display is a 1950 diesel locomotive built by Fairbanks-Morse in Beloit for The Milwaukee Road. Next to it is a 1941 Milwaukee Road caboose, the first of 25 of its type built for the railroad.
While the pandemic limited public access to the museum, volunteers were kept busy researching and writing historic articles for the local newspaper.
“We also have working displays for demonstrations,” says Winters. “Our volunteers research how the items are constructed, maintained and used.”
The museum is open from Memorial Day until the last weekend in September, from 1 to 4 p.m., on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information call (608) 897-4150 or visit brodheadhistoricalsociety.org.
Thomson Depot Museum
The village of Thomson, Ill., in Carroll County, began as a stop on the Galena, Warsaw & Rock Island Railroad in 1864. The first regular train of cars passed through the settlement in January 1865, four months before the end of the Civil War. The community’s name was given by one of the surveyors who laid out the village, George Thomson.
[Thomson’s first depot, built in 1865, was abandoned in 1935, and in 1951 it became the McGinty Hardware store, operated by my grandfather and uncle for many years.]
The present Thomson depot was built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) shortly after the completion of tracks between Fulton, Ill., and Savanna, Ill., in 1886. A rebuilt grain elevator and stockyard soon followed, causing the village economy to grow.
The nearby sandy soil proved ideal for growing melons, and Thomson melons quickly gained a wide reputation. The railroad shipped them all over the country, kept on ice cut from the Mississippi slough in winter, then stored for summer use. By 1913, melon output was 250 carloads a year.
Melon Days, a festival held over Labor Day weekend to celebrate Thomson’s most famous crop, began in 1923 but was discontinued after World War II. It was brought back in the 1960s, revived again in 1974 for the Bicentennial, but ended in 2006, due to a shortage of melon growers and volunteers.
“The 1947 World Book Encyclopedia named Thomson the ‘Watermelon Capitol of the World,’” says Luanne Bruckner, president of the Thomson Depot Museum Committee. “At one time, every mile between here and Savanna had a melon stand.”
As late as the 1940s, regular passenger trains stopped in Thomson to load and unload travelers. The nearby Savanna Army Depot manufactured and shipped munitions by rail to military installations throughout the world. After World War II, declining rail traffic caused Burlington to discontinue passenger service in Thomson, and the depot was closed.
“My dad worked for the Burlington railroad for 37 years,” says Bruckner. “He was stationed in Savanna, and in the winter of 1936, we had a big snowstorm here. He was courting my mother in Thomson. To visit her during the snowstorm, he let the air out of his auto tires and drove it on the train tracks to Thomson.”
The Thomson Burlington depot is the last remaining depot of its kind in Carroll County. Starting in the 1970s, the Thomson Chamber of Commerce coordinated the efforts of local residents and volunteers to save and restore the depot. In May 1986, at the request of the railroad, it was moved 100 feet east to its current location
Restoration and repairs over the years included a new roof, new windows, repainting and rebuilding interior walls, and replacing exterior siding. Thanks to many local volunteers, a large collection of memorabilia, clothing, furniture, photographs and artifacts has been assembled, telling visitors about the history of Thomson and its railroads.
The current collection includes the original postmaster’s desk, telegraph key and receiver, and a Burlington conductor’s uniform. In 1989, an annex was constructed to provide restrooms and additional exhibition space.
Due to pandemic restrictions, the depot hasn’t been open to the public for over a year, but plans are afoot to change that.
“We opened briefly for ‘alumni’ on May 29 this year,” says Jan Bristol, vice president of the Thomson Depot Museum committee. “We need to remodel the annex and move some exhibits around. We will also be open by appointment the rest of this year, but we won’t resume regular hours for the public until next May, in 2022.”
For more information, call (815) 902-6067 or (815) 259-3168.
Oregon Depot Museum
The first railroad in Oregon, Ill., the Chicago & Iowa (C&I), arrived in 1871, thirty years before the first automobile appeared in town. This was the third railroad in Ogle County, and by 1892, there were seven, served by 28 depots.
“Today, we have three railroads and no functioning depots,” says Otto Dick, curator of the Oregon Depot Museum.
The first depot was destroyed by fire in 1893, as was its replacement in 1909. The current depot, built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), was completed in 1913. Constructed of brick and stucco, with a distinctive tile roof, its upscale design was due in large part to the influence of then-Congressman (later Governor) Frank Lowden, who owned property nearby.
“Lowden was married to Florence Pullman, daughter of the railroad car manufacturer,” says Roger Cain, member of the museum board. “They both wanted a fancier depot to impress visitors who might arrive in Oregon to greet them.”
