Railroad Days

by Bill Monson

A picture, it's said, is worth a thousand words. Well, a picture in the right place can also be worth thousands of dollars.

Let me explain. A couple months ago, I was looking over the new books in the San Luis Obispo County bookmobile which comes to our mobile home park twice a month.

I came upon a large book called The Heritage of North American Steam Railroads by Brian Solomon. It's a lavishly illustrated coffee table book published by Reader's Digest in 2001 and costs $30.

Raised in Galesburg, I am naturally nuts about anything which has to do with railroads -- so I started thumbing through it. Lo and behold, I came across a picture of a billboard with a Zephyr on it. There was information on the billboard:--

''Welcome to Galesburg, Illinois''--

''Birthplace of Carl Sandburg''--

''Home of Galesburg Railroad Museum''--

''Site of Lincoln-Douglas 1858 Debate, Old Main at Knox College''--

''Railroad Days 4th weekend of June''

That one picture told everyone who checked this book out about the chief selling points of good ol' G-burg. (Except maybe the Stearman Fly-In.)

How many railroad buffs do you suppose might see that picture and add Railroad Days to a trip to the railroad sites in Illinois? How many interested readers might remember Galesburg by associating it with the information on the billboard?

Considering the fact that Reader's Digest coffee table books get a wide circulation among libraries and subscribers, the number is probably in the thousands. (The Galesburg Public Library has a copy on order, they assured me.) If only one percent of the readers actually travels to Galesburg, the money they leave behind will give a good boost to the local economy.

What's more, as I read the book after checking it out, I discovered a second mention in the text. It called Railroad Days ''a popular event that celebrates the town's railroad heritage.'' (p. 250) The book calls it ''popular''! Well, there you go -- a solid plug from Reader's Digest.

Mr. Brian Solomon has put Railroad Days right up there on the list of events a tourist might want to see in Western Illinois.

When the economy is creaky -- as it is now in the state -- this is the kind of mention worth its weight in tourist gold. And it makes sense for the local Chamber of Commerce to think about other ways to get the Galesburg name before potential tourists. Something on I-74 perhaps. A collaboration with other railroad sites to put out a pamphlet (with maps and calendar) on such events.

It also means that Railroad Days is something to cherish -- something which gives the town identity -- and which should be nourished despite the hassle it means for its planners and operators. Try to make it a ''downtown'' event. Close off Main Street for two days; let the merchants decide if they want to stay open during the celebration. Put the carnival around the Square and in front of the Central Church. Move the model train show from Sandburg College to the Armory. Get more people-movers like the Galesburg Historical Society's. Convince the BNSF that this is good for them, too. Maybe run a steam train to Knoxville and back as well as the yard tours. (Does the BNSF still own a Dolly? Run it!) Use the event to plug other events like the Fly In.

Certainly the celebration is a lot of work -- but it pays off in tourist dollars and good will. It also can be the thing which makes Galesburg appeal to visitors as a place to live and raise children.

Keeping the town's name before the public in a positive manner will go a good way in helping the economy and raising civic pride.

One more thing: be especially nice to individuals carrying cameras and taking notes. They just might be writing a book!

Uploaded to The Zephyr website June 12, 2002

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