Piece of railroad history restored in small town Illinois
The town of Williamsfield, Illinois lies 32 miles northwest of Peoria, home to just 600 people. Two parks form the center of the community. One is the Doubet-Benjamin Park, which features a playground, arboretum, disc golf and the annual Ag Day Festival.
For the nonprofit Williamsfield Parks Association, formed in 2006, bringing the Doubet-Benjamin Park to life was a necessary step in helping the rural community thrive.
A much smaller park is nestled between a family restaurant and a bar and grill in Williamsfield’s downtown. A few short weeks ago, you might have missed Veteran’s Park entirely as you drove by. But now it’s home to an eye-catching piece of Illinois’ railroad history.
“In 2019, we were still brainstorming about how we could use this Veteran’s Park,” said Andrew Fritz, a former president of the Williamsfield Parks Association. “Since we, Williamsfield, have a tie, it’s founded on the railroad, we thought about a railroad-themed part of the park.”
Fritz said it was “divinely inspired” that right after they came up with the idea, they learned about a caboose the Peoria Park District was looking to get rid of. The caboose had been sitting in Green Valley Camp since 2002, when the park district acquired it from the Salvation Army.
Rebecca Fredrickson, superintendent of planning, design and construction at the Peoria Park District, said that by 2019, it was time to let the caboose go.
“We did a used equipment sale and decided that probably was a good one to go ahead and sell and find a new home for it,” said Fredrickson. “It had been vandalized several times and was in a location that didn’t get a lot of visibility. So we thought it needed to find a new home where it could be protected.”
Fritz said the Williamsfield Parks Association was the only group to bid on the caboose, and they came to an agreement with the park district without too much trouble. However, that was the easy part.
“That’s how it came to be,” said Fritz. “The logistical nightmare of getting here was a different story.”
The challenge of transporting the caboose 45 miles was more than Fritz had imagined.
“We had to do state permits,” he said. “We had to call trucking companies and talk to crane services.”
The crane service they planned on using had to back out, so they ended up relying fully on a tow truck company that Fritz praises for its patience. There were multiple other hold-ups. Parts of the caboose had to be cut off, there had to be a switch in vehicles to avoid liability for the tow truck company as they crossed a small bridge, and more.
“They couldn’t cross the railroad crossing here in town, because it was enough of an incline that it might hook,” said Fritz. “We went down to the next crossing. And as we were crossing it, the trailer actually clicked on a railroad tie and spun it out.”
Fritz said the caravan was stranded on the railroad crossing for around 10 minutes. “This whole process shortened my life,” he said.
After making some urgent calls to report the obstruction, the issue was resolved and they carried on. But even after conquering so many challenges, they just kept coming.
“We went another half mile down there, we came to a curve and I had not considered all my life how steep that curve could be with the 30-foot long structure on the back of it,” said Fritz. “So as he curves around the curve, the turn, the whole caboose went to about 45 degrees.”
Still, the caboose survived the curve and on the last leg community members used shovels and brooms to keep electric lines out of the way. It all paid off as they completed the last stretch into downtown Williamsfield.
“We had all kinds of spectators who were ready and willing to watch the whole thing come in,” said Fritz. “Matt, the mayor, had bought a few train whistles. So everybody had a little train whistle as it’s coming into town, which was really cute and made it worthwhile.”
Since the caboose arrived at its new home on Aug. 13, 2019 , Fritz and others have been rehabbing the caboose with fresh paint, new windows, walls, electricity and an air conditioning unit. All told, the project cost in the range of $35,000 to $40,000.
Williamsfield Parks Association’s current president, LuAnne Smith, said that money came from private donors and grants. She filled out applications for grants from the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Foundation and Ameren. “It’s pretty easy,” said Smith. “They were interested in having a caboose, they thought that was a unique idea.”
Smith said every moment the caboose took was worth it.
“I enjoy watching the visitors come and stand in the doorway and say how beautiful it is,” she said. “Which we weren’t shooting for beauty. We were shooting for caboose, but we’ll take beautiful.”
Andrew Fritz, who doubles as an unofficial historian for the town, said the caboose was built by the CB&Q Railroad in 1960, before becoming Burlington and later Burlington-Northern. He estimated the caboose found its way to Green Valley Park in the early 90s, when most of those still operating were decommissioned.
Williamsfield itself was originally built around a Santa Fe Railroad line in 1888.
“Every six miles there was a little community that would pop up,” said Fritz. “Because they needed a hotel, they needed water, they needed postage and they needed access. So the whole community is founded on the railroad.”
The line was in operation through Williamsfield until some time in the late 1960s and early 70s. Fritz does acknowledge that the caboose should technically be Santa Fe red instead of Burlington-Northern green, but said the railroad in general is core to the identity of the town.
“This was a part of history,” said Fritz. “And I value railroad history.”
The parks association has more plans for the area surrounding the caboose, including a pavilion with a roof modeled off the look of the original Santa Fe depot that sat nearby for decades.
Pictures of that depot hang on the wall inside the caboose now. The plan is to use the inside as a meeting space and impromptu classroom, preserving a record of the town’s rich railroad history for the next generation at Williamsfield High School just a few blocks away.
If you’re interested in viewing the inside of the refurbished caboose, you can contact the Williamsfield Parks Association on their Facebook page.