What: Monticello Railway Museum
Where: Nelson Crossing Depot, 992 Iron Horse Place, Monticello, Ill., (off Interstate 72 at the Market Street Exit 166) and Wabash Depot, downtown Monticello
Description: All aboard! Here’s your chance to ride on a real train through the Illinois countryside and step back in time to explore different types of historic cars used in the railroad heydays. Riders can travel from the Nelson Crossing site, the museum’s main campus, to downtown Monticello’s Wabash Depot and back — or vice versa. Explore the inside of a rail car or enjoy the fresh air in the open-top car. You can even climb up to the top of the caboose and get a bird’s eye view of the journey. At each stop riders can peak into the history of trains with hands-on exhibits and materials, complete with mail and sleeper cars, model trains, a telegraph and a railroad crossing sign.
Hours: The museum’s depots are open from mid-May to mid-October. On Saturdays, trains depart from the Nelson Crossing museum site at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; and leave the Wabash Depot in downtown Monticello at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. On Sundays and holidays, trains depart the Nelson Crossing museum site at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; and leave the Wabash Depot in downtown Monticello at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Note: There is no return trip with the 4 p.m. rides.) Special event holidays include Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July fireworks, and the Polar Express and Lunch with Santa around Christmas. Get updated times and fare prices at their official site.
Good For: The train lover in everyone, big and small. Little kids, especially those who are enamored with “Thomas and Friends,” will be awed with the up-close view and size of the trains, not to mention the ability to actually touch and climb around on one. Bigger kids, 10 or older, will enjoy the historic aspect. Adults who have never had the opportunity to breath in the countryside while hearing the clickety-clack of the rails might find a calming peace as well.
Aubrie’s Take: As someone who had never taken a train ride before, I was just as interested in what was going on as my children. We stepped out of the van at Nelson Crossing as a towering yellow engine pulled into the station. My 2-year-old daughter stopped dead in her tracks and wistfully whispered, “Choo-choo,” and it was magic from then on.
Take the time during one of your trips to ride in the open-top car — and don’t forget your sunscreen! You’ll get a better view of the yard and its treasures as well as get some beautiful views. The closed cars had all their windows open, but be aware that there are many seats that might have you traveling backward. Not a great thing if you get motion sick like I do. Also, if you don’t enjoy tight spaces, sit out the walk through the trains on site.
The train travels into residential areas of Monticello, which made for some cheery sights. Families were having afternoon picnics in their backyards, and almost everyone we came across stopped what they were doing to wave to the children. Kudos to Monticello citizens for taking the time to make those kids’ days. (Like seeing a bunch of trains in action wasn’t enough!)
While downtown, there are a couple of other sites to check out (our Monticello Best-Kept Secret). The Dairy Queen, located at 101 W. Main St. off the square, is one of the best in the area. It’s a quaint space, which lends well to its small-town atmosphere. It was almost entirely high school students working the counter when we were there, and it made me feel like I was in my hometown. Also check out Nick’s Community Playground, southeast of the Wabash Depot at Buchanan and Livingston streets. The site feels like you’ve stepped into a secluded cove of fun, with a castle-like playground structure for all kids to enjoy.
Aubrie Williams is an all-around journalist, Chambanamoms managing editor, and University of Illinois graduate who is happy to have gotten “stuck” in Champaign-Urbana. She is the doting mother of three daughters, dutiful wife of one lucky husband, and loving caretaker to two cats and one insanely messy house.