Nostalgia on the Rails
Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum Brings History to Life
Writer / Angela Cornell
The first railway journey was the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks in South Wales in 1804. However, the first train in American didn’t run until 1827 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was put in. Since the first passenger train on American soil started running in 1830, it has been a method of travel that many people have come to enjoy and rely upon.
Even though other methods of travel exist, there is something about trains – especially the older, retired ones – that one can’t fail to appreciate. “What we have noticed is that there is a lot of nostalgia associated with trains and railroads,” explains Bob Barcus, a member of the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum board of directors.
North Judson used to be a hub of railroad activity from 1825 until the railroad was decommissioned in 2004. During its peak years, the town saw around 125 trains per day, with much of North Judson’s population working for the railroad. When that was evidently fading, several area railroad history lovers volunteered countless hours to make sure that a piece of that history was preserved for future generations.
Now, more than 30 years later, it is an exciting attraction. “A lot of our visitors have no idea,” Barcus says. “They know nothing about the trains at all. Once they leave, they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here. I didn’t know that this happened here or that this was going on.’”
There are two parts to this attraction. The first is a museum explaining northwest Indiana’s history with the rails. “A lot of the photos and such that are on the display are actually from my personal collection,” Barcus says. “There are some really cool things to look at.”
Another interesting attraction is their collection of operational wayside signals, and a new area of the museum that is currently under construction to receive the Grasselli Tower, a reassembled railway tower from East Chicago. “It’s going to be a real attraction when we get it done,” Barcus says. There are several other fun displays at the museum that will enthrall train enthusiasts of all ages.
Another attraction is a functional railroad, complete with steam trains, that runs every Saturday and for special occasions like Father’s Day. The track takes visitors through the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which was once known as the “Everglades of the North” before it was drained in the 1920s. “There’s a lot of rich history that is associated with that, whether it’s Native American history or the railroad history of that,” Barcus says.
The Hoosier Valley Railroad crosses the Kankakee River and what was once English Lake, but was lost to drainage efforts. “It’s an interesting train ride with a little of that history,” Barcus says. “You’re actually going through some pretty beautiful areas. It’s a transition area between the eastern forests and the central prairie, and you can see that.”
The museum has drawn people from all over the world and connects them to local history. “Really, what we’re trying to do is tell a story,” Barcus says.
Barcus and the other volunteers also hear stories from visitors who walk through the museum. “In many cases they may have a little tidbit of history that maybe we don’t know about,” Barcus says. “Or maybe we have a gap in our knowledge. Some of our older guys may be like, ‘I don’t know what happened in these years. I was away in the Army.’ Then somebody else will be like, ‘You know what? I used to live in North Judson.’ Then they will continue to tell that story, and it’s fascinating.”
The Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum team is always looking for more volunteers to help tell that story. It is open to the public on Saturdays from May through October, and during special occasions through the year. It is located at 507 Mulberry Street in North Judson. Reach out by calling 574-896-3950 or emailing email@example.com. Learn more about them by visiting their website at hoosiervalley.org.