Railroad and Museum History
The Amboy Depot Museum is a three-building complex in Amboy, Illinois, a small town of 2,500 people located approximately 100 miles west of Chicago. The museum is situated on what was 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, in the extreme northwest corner of the state. When completed in 1855, it was the longest railroad line in the world. The line had been built without the benefit of any connecting railroads...all building supplies had been brought to staging sites by boat.
The primary building of the museum is the railroad depot, built in 1876, as a replacement for the original combination depot/hotel which had been constructed in 1854, but had been destroyed by fire in 1875. This current structure was built as a 19-room, two-story depot and division headquarters with an architecturally-unique combination of brick and cut Joliet limestone. It was 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 for several years before entering private practice. The depot with its two floors and overall dimensions of 32 feet by 88 feet provided all facilities for a small town depot. In addition, as a division headquarters, it also contained two large walk-in vaults for storage of valuables and cash as well as additional rooms for dispatchers, civil engineering staff, accountants and all other workers needed to keep a division headquarters functioning. However, in 1894, although having been described as "the finest IC division headquarters outside of Chicago", the division headquarters functions in Amboy were discontinued by the railroad. This was part of a major revision of IC divisional configuration in northern Illinois that took place only 18 years after the opening of the depot. The elimination of divisional headquarters meant that the remaining small town depot functions would be ultimately consolidated into four of the rooms on the ground floor. The upper floor of the depot became the residence of the station agent's family. With only 18 years of operation before this severe downsizing, the depot never suffered any large-scale modifications to meet the changing needs of the railroad. The eight-foot tall and elaborately trimmed windows and doors, the eleven-foot high ceilings, and the grand curved central stairway have all remained unmodified from their original design. The depot has thus been preserved in its nearly original configuration, and provides a prime example of 19th century railroad architecture.
The depot operated in this scaled-back configuration until 1967, when the last station agent, Carl Edwards, died and the depot was closed by the railroad. Gradually, most of the more than 600 individual panes of glass were broken out by vandals, and the depot became home to a variety of pigeons and other wildlife. Local townspeople reported that without much trouble they could enter the building and roam the vacant hallways that had now been abandoned to an unknown fate. Amboy's Mayor, Kenneth McCracken, became concerned about the deteriorating landmark and took the initial steps to reverse its decline. By 1973, he had negotiated a long-term lease of the depot from the Illinois Central. He formed the Amboy Depot Commission to undertake what stabilization could be done. However, no tax money was to be expended for the depot. Commission members turned to local townspeople who donated everything from glass (to replace the broken window panes) to treasured family items donated for display in the fledgling museum. This basic restoration gradually allowed the depot to re-open in 1976, as a museum in what became Amboy's Bi-Centennial project The initial restoration effort was limited by the small amount of money that the Commission members could raise from such functions as a one-day festival, bake sales, etc., and was comprised essentially of a cleaning and painting of the interior of the building.
The City of Amboy took title to the depot when the Illinois Central abandoned its Charter Line through Amboy in 1984. However, the Depot Commission had to come up with the $20,000 purchase price of the adjoining abandoned rail yard to prevent incompatible development adjacent to the depot. Additionally, the City retained its policy of no tax support for its depot. By 1991, after 115 years of exposure to the elements, and only cosmetic restoration of the building affordable, severe deterioration was underway This was evidenced by decaying mortar, a leaking flat roof, and broken bricks that were actually falling from the exterior of the depot. This deterioration threatened the depot with closure as a public facility.
The beginning of the turnaround of the depot's fate was its listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. This occurred just as the Federal Highway Administration announced its Environmental Enhancement Program, which allowed funding for restoration of historic transportation structures that were listed in the National Register. With that hurdle met, the submission of a grant request was successful, providing adequate funding for a complete exterior restoration, including windows and doors. The next steps were to re-wire the entire depot, install heating and air-conditioning and re-plaster the interior. After these restoration actions depleted the available funds and grants, Depot Commission members pitched in on a five-day-a-week, four-month effort to repaint all woodwork and repair, deep clean and seal the floors. Display cases were stripped and repaired, and displays were expanded and refurbished. Finally, the depot's Grand Opening as the Amboy Depot Museum was held on June 21, 2003.
The restoration of the Palmer School also was a long-term effort of the Depot Museum Commission. The one-room school was relocated from its original setting west of Amboy, onto Museum property in the early 1990's and was stabilized to prevent any further deterioration. As funding permitted, material was purchased and volunteers were sought to slowly restore the school back to its original condition, with the only modern concession being air-conditioning for our visitors' comfort. Authentic furnishings were acquired through generous donations from local citizens, many of them retired teachers. Included among these donations were photographs of several classes of actual students of this school taken over fifty years ago. With final furnishings installed in 2004, the Palmer School serves as a reminder to future generations of the conditions in which rural children were educated in America during the decades before the mid-twentieth century.
In January 2003, the Commission paid to relocate Amboy's Illinois Central Freight House onto the Museum property to protect it from planned demolition by its owner. The building's exterior has subsequently been completely restored. Inside the building, after a basic cleaning and restoration, installation of wiring and ventilation was completed. Interior walls on which to display the museum's agricultural, railroad tool and geological exhibits were also constructed. Notably, this project was accomplished by the work crew from the local county jail. Our county sheriff has expanded the crew's function from that of traditional road cleaning to more meaningful, lasting projects to benefit the community. The Amboy Freight House gives testament to the success of this program.
The interior displays of our museum reflect primarily the history of the town of Amboy, and include artifacts of the Illinois Central Railroad. This is typical for a depot museum, which, as a small town's sole museum, must present both the history of the town and the railroad that served it; their stories are inextricably intertwined. The history of Amboy is told by thousands of items donated by local residents and their descendants. Several, such as a hand-stitched sampler from1839, actually date back before the founding of the town, while others (such as an original 1854 dry goods store poster) capture the very birth of Amboy which occurred that same year. Railroad artifacts on display include an 80-page land availability pamphlet dated 1857, an original 1855 timetable of the Illinois Central (the second ever published by that railroad), and an original 1854 railroad construction bond. We believe that these are assuredly some of the oldest Illinois Central items on public display. However, none of these collections should detract from the structure itself, the prize artifact of any depot museum.
The mission of the Amboy Depot Commission is to preserve and interpret the former depot for future generations as a prime example of Victorian railroad architecture and the importance of the railroad's relationship to the town of Amboy. We extend an invitation for you to visit and see for yourself this restored example of our local and railroad history.