This summer the IHLC presents The Iron Horse of the Prairie State, an exhibit that explores the evolution of the railroad in Illinois’s history. Read about undergraduate student Hailey Vasquez and graduate student Claire Weibel’s experience and insights researching and co-curating this exhibit.
How did the idea for this exhibition come about?
HV: I’ve always loved transportation, especially public transportation, so I thought it would be interesting to curate an exhibit exploring that topic. I had started brainstorming themes while Claire was out of the office and had really liked the thought of doing the exhibit on trains in Illinois, but I was so worried Claire wouldn’t like the idea!
CW: We had both started to explore topics separately and then came together to discuss the options, and we both had railroads at the top of our lists. As we started to look at the materials available to us, we also compiled two entirely different lists of books and collections, so we knew we had plenty to work with and explore.
Where did you decide to begin with your search?
CW: When we first got started, we began searching for everything we had that tied in with trains and the railroad. I don’t think either of us realized just how much this would result in! Although we had to narrow down the list, we decided to embrace the breadth of materials. Rather than hone in on a specific rail line or period of time we felt that looking at the varied roles of railroads throughout Illinois’s history would give our audiences a better understanding of the significance of the railroad in our state and a broader sense of what the IHLC has in its holdings. This helped guide our focus towards the evolution of the railroad in Illinois and allowed us to find a range from the 1830s through to today.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
HV: The most surprising thing I discovered was how human and relatable some of the materials are. I had expected us to work primarily with ephemera, but I discovered that we have quite a few collections with more personal materials like letters and diaries. I think using these materials makes the exhibit easier to connect to, so it was a happy surprise to find them!
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned while working on this exhibition?
CW: I didn’t realize how significant the Lincoln funeral train was for its time. While it was certainly an historic moment with Lincoln’s assassination, it was also a turning point for railroads. The funeral train traveled 1,654 miles through 180 cities and seven states for mourners to gather and pay their respects, which actually helped publicize train travel. There was so much more to it that we couldn’t include in this exhibit that we decided to do a blog post on the topic to dive into it further.
What is your favorite thing you have found in your preparation for this exhibition?
HV: In preparing for this exhibit, my favorite thing was finding writing on personal experiences with train travel and construction. My particular favorite item was the 1874 diary of Sara Jane Tanner, which we didn’t include in the exhibit because the writing was too faint. In her diary she had complained about the man sitting next to her on the train keeping the window open throughout the trip. I tend to forget that the materials at the IHLC come from real people, so it’s always amazing to read through diaries and other documents from a hundred years ago and find similar sentiments in them.
What do you hope visitors take away from visiting this exhibition?
CW: We had a pretty small space to convey the importance of the railroad in Illinois, as well as the many uses it has served since its inception in the 1830s. I hope this exhibit will spark an interest for people to explore the rest of our collection and learn more. The IHLC has dozens of manuscript collections and hundreds of books related to railroads for a more comprehensive look at the topic. Here are just a few resources we would recommend to get started with further research:
- Chagnon, Stanley A. America’s Rural Hub: Railroading in Central Illinois in the Late Twentieth Century. Mahomet, IL: Mayhaven Publishing, 1991. Call number: 385.09773 C362A
- Keating, Ann Durkin. Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Call number: 977.31 K221c
- Harold L. Dvorin Railroad Ephemera Collection, 1957-1988 (MS 926)
The Iron Horse of the Prairie State is on view at the IHLC now through October 2019.