Railroad town museum: 24 years in the making


by William A. Franckey

Probably no date other than September 11th registers stronger with modern America than December 7th. Without much thought, the words "Day of Infamy" come to mind as we remember America’s formal entry into World War II with the attack of Pearl Harbor. Galesburg, Illinois like every American town, was touched by this one powerful event. Yet December 7th has an added meaning for Galesburg and Knox County.

On a cold December day in 1854, Galesburg citizens stood along the tracks about where today’s depot and new railroad museum building now stands, and watched the first train enter the city. Here, 150 years ago, sat a construction camp of tents with huge piles of wooden track ties and railroad equipment. For weeks previous, Galesburg’s citizens could hear the far off steam whistles of locomotives used with construction crews as work progressed just outside of town. Rail was being laid through Wataga from Mendota that would allow a work train finally into Galesburg.

An onlooker thought the little engine and train from a distance looked like a bumble bee with a feather stuck on top. The first train into Galesburg chuffed its way to the wooden depot that sat next to the newly laid Galesburg freight yard. In 1854 the yard consisted of two yard tracks and a stub track that ran behind the depot’s companion building, the freight house. Behind the smaller wooden freight house on Warehouse Street, the stub track would later come to store circus trains which frequented Galesburg.

The passenger depot sat within a triangle of tracks between the railroad’s roundhouse, Q shops and Knox College. Each of these tracks extended to the horizon and onward to reach Peoria, Burlington, Chicago and Quincy. Here truly was the Hub of the Burlington Railroad.

The story of the railroad museum was set in motion as a chance conversation between Jay and Mary Matson along with myself out on the noisy street corner in front of their store, the Calico Cat on South Seminary Street.

Galesburg has always been filled with people who have come from railroad families, and let us remember, not just any railroad, but the Burlington. One way or another, we were all "Burlington Brats" with a deep vested interest in the pulse of our railroad. Like many others, I found the railroad a study of people, industry and something that borders between art form and obsession. From the time I was a small child, riding trains with my father, himself a railroad fireman and engineer, I’ve collected scraps of railroad paper from old depots, freight houses and roundhouses. Many railroaders who knew me as a child would donate their personal collection of railroad items, I think to just clean house and find a happy home for the material. Over the years, a vast collection of assorted rule books, documents, and photos began to grow. I still have all those old books and papers although the bulk of the collection now rests at Knox College.

"What we need is a full time railroad museum here in Galesburg" I said out loud as traffic moved a few feet in front of Matson’s store. I remember Mary replying, "You‘re just the person we need." I was a little surprised for two reasons. The Matsons and maybe others might really give weight and consideration to an idea like a railroad museum and second, I knew that no one person could mount that kind of effort alone. A local museum would need the input and drive of select and capable people. Soon our friendly conversation ended and I decided to walk up to the depot where an open house was being celebrated by the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Since early times, railroad celebrations have been held in Galesburg on a irregular basis so in 1974, an Open House of Burlington Northern in Galesburg was just a continuation of a long tradition of a railroad town. The ’74 Open House proved again so popular that it soon evolved into an official yearly event now known as Railroad Days.

In and around the great brick depot, large groups of people milled around various displays, booths and railroad activities. Almost immediately inside the depot’s front doors, was J.P. (Pat) Reed, an Aurora Division Conductor sitting with a small display of his personal railroad items. Pat was dressed in his railroad passenger uniform. On many occasions I worked with Pat Reed on train runs between Galesburg and Chicago on the mainline and the more I talked with Pat, the more one Burlington Brat recognized another. "Pat, what we need is a full time railroad museum." I watched as the idea took hold.

In the weeks and months that followed, we made plans for something that didn’t yet exist. We found that we had no budget, no building and very little experience to take on such a formidable undertaking. Of course, a structure of some sort would be a logical start and sitting right in the middle of Galesburg was the huge brick depot on South Seminary Street. The main portion was used for the daily Amtrak trains but adjacent to the main building was a long forgotten section of the old REA Express office. Mail and express trains had been discontinued years before and at the Galesburg depot, like depots and freight houses across America, whole railroad departments disbanded and doors were shut and locked.

Inside the baggage room of the depot were windows that one could peer into a great expanse of darkness, that at one time hummed with activity as baggage, mail and express was loaded and unloaded from waiting trains. As we would do many times, find something that has no value to anyone and press it into service. We obtained tentative permission to use that abandoned area of the depot as a temporary display area for the next year’s railroad festivities.

Outside with crowbars we worked at one of the giant massive sliding wood doors, long closed and locked. These doors had not been slid open in many years and they begged to be opened. Finally as one of the doors was forced open, we stared into a darken expanse of bricked floors and shuttered windows. It was perfect and it was free of charge.

As we explored that giant cavernous room, we realized that time had been very unkind to it. Some of the brick walls had fallen in on the floor and outside rainwater from the depot‘s gutters had been allowed to discharge inside on the brick floors causing huge sink holes. Add to this the pigeons which had lived in there for years made one heck of a mess.

In the heat of that first summer, Glen Pepmeyer, an East Ottumwa Division Engineer, Pat and myself hand shoveled out untold amounts of debris into dumpsters. Out of the gaping sink hole, we removed Purington bricks one by one. John Hagrelius, General Foreman at the railroad’s roundhouse had tons of sand delivered to the depot which were shoveled into the waiting hole, so that the brick floor could be re-laid.

