Chillicothe’s Rock Island museum a hidden gem

By Elise Zwicky For Chronicle Media

Rock Island Railroad Museum volunteers Bob DeVoss (left) and Steve Bart stand by a fully operational model railroad that chugs around the old depot’s former baggage room. The train room is a popular spot in the museum located at the corner of North Third and West Cedar streets in Chillicothe. (Photo by Elise Zwicky)

While the Rock Island Railroad Museum in Chillicothe has attracted visitors from as far away as Russia, it’s still considered a hidden gem locally.

“The majority of visitors come from outside the area,” said Bob DeVoss, one of three volunteers who regularly man the museum located at the corner of North Third and West Cedar streets. “There are plenty of people here in town who’ve never been inside here.”

The museum’s log book shows recent visitors from East Moline, El Paso, Canton, Ottawa, Princeton, St. Charles and Orlando, Fla. “We even had someone from Russia stop in once. We get them from all over,” added DeVoss, a retired truck driver whose grandfather worked for the Santa Fe Railroad.

The museum houses a variety of memorabilia from both the Santa Fe and Rock Island railroads, as well as a furnished decommissioned Santa Fe caboose and a fully operational model railroad that chugs around the depot’s former baggage room.

The Chillicothe Historical Society acquired the depot as a donation from the Rock Island Railroad in 1982 in “a totally rundown condition,” according to a two-page history of the museum prepared by Gary Fyke, a former mayor of Chillicothe and past CHS president.

“They had a big crew that came in during the early days and saved the depot basically,” said Dianne Colwell, also a former CHS president. “I wasn’t involved then, but I was kind of aware of what was going on.”

A mannequin dressed in an authentic railroad uniform watches over the telegrapher’s desk exhibit at the Rock Island Railroad Museum in Chillicothe. Open on Sunday afternoons, the museum is housed in an old Rock Island depot that was donated to the Chillicothe Historical Society in 1982. (Photo by Elise Zwicky)

Many local groups and citizens joined together with CHS volunteers to restore the depot using private donations, society dues and money raised through fundraisers, according to the CHS website.

“It was done through a lot of sweat equity,” Fyke said.

The museum was officially dedicated on May 21, 1987, and the depot served as the group’s only museum until 2000 when the CHS acquired a house at 723 N. Fourth St.

“Everything in the main museum (on Fourth Street) is now for the Chillicothe area and almost everything here is just from the railroad, but there are a few things here they couldn’t move,” said volunteer Steve Bart, gesturing to an old carousel horse dubbed Sandy and a large framed collection of soapstone carvings that originally hung in the old high school.

A former newspaper reporter who joined the CHS after writing an article about it seven or eight years ago, Bart said his interest in railroads grew from relatives who worked for them. The third volunteer who regularly staffs the museum is Bob Barbier, who’s had a lifelong interest in railroading.

Restoring the old depot took at least three years, Fyke said. “They put in a new floor and took out a whole wall,” he said, noting that the room just inside the door was once a bustling waiting area.

“At one time many years ago, there was a ladies waiting area and a men’s waiting area,” Bart said. Visitors can flip through photo albums showing how the depot looked over the years.

“This is actually the third depot,” Colwell said. The first one was built in 1854 and replaced by a second one in 1871, which later burned to the ground. The depot that stands today was built in 1889.

The CHS website describes the depot as “a standing example of the era when passenger trains ran between Peoria and Chicago.” The track next to the depot is currently operated by the Iowa Interstate Railroad with freight trains passing by four or five times a day.

An exterior view of the Rock Island Rail Museum, located in a former depot at the corner of North Third and West Cedar streets in Chillicothe. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

Among the old railroad artifacts housed in the museum are dinnerware, photographs, uniforms, telegraph equipment and train models. “One of the newest acquisitions are these cloth napkins that actually say Rock Island on them,” DeVoss said, holding up linens donated by a Missouri woman whose father had collected railroad memorabilia.

The collection also includes a brakeman’s uniform and a conductor’s uniform, donated by the granddaughters of a Chillicothe man who had worked for the Santa Fe for more than 40 years. “They said they’d rather have his uniform displayed in the museum than just hanging in a closet,” Bart said.

A popular exhibit in the museum is the telegrapher’s center, watched over by a sitting mannequin wearing an authentic uniform.

“Everybody likes the desk, which includes some items donated recently by a woman who started working as a telegrapher for the Rock Island in 1950. She was the first woman to work for the Rock Island, and she was only 15 years old at the time,” Bart said.

Kids of all ages enjoy the train room in the depot’s old baggage area, which was built around 1991 by members of a local model railroad club. “They’ve all passed now, but we keep it running so everyone can enjoy it,” Bart said. “Recently we had a group from the National Model Railroad Association come through. They’re all 70 years old or so, and you couldn’t get them out of that train room.”

Dinnerware, linens, photographs and other railroad memorabilia are among artifacts displayed at the Rock Island Railroad Museum located at the corner of North Third and West Cedar streets in Chillicothe. The museum is maintained by the Chillicothe Historical Society and open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays March through December. (Photo by Elise Zwicky)

Another popular feature of the museum is the 1929 Santa Fe caboose that sits behind the depot. Colwell’s brother, Don Gill, was a superintendent for the Santa Fe Railroad and obtained the caboose for the museum in 1984.

“One of the unique things is that usually these decommissioned cabooses are stripped and then loaned out or given away bare. But (Gill) was able to get it outfitted so it was one of the few that was delivered to the receiver with the bunks and other things still intact,” Fyke said.

Visitors who want a souvenir can choose from cups, shirts, hats or books, including one written by Steve Bart. “Working on the Railroad: the Earl Witte Story” details the life of a native Chillicothe man who worked as a conductor for the Santa Fe Railway for 43 years before retiring.

The Rock Island Railroad Museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays March through December. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

For more information, visit the CHS website at Group tours can also be arranged by sending an email to