In the 1920s, eight passenger trains made daily stops in Oregon. During the next decade, the Burlington Northern introduced streamlined transcontinental trains called the Twin City Zephyrs. These high-speed express trains could travel from Oregon to Chicago in less than 1 ½ hours.
The Oregon depot stopped serving passengers in 1971 but continued as a freight depot and railroad office until 1988, when it was sold to the city. They used it for storage for the next 15 years. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
“Former mayor Jim Barnes and councilman Bob Reese were instrumental in saving the depot from demolition and organizing volunteers to restore it to its former glory,” says Dick. “If not for their efforts, this valuable piece of Oregon history would not exist.”
A nonprofit corporation was formed in 2001 to organize and finance the restoration process. Initial work included taking out partitions, removing debris and many layers of paint, and later, removing, repairing and replacing the tile roof. From 2002 to 2012, a group of Oregon high school alumni spent a week each summer to help with the project, as well as numerous other volunteers and contributors.
Current museum displays include the original ticket office and telegraph desk, a mail-sorting shelf to train mail clerks, and a central control panel from Aurora, which once controlled all switches from Aurora to the Mississippi.
In addition to railroad history, the museum displays items from the city’s past, as well as a tribute to local veterans. Outside, a new vintage-style viewing platform shelters visitors who come to watch the passing trains, and a bicycle maintenance area connects to local bicycle trails throughout the county.
Thanks to a St. Charles railroad enthusiast, the museum will soon become the new home of a restored “Silver View” Zephyr, a domed viewing car from the 1940s. They are currently seeking additional funding and volunteers to aid in the reconstruction.
“It will be fully functional and capable of travel on the railway,” says Cain. “It will also have a galley kitchen below, so up to 30 visitors can dine there.”
While now only open by appointment, the historical society plans to resume their popular monthly Saturday programs, “Those Were the Days,” at the depot around July 4. The depot is located on the south end of town at 401 Collins St. For more information, contact (815) 757-9715 or cityoforegon.org.
Chicago Great Western Railway Depot at Elizabeth, Ill.
The depot at Elizabeth, Ill., was built in 1888 by the Minnesota Northwestern Railroad, which was in turn purchased by the Chicago Great Western (CGW) in 1892. It connected Chicago with Oelwein, Iowa, a meeting point for various CGW departments.
“Elizabeth started as a settlement on the Apple River, called Georgetown, about 2 miles west of the present town,” says Jerry Speer, former museum curator and current president of the Elizabeth Historical Society. “When the railroad came through on the hill, they moved the town and buildings uphill to meet it.”
The choice to go through Elizabeth, instead of following the Apple River valley to Hanover to the south, meant the railroad had to construct a tunnel west of town. Later called the Winston Tunnel, it was one-half mile long – the longest railroad tunnel in Illinois at the time – and, according to Speer, a constant headache for the railroad.
“During the steam age, the tunnel filled with coal smoke from the engines,” says Speer. “Passengers had to cover their faces with damp handkerchiefs. And in the winter, it filled with ice.”
Unable to compete with faster trains, the CGW discontinued passenger service in the mid-1950s. The track was abandoned in 1972, and the depot sold to the town. The right-of-way used to pass under a highway bridge where U.S. 20 is today, just north of the depot. Townspeople decided to eliminate the need for a bridge by filling in the cut.
“It took an enormous amount of fill,” says Speer, “and the project took over a year to complete.”
The result was that the depot stayed in its original location, but the tracks “disappeared” into the hillside. Between 1972 and 1995, the town used the depot for equipment storage, making several alterations to accommodate its new role, including cutting doors into walls and pouring concrete floors.
The Elizabeth Historical Society was formed in 1995 with the specific purpose of preserving the depot and getting it listed on the National Register of Historical Places, which was accomplished a year later. It opened as a museum in 1997.
“The building was in need of many things,” recalls Speer, “including removing garage doors, replacing the roof and many windows. We have raised about $5,000 a year since then to finance its restoration.”
The museum now includes over 5,000 artifacts, 1,000 books and numerous photos, most with a focus on the history of railroads in Northwestern Illinois. Three operating scale model railroads are on display, including one which circumvents the baggage room on top of 8-foot tall display cases.
“We also created an award-winning video by hiring an ultralight aircraft to fly across Jo Daviess County above the railway,” says Speer. “It is interspersed with historic photos of when the railroad was still in operation.”
The Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum is open from May through October, Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or at other times by special appointment. Admission is free. It is located one block south of U.S. 20 on Myrtle Street. Contact (815) 858-2343 or see elizabethhistoricalsociety.com. ❚