I think Pat Reed would agree with me that the magic moment came when we placed a tall ladder against the building and climbed up on top of that portion of the depot. In the afternoon sun, we started to rip off the layers of heavy tar paper covering 22 huge, thick slabs of wood. These wooden panels were fitted to completely cover the magnificent glass skylight which hovered over the old REA Express room. One by one the heavy wooden panels were lifted off the glass skylight and as we did, the old forgotten Express area was flooded in diffused light many feet below. The effect inside that room was overwhelming. There is something to be said for minimum effort with maximum effect.

Slowly from around Galesburg terminal, the word got out and badly needed supplies found their way into our grasp. From the roundhouse again, came sheets of railroad grade plywood and giant sheets of thick Plexiglas that were soon cut up for homemade exhibit cases. Everything was painted with BN black enamel. All of us were spending every minute of our time as well as entire vacations working on the giant room. Soon Pat’s wife Judy joined in the effort as well as the Reed’s children. There was no end of things to be done to make a safe, secure and rewarding exhibition area for Galesburg. The people who weren’t there in those early days will never know the untold hours spent by friends and family.

Our little group developed into full time scroungers and we had Galesburg Terminal as our private store. Forgotten or unused railroad items began to disappear from all over the railroad yard and then reappear in our museum space. The water crane used to pour water into steam locomotive tenders was dismantled at the Galesburg roundhouse and repositioned inside the building. Depot benches began to disappear from the lobby and show up in the new space. It was a treasure hunt for grownups. With flashlights in hand, every crevasse of the depot, freight house and shops was scrutinized for something to take back for display.

Within a small anteroom we recreated a railroad operator’s station complete with safe, clock, and telegrapher key. Retired CB&Q telegrapher Max Lindstrom would show up in his telegrapher attire and station himself in the office to answer people’s questions about his days with the railroad. One afternoon a crowd stood behind a television camera and watched Max explain life as a railroad telegrapher to a regional television station. I’ve always maintained a wish to find the video of that interview.

Pat Reed was our first Director and although extremely busy with the work at hand, he was also very effective behind the scenes as he had to garner support and cooperation from so many people – not to mention the Burlington Northern itself. I was very happy to work as the curator, which I always thought to be more than arranging display tables and such. There had to be a clear purpose and direction of our railroad museum otherwise all of us would pull in different directions. Since we were attempting to do so much with essentially nothing, every misstep was costly.

The first incarnation of our museum was known as the Shipman Museum which opened with the 1979 Railroad Days. Harold Shipman was the Terminal Superintendent and at this point of the museum, it was good business sense to acknowledge those upon our very future depended. Joe Swain early on pushed us towards a state charter, something that we had not given much thought to. Soon, a charter was secured and on May 19, 1980 the Galesburg Railroad Museum’s first board meeting was called at the Friendship Center of Galesburg’s Fidelity Federal Savings and Loan.

Our first board meeting made up of many different people such as Tom Flint, Carl Bloomberg, and Dr. Hermann Muelder of Knox College. Galesburg switchman Don Stribling could find us about anything we needed and yet the ultimate scrounger was Henry Page, retired Wheel Shop Foreman. Henry was able to bring many talents to bear in the problems that popped up. Paul Johnson was another retired railroader who gave his time but again, there were so many people who contributed time and effort. One name that should never be forgotten was Dean Worley, a Galesburg Yardmaster whose relentless drive and enthusiasm pushed an Open House spark into a railroad museum and ultimately, a Railroad Hall of Fame.

We knew from the beginning that the depot was, at best, a temporary shelter for the Galesburg Railroad Museum. There is a term "adaptive reuse" in which buildings and structures find a second life adapted to something not originally intended. No better example can be found than what was done at the museum. At one time the railroad yards were filled with old unused equipment waiting for the cutting torch and a few old railroad cars pressed into service for work train service. With the advent of Amtrak, the Burlington, like other railroads, found itself with passenger equipment that had long outlived its intended use.

Burlington Northern in the early 1980s had about 200 aging coaches and Pullman Parlor Cars listed on its rosters. Pat and I explored every one of these located within a 40-mile radius of Galesburg. Little did we realize at what an accelerated rate these cars were going to the scrappers. Within a year or two, these 60 to 70-year-old heavyweight passenger cars had all but disappeared.

Soon, we were desperate to find a Pullman and finally a steel track gang stored their work train in Galesburg’s Flat Yard next to the West Hump. Mixed in the string of work orange-painted coaches was a lone Pullman. I called Pat and exclaimed that we found our new museum.

Once again many factors came together for the Pullman with the name Meath hidden under layers of paint. In October 1981, the museum became the new owner of an 80-ton Pullman parlor car. In early December, the Pullman was inched on rusted rail through a back alley industry track and hoisted into place on a vacant lot secured by local businessman Jay Matson. The Mechanical, Track, and Car Departments of BN contributed time and material to make the Pullman, sitting downtown today, a reality.

One of the struggles of the museum was the clear need to evolve, to shift gears, if you will. For our organization, this growing process proved to be as painful as it was necessary. Later, as the board members accepted full responsibility and took control of the museum’s future, new goals were achieved as when President Jay Bullis and museum board succeeded in placing an RPO mail car behind the finest mechanism created by mankind, a Burlington steam locomotive, Hudson S4a, the 3006.

On December 7th, 2004 Galesburg will again seize this curious date to experience a long awaited and heartfelt dream of its railroad community. The doors of the new Galesburg Railroad Museum building will open officially in almost the exact spot as it did 24 years before and Galesburg, railroad town, will be welcomed home.

William Franckey is the author of Cathedral of Steel, a book featuring the Galesburg CB&Q roundhouse and, along with Gary Granberg, the producer of a video, Galesburg, Capital of the Burlington Railroad.