Amboy Depot Museum | When rail was king

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October 19, 2021
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Train stations were commonplace.

American railroad stations used to be a common sight throughout the country as nearly every town, large or small, contained at least one. During a bygone era when trains handled almost all interstate and intrastate transportation, these facilities were vital.

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As rail travel waned and the shipping industry turned to other modes, many stations met the wrecking ball. Fortunately, the town of Amboy, population of just under 2,900, didn’t let that happen.

The longest railroad line in the world at its completion in 1855

The Amboy Depot Museum is a three-building complex situated on the rail yard of the Northern Division Headquarters of the Charter Line of the Illinois Central Railroad. It was the first line built by the railroad, running from Cairo, at the southernmost tip of Illinois, northward through Galena, to East Dubuque. When completed in 1855, it was the longest railroad line in the world.

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Touring the museum grounds on a fall day

Early in October, I made the trip down Highway 52 from Dixon to Amboy to visit the Amboy Depot Museum. I was rather excited because even though I grew up and later lived somewhat near this historic Lee County venue, I never had the opportunity to visit.

 Peggy Horstman, secretary of the Amboy Depot Museum Commission, was kind enough to take me through the museum on a customarily closed day. She was born and raised in Amboy until she left for college and returned to Lee County when she and her husband retired to a home on the Rock River, just north of Dixon, in 2015. Before retiring, Horstman worked in state government her entire career. She was a member of Governor Jim Thompson's program and policy staff and then served as the Illinois Medical Practice Act administrator.

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While taking the tour, I was continually surprised about all this venue has to offer. It isn't just a railroad museum–although there is a lot of railroad memorabilia. “We have items depicting the history of Amboy and the surrounding area. There’s a one-room schoolhouse, furnished as it would have been when it was in use. In the freight house, we have an extensive collection of rocks and minerals. Several paranormal groups have visited the depot building and plan on returning for further exploration,” remarked Horstman. “There’s something for everyone!”

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It’s a seasonal attraction.

The Amboy Depot Museum’s 2021 season is quickly coming to its closing date on October 31, with its reopening on April 1, 2022. However, the property is open for this year’s Christmas Walk on Saturday, December 11. Keep an eye out for the museum’s Facebook page event notices.

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Horstman proudly displayed a handmade quilt by local quilter Becky Welty. It’s to be raffled off during the evening as a fundraiser for the museum during the December 11 event.

COVID protocol

Masks are required upon entering. Hand sanitizer is available on the premises.

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Future plans

Horstman and the museum commission have some plans once the COVID pandemic wanes. One of which is creating a small research area on the first floor. “It’s all in the works. We want to gather the Amboy and Lee County histories and have them all here for those wanting to do research,” said Horstman. “They can conduct their studies and not be interrupted.”

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The grounds include several buildings chronicling this area’s history

The Amboy Depot
The interior of the museum is an essentially unchanged Victorian division headquarters of 1876. The current building replaced the original 1855 depot after it was destroyed by fire in 1875. The 11-foot ceilings and 8-foot doorways towered over me. The wood trim around these doorways and windows is original. You’ll get lost while wandering through the 19 rooms over two floors while taking in some of the rarest artifacts of the Illinois Central Railroad. I was surprised by the existence of a beautiful curved staircase. Horstman said that the stairs are often used for special occasion photography sessions such as weddings, proms, etc.

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The other rooms contain artifacts and remembrances of Amboy's history, from its 1854 incorporation as a city to the 21st century. In the early 90s, the museum underwent an extensive restoration on the interior, with all rooms replastered, the staircase restored, and all original woodwork repainted.

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The Illinois Central Freight House
This freight house was built one block north of the depot and is of wooden construction. Built in 1904, it replaced the original freight house that was made of brick near the depot. When the railroad line through Amboy was abandoned in the mid-1980s, the freight house ended up on a separate parcel from the depot and was in private ownership for nearly two decades. When the owners indicated they wanted to dispose of this property, the depot museum borrowed enough money to pour a concrete foundation and moved it to the current museum property in January 2003.

The artifacts include a collection of antique tools used by the railroad and by the area's farmers of yesteryear. The most notable among these donated artifacts is an extensive rock and fossil collection.

