More than 1,700 people will converge on Chillicothe on May 18 to hop on an old-fashioned passenger train for a scenic 45-minute ride along the Illinois River to Henry and back.
This is at least the second time for the Ride the Rails event organized by Chillicothe and Iowa Interstate Railroad. The city will host food, shopping and entertainment in City Park throughout the day, and free tours will be available at the Chillicothe Historical Society’s Rock Island Depot Museum.
“Even though the train is sold out, we still encourage people to come and partake in the activities that day or sit and listen to the bands play,” said Rachael Parker, the city’s economic development director, who has been instrumental in planning the event.
Tickets for the train rides went on sale in February and sold out by mid-April at a cost of $16 for adults and $8 for kids 12 and under.
“We had four rides scheduled at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon and 1:30 p.m., and when those all sold out we added a 3 p.m. ride that is now sold out as well,” Parker said. “That means 1,750 people will be going through City Park that Saturday.”
The city is still accepting applications for both food and retail vendors to set up in the park that day. Twelve vendors in City Park had been confirmed by last week. Local musicians Random Strangers and James Herr will perform on the City Park stage during the day, and Peoria’s St. Paul Baptist Church Puppeteers will put on a show at 2 p.m.
A large number of vendors will also be set up that day at Shore Acres Park for the annual Spring Craft & Vendor Fair. A shuttle bus will be available every 15 minutes at Shore Acres to and from the Chillicothe train station for the Ride the Rails event.
Parker said she was somewhat surprised that tickets to the train event sold out so quickly. “It seems like it’s a lot of older people or people with families that want to take a ride on a little excursion. People were calling for tickets from as far away as St. Louis and the Chicago area,” she said.
Parker added that the event was also very popular when it was last offered in 2016. “I don’t know that we sold out last time, but we had very few tickets left,” she said.
In 2016 passengers got off the train for a bit in Henry and returned to Chillicothe on a different train. This time the train will make a loop, so passengers will not exit the train until returning back to Chillicothe.
The train will be pulled by a Chinese QJ2-10-2 coal-fired steam engine. The passenger cars were built in the 1920s era for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Mary Thompson of Creve Coeur has tickets to Ride the Rails with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Olivia. “This is my first time, as well as Olivia’s,” she said. “I don’t know what to expect, but I assume it will be a love of fun.”
Thompson said she and her husband have a travel trailer in the Chillicothe campground and plan to spend the night there and spend the day in Chillicothe.
Kim Peterson of Peoria will also be attending the event for the first time with a large group of family members from as far away as Dixon, Naperville and Clinton. “I’ve heard good things about it in the past from friends. We are making it a big family event with our kids’ two grandparents, their great aunt and uncle and an aunt, plus us five,” she said.
“We’re always looking for unique things to do, and it looks fun. Our kids are 3, 5 and 7, so a great age for all to enjoy. We’ll be making a day of it by having lunch in Chillicothe,” Peterson added.
Proceeds from Ride the Rails will benefit Chillicothe community fire services. Chillicothe Fire Chief Jim Benisch said the funds will be used by the Fred Meister Firefighters Association to help the community.
“This year we’re getting ready to provide two $500 scholarships for kids that want to go into the fire service,” Benisch said, adding that the Firefighters Association also sometimes helps citizens in need after a fire and helps firefighters within the organization when needed.
“The money does not go toward purchasing firefighter gear. That’s the district’s responsibility,” Benisch said. “We want to use the money and bring it back into the community.”
In April, Chillicothe voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum for the Chillicothe Fire Department to join the surrounding Chillicothe Community Fire Protection District. Benisch said the merger should be complete within 90 days.
“The public won’t notice a change. They will see no less fire services than they’ve seen in the past. I would struggle to say they’ll see any better service because I think our members all do an awesome job now,” Benisch said. The unified all-volunteer department will have 44 members.
“I believe we’re approaching almost 400 calls this year, and last year we answered just shy of 1,300 calls,” Benisch said.
Anyone still hoping to ride the historic train on May 18 can enter a drawing for tickets after attending a talk on the history of the Santa Fe Railway at 6 p.m. on May 13 at the Chillicothe Public Library, 430 N. Bradley Ave.
James A. Brown, author of “The Illinois Division of the Santa Fe Railway,” will trace the history of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railways in Chillicothe from 1886-1995. For more information, call the library at (309) 274-2719.
For more information about Ride the Rails, call 309-274-3107.