Railroad Days is dead:

Long live Railroad Days


Commentary by Norm Winick

This first Railroad Days without the railroad was, by most accounts, a dismal failure.

That doesn’t mean several events did not do very well on their own: The Railroadiana Show at Carl Sandburg College remained popular. So did the beer tent, the car show at Standish Park and the run/walk at Hawthorne Centre. The street fair which once occupied four blocks of Main Street plus some side streets was reduced to a handful of booths that all fit in the driveway at the Amtrak depot. The Galesburg Historical Society’s flea market, even reduced from two days to one, only had a fraction of the dealers it once sported on North Kellogg Street. The downtown "Sports Emporium" was a ghost town much of the day.

Main Street was abandoned. Festival-goers complained continuously that there was nothing to see, nothing to do.

Well, there’s something we need to do. We need to rebuild Railroad Days and take it in a new direction.

Relying on the robber barons who now – and always have– run the railroads is not the answer. It was their greed which bought the track to Galesburg instead of bypassing us in 1854. We paid them off handsomely and they took the bribe and brought us trains and a prosperous city while hundreds of other communities which wouldn’t or couldn’t play the game were allowed to disappear. It is their greed now which dictates that they don’t want to contribute to a festival that doesn’t make them money or might interfere with their operations.

But it’s the committee and the people running this festival who have really let us down. When the BNSF said it wasn’t participating, why didn’t we close the County 10 bridge for the weekend and have a guide explaining activity in the yard below? People in Rochelle even built a tower to watch train activity and it’s been popular. Why didn’t we see what equipment the Illinois Railway Museum in Union might bring down to show off? Instead, hundreds of out of town visitors left disappointed, many never to return again.

And that presents us with an opportunity. Let’s reinvent Railroad Days as a community festival – with events that Galesburg residents (and visitors) will enjoy.

Let’s take in many of the smaller celebrations, Sandburg Days, Heritage Days, the Airport open house, the Taste of Galesburg, and schedule a weekend of events with something for everyone.

There’s no reason we can’t celebrate Carl Sandburg and George W. Ferris and Mother Bickerdyke and the Lincoln-Douglas Debate and the railroads and classic cars and food all at the same time.

Several major events, such as the train show and the car show and the taste, certainly can anchor the weekend. Add to it a Civil War reenactment, an open house at the airport with maybe a few Stearmen and other planes on display or even a few hot air balloons, a horse show and skating demonstration at Kiwanis Park, concerts or plays at the Sandburg Visitor’s Center, Knox College and the Orpheum Theatre, an assortment of sporting events, a taste downtown and a street fair on a street and we’d have a community festival second to none.

To assume that visitors and residents are only interested in one thing is a mistake. Let’s show them everything Galesburg has to offer. If that includes quality basketball, or bike races or softball or horseshoes, include that.

Many communities have taken limited festivals and broadened them. We should do the same. Burlington’s Steamboat Days has nothing to do with steamboats any more; it’s a music festival. Warsaw’s Hay Days doesn’t just celebrate its most famous son, John Hay, it’s a community festival now. While the biggest Railroad days – the one in Topeka – is defunct, we can save ours by broadening it.

The Railroad Days committee needs to be made up of people who want to have a fun weekend in Galesburg and are open to new ideas. The committee’s role should just be to keep track of everything going on and publicize it. The profits from the carnival should be used for promoting everything and everybody. Put the carnival where people can see it and maximize profits. Along South Street or around the Public Square are two possibilities. Even the airport wouldn’t be as bad as Carl Sandburg College.

Let any individual group or organization plan and run just about any event they want. Sponsors of an event should be assured of getting full cooperation in terms of closing streets or other needed services. There should be things for kids and adults. There should be free events and events that cost a little.

Railroad Days has had dozens of popular events through the years – from bed races to hot wheel races to bike races to 3-on-3 basketball to mud volleyball. They all drew participants and spectators. Galesburg’s newer events, such as the kite flying at Lake Storey, should even be part of the weekend.

The Railroad Museum will have a permanent facility one of these days. They already have a nice collection of rolling stock that many people still have not toured. They could also provide interpreters to explain what’s going on in the yards as spectators view it from the Fourth Street or County 10 bridges.

There’s no reason to change the date. The Railroadiana dealers and the carnival need to fit it into their schedules. There is a reason to change the attitude of the organizers. The committee needs to welcome ideas and events – not work to exclude them. It needs to come up with a name that exemplifies a community spirit – not a narrow focus that attracts a limited number of hobbyists.

Galesburg has the resources to create a community festival that excites residents, as Railroad Days once did, and brings visitors to watch or play and eat and stay.