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Palmer School
The Palmer School was originally built in 1924 on Illinois Route 26, six miles west of Amboy. It is typical of the one-room schoolhouses prevalent throughout rural America during that era. It is made of wooden construction, measures 25 feet by 40 feet, and is naturally lit with east-facing windows. In addition to the sizeable instructional room, it also contains a second backroom built originally for storage, coats, etc.

The school was saved from demolition and moved to the current museum grounds in 1991. It has been fully restored both inside and out, reflecting what was typically found in a one-room schoolhouse of the early 20th century, such as a cast-iron stove, chalk writing slates, piano, desks with ink wells, etc. Most of the furnishings and historic collectibles were supplied by former Amboy resident Clint Conway.

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Steam Locomotive NS&W #76
This locomotive is a steam engine built in 1929 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works and used as a switcher for the Grand Trunk Western Railroad in the Detroit area. Retired from service in 1958, the engine was sold as scrap. Luckily, P.W. Dillon, owner of Northwestern Steel & Wire in Sterling, Illinois, came to the rescue of several of these treasures.

Instead of melting down the locomotives, he ordered them renovated to replace the aging locomotives internally switching in his sprawling steel mill. This particular locomotive was brought out of storage, restored, and officially re-commissioned in 1976, as NS&W #76, making it the last steam engine commissioned for regular freight service in America. This renovated switcher then worked in daily service until P.W died in 1980.

Ultimately, the locomotive was obtained by the Amboy Depot Commission and moved to a place of honor in front of the depot where it stands today.

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Orphan Train monument
The Orphan Train movement began in 1854 to give homes to the orphaned and abandoned children who lived on the streets of New York City and Boston.

The Children’s Aid Society was formed and devised a plan to send the children westward to homes where they could become part of a family and meet the need for farm labor and domestic help. Several hundred of these children came to the Sauk River Valley before the practice ended in 1929.

Bryn Callahan, a Moline High School senior and president of the Children of the American Revolution’s Illinois chapter, started the project to bring attention to the more than 10,000 riders who found homes in Whiteside, Lee, Ogle, and Carroll counties, and elsewhere in Illinois, from 1854 to 1929. Callahan’s great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Groharing, rode on one train with his brothers, William and Edward, who eventually found a home in Amboy.

This statue honoring these children was dedicated in 2019 and can be found at the entrance of the Amboy Depot Museum.

The museum’s historical timeline

  • 1854: The original depot was built but destroyed by fire in 1875
  • 1876: The current primary building of the museum is rebuilt, designed by James Nocquet, a Frenchman by birth and training who began his career in America as a staff architect for the Illinois Central Railroad.
  • 1894: The division headquarters’ functions in Amboy were discontinued by the railroad. The remaining depot functions are consolidated into four rooms on the ground floor, and the upper floor becomes the residence of the station agent's family.
  • 1967: The last station agent, Carl Edwards, died, and the depot was closed by the railroad, where it fell into disrepair.
  • 1973: Mayor, Kenneth McCracken, formed the Amboy Depot Commission to begin initial basic repairs.
  • 1976: The fledgling museum reopens after townspeople donated building materials and collectibles.
  • 1984: The City of Amboy takes title to the depot when Illinois Central abandons its Charter Line through Amboy.
  • 1991: Palmer School moved onto the museum property.
  • 1992: The depot is listed in the National Register of Historic Places at around the same time the Federal Highway Administration announced its Environmental Enhancement Program, which allowed funding to restore historic transportation structures.
  • 2003: Grand opening of the Amboy Depot Museum is held.
  • 2003: Amboy's Illinois Central Freight House moved onto the museum property.
  • 2019: Orphan Train monument dedicated.
  • 2021: The museum obtains 501c3 status (non-profit)

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You can feel the love.

Horstman is among the driving force of many people in keeping the museum running. “My mother, Norma Shapiro, was one of the original group of Amboyans that fought to save the building from demolition and make it a museum for the city of Amboy. She and the rest of the founders worked tirelessly to make this a reality, and I am proud to be able to help to keep her dream alive for present and future citizens of Amboy and Lee County,” she said.

Hours | admission

Sunday and Thursday | 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Friday and Saturday | 10:00 to 4:00 pm
CLOSED: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Holidays

Admission: Free. Donations accepted.

Contact information

Amboy Depot Museum
c/o Amboy City Hall
227 East Main St
Amboy, IL 61310

Phone: 815.857.4700 | Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Published in: NW Illinois Travel Blog

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