Starting from scratch–the Heyworth Railroad Museum

By July 13, 2019July 19th, 2019Features

By Thomas Dyrek, Heyworth Railroad Museum

In the summer of 2015 I was driving around Central Illinois looking for interesting things along the railroad. In the town of Heyworth, south of Bloomington-Normal, I found an Illinois Central side door caboose on static display on an abandoned portion of the IC’s Charter Line, which once ran between Freeport and Centralia.

A few months after my discovery, my friend Connor sent me an advertisement for an open house at the caboose. It turns out it wasn’t just a static display piece–the caboose was home to a developing railroad museum. At the open house, Connor and I signed up to volunteer and quickly found out that the museum was in need of railroad experts on their team. After sharing our knowledge of the IC and its presence in Heyworth and surrounding areas, we were elected onto the museum’s board.

Heyworth’s first railroad was the Illinois Central. Tracks were laid through town in the summer of 1853 and by 1854 the railroad reached Decatur, 32 miles to the south. A depot was constructed in the center of town and the IC would proudly serve the community for the next 130 years. In 1906, the Illinois Traction System (later the Illinois Terminal) built their electric interurban railway through Heyworth to connect Bloomington with Decatur.

The downfall of the railroad’s presence in Heyworth began shortly before WWII. The last passenger train on the Illinois Central operated on March 22, 1939. After that, freight traffic on the Charter Line steadily declined. Yet in 1942, the original Heyworth depot was razed and replaced with a modernized structure and the IC maintained their property to the highest standards.

The end of the Illinois Terminal came in early 1953. Interurban traffic had been declining since the end of the war and the IT made the ultimate decision to abandon their line between Decatur and Mackinaw Junction, west of Bloomington. The rails were removed through Heyworth shortly after and the depot was razed in the early 1960s. In 1986, the Illinois Central (now the Illinois Central Gulf) abandoned the Charter Line between Heyworth and Freeport. The tracks south of Heyworth are currently used by CN to serve the grain elevators at Heyworth and Wapella. The tracks north of Heyworth were removed in 1989 but the section running through downtown was left in place–a perfect opportunity to start a railroad museum.

The Heyworth Railroad Museum, a nonprofit organization, was originally established in 2005 when a group of local history buffs got together to purchase a caboose and move it to Heyworth to serve as a monument to Heyworth’s railroad history. After several months of searching, the group found 1941-built IC side door caboose No. 9880 stowed away at the back of the yard at the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, IL. It was perfect for what they were looking for, and after purchasing the 9880 for $1, it was trucked to Heyworth in the summer of 2005 and placed on display on the remaining section of track.

No. 9880 was part of the IC’s fleet of hundreds of side door cabooses built between 1939 and 1953. The 9800s were built in 1941 out of frames from retired gondola cars. Erected at the IC’s shops in Centralia, IL, No. 9880 was assigned to the Iowa Division of the Illinois Central and spent a majority of its career bringing up the markers on freight trains between Chicago, Omaha, and Sioux City. Towards the end of its service with the IC, the 9880 ventured elsewhere on the system and likely operated through Heyworth on the Charter Line several times. Following its retirement in the early 1970s, No. 9880 was acquired by the Monticello Railway Museum. The MRYM used it on its excursion trains for a few years before retiring it and using it as a parts source for sister cabooses 9831 and 9926, which were in much better mechanical condition.

After all of the useful parts were removed, No. 9880 was moved to the back of the MRYM’s yard where it deteriorated for several years until being moved to Heyworth. Once at Heyworth, it was cosmetically restored and became a storage facility for one of the group members. By 2010, it was looking worse for the wear once again, and the Town of Heyworth wanted it removed since it had become an eyesore. By 2011, No. 9880 was facing the scrapper’s torch, so the group was reorganized as the Heyworth Railroad Museum and efforts to restore the caboose commenced immediately. The group acquired the land the caboose sat on and became a nonprofit organization.Soon, No. 9880 was looking good once again and the Heyworth Railroad Museum was beginning to take shape.

Even so, we are still facing many challenges. Our biggest issue: the lack of volunteers. Our group currently has only four active members—a local history buff and three teenage railfans from the area including myself. Over the past few months we have really began to look for volunteers since we plan to expand the museum someday. We currently host an open house once a month or so since our group isn’t able to open the caboose regularly.

Perhaps HRRM’s greatest accomplishment over the past few years has been getting a good relationship with the community and keeping the display in good condition to keep officials happy. Since we are still a developing museum, we are experimenting with new ways to gain visitors and make our presence in Heyworth even greater. Some of our successful community activities have been our annual Polar Express event where local children are invited into the caboose to visit with Santa Claus and have cookies and hot chocolate, and our Easter Egg hunt. Currently we are trying to set up a car show where visitors can view several vintage automobiles on display next to the caboose. Proceeds from these events go to the museum to pay for access to city power, taxes, and maintaining the caboose.

When we aren’t hosting a special event, visitors can view our collection of railroad memorabilia and artifacts inside the caboose. Some of our exhibits include an HO scale model railroad diorama, timetables and other railroad documents, lanterns, and pieces of track from the Charter Line. On occasion, we bring an antique record player to play period music for the caboose. To attract visitors, we rely mostly on social media but have began to post ads in local newspapers and online railroad pages.

Despite our challenges, the Heyworth Railroad Museum is still picking up steam (pun intended). Recently there have been discussions of moving the 9880 to a nearby park and constructing a replica of the Heyworth depot. We also have enough track space to add another rail car to the display—preferably another caboose or a boxcar that would look good painted for the Illinois Terminal so we can represent both of Heyworth’s railroads. One of my personal goals for the museum is to construct a model of the area around the railroad in Heyworth as it appeared in the 1940s or 1950s.

We are always looking for new volunteers to help us reach these goals and welcome anyone who wishes to help out. For more information, follow us on Instagram @heyworthrailroadmuseum, like us on Facebook, or send an email to one of us:

Carl Hinshaw
Connor Taylor
Thomas Dyrek