An effective rail museum on a smaller scale

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Thursday, July 2, 2009

By Matt Van Hattem

Senior Editor


I’ve just returned from representing Trains magazine at the Galesburg Railroad Days festival. The festival is always held the last weekend in June, and attracts a crowd from all over the central United States.


Many Trains readers stopped by our tent (right next to the Amtrak station platform) to say hello.


On the first day of the event, I got a chance to walk through the Galesburg Railroad Museum, and came away marveling at how a relatively modest amount of space can be used to create a big impression.


First of all, the location is fantastic. The museum sits right next to a busy main line: BNSF Railway’s former Burlington Route main line between Chicago and Denver, at the east throat of the Galesburg classification yard, and a series of junctions that can send trains southeast to Peoria or south to the yard and beyond to Quincy and Kansas City. The museum is right next door to a staffed Amtrak station that sees eight trains a day (a mix of corridor trains from Quincy and long-distance trains from California, heading to Chicago). What a great way to tie the past and present together!


The museum was organized in 1981, but reached a substantial milestone in 2004 when a museum building (resembling a railroad depot) opened up, complementing an outdoor display. The building and grounds are neat and tidy.


The fenced outdoor area contains pieces of railroad equipment that visitors can walk through or see up close, such as Burlington Route 4-6-4 No. 3006 (Baldwin, 1930), CB&Q combination baggage-Railway Post Office car No. 1945 (AC&F, 1924), the Pullman parlor car “Meath” (1921), and Burlington Route caboose No. 13501 (CB&Q, 1930), as well as several speeder cars.


The displays, inside and outside, are focused on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and its impact on Galesburg and other communities. It’s another good way of filtering the enormity of railroading through a specific example that visitors can understand, and channeling the museum’s own acquisition and display policies.


Inside the museum building, what essentially is one large space is nicely divided into small exhibit areas and a memorabilia/reading room that includes railroad china and items such as lanterns, tools, and utensils donated by retired railroaders. There is a small model railroad. My favorite exhibit was an area devoted to railroad communications and signaling. During the weekend, museum volunteers demonstrated the telegraph and explained what telegraphy meant to railroading.


That brings me to my final impression. What makes the museum so memorable is the participation of the museum volunteers who are on hand to engage the public, both indoors and outdoors. They bridge the gap between static displays and living history. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Because of their interaction, you come away with a great understanding and appreciation of what the railroad is and the significance it has.


A quote on the museum’s Web site underscores the importance of people, both in railroading and by extension for the museum: “The railroad is just cold steel and diesel fuel. It is the employees that bring it to life.”


Visiting the museum reminded me that not every place about railroading has to be large-scale. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been astonished by what I’ve seen and learned during visits to Steamtown, the California State Railroad Museum, the North Carolina Transportation Museum, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. These are big places with equipment, train rides, displays — places where you could easily spend a full day and enjoy every minute.


But for a museum on a smaller scale, Galesburg provides a good example of what can be done with a single building, a display area, and a good group of friendly people.


You can learn more on their Web site:


What about you? Do you have places you enjoy visiting?

Tags: museums
To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.