East Peorians love of trains started at early age

Jeanette Kendall TimesNewspapers
Richard “Dick” Cridlebaugh stands by a Sante Fe Railroad sign at his home in East Peoria. Cridlebaugh, 78, said he has been fascinated by trains since he could walk.

Dick Cridlebaugh has been fascinated with trains since he was a young boy.

He got his first Lionel train set as a youth, which he still plays with today at the age of 78.

“I graduated from Lionel, which still runs, which I got in 1948 as a seventh grader at Pleasant Hill Grade School. I’ve still got all the track, all the equipment that goes with it,” he said. “It all still works.”

Ironically, Cridlebaugh worked in transportation, but not with trains. He began his career with the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1957 after graduating from the University of Illinois. 

“I was in land acquisition. I was a highway robber. That was one of the nicer things I was called,” Cridlebaugh said.

Explaining his obsession with trains, he said: “I’m a railroad nut. I chase trains like some dogs do cars.”

Perhaps Cridlebaugh’s love of trains began when his father took him to the Rock Island Depot in Peoria (formerly the River Station Restaurant and now Martini’s).

“In my mom’s diary in the ’40s, there’s a notation that says, ‘Dad took Dick down to the Rock Island Depot to watch trains. I would have been probably 4 or 5 years old,” he said. “I’ve been a rail fan since I could practically walk.”

Or perhaps Cridlebaugh’s fascination with trains came when he rode the Rock Island Rocket with his family to visit relatives in Iowa.

Most railroad enthusiasts, such as Cridlebaugh, also have model trains at home, he said. Cridlebaugh frequents Mike’s Scale Rails in Peoria.

“He sells all manner of railroad, model railroad, including some of these kinds of books, too,” Cridlebaugh said, referring to the train books in his collection.

Cridlebaugh cited several “good” books by local authors, including R.R. “Dick” Wallin, J. David Ingles, David P. Jordan, Roger Kujawa of Morton and Paul Stringham.

“I remember the days when Paul sold newspapers and magazines at a stand at the Rock Island Depot,” Cridlebaugh said.

In addition to books about trains, Cridlebaugh has thousands of photographs he has taken, railroad paraphernalia and magazines.

“There’s two notable publishing houses that publish railroad books — Four Ways West and Morning Sun,” he said.

Cridlebaugh can look at a train and know what company owns it by the color it is painted. 

Over the years, train names, colors and companies have changed due to consolidations, but Cridlebaugh still recalls the trains in the Peoria area during the 50s. He cited the Chicago and Northwestern, and the Rock Island train that came in from the north. From the east, there was the Toledo Peoria & Western, the Illinois Terminal, the Nickel Plate and the Pennsylvania Railroad, he said. 

“Coming on around you had the Gulf Mobile in Ohio. You had the Illinois Central. You had the Chicago and Illinois Midland,” Cridlebaugh said.

One of the interesting tidbits Cridlebaugh mentioned about the TP&W was that its president, George McKnear Jr., was murdered on Moss Avenue in 1947.

The Illinois Terminal was an electric line that was formerly in East Peoria near where the hiking and biking trail is now, Cridlebaugh said. 

“It went from Peoria to St. Louis through Morton, had branches through Decatur, Champaign,” he said.

In about 1955, the passenger operations of the Illinois Terminal were suspended, but they continued freight operations into the ’80s, Cridlebaugh said. That’s when Norfolk Southern bought the railroad and abandoned it.

Also abandoned was the Amtrak that was in Peoria for a short time, according to Cridlebaugh.

“That’s one of my crusades is working on bringing that back,” he said.

Cridlebaugh said Amtrak is not the same as high-speed rail.

“By high-speed rail standards — European — the United States is a Model T Ford,” Cridlebaugh said. “The closest the United States has right now is the Acela, which is the Amtrak from Boston to Washington. They are train sets that are designed to be able to approach 200 mph, but the fastest they can go anywhere, they’ve got maybe 40 miles of railroad that can run fast.”

Cridlebaugh likes to take the Amtrak from Bloomington to Chicago.

“I, as a senior, can take Amtrak roundtrip to Chicago cheaper than I can go to Chicago and park,” he said. “It’s under $30 roundtrip to Chicago for a senior citizen.”

In the past five years, Cridlebaugh summed up what has happened with some of the train industry.

Genesee & Wyoming bought Rail America and now owns the Tazewell-Peoria Railroad (formerly called the Peoria and Pekin Union), Illinois Midland and TP&W, he said. 

“What they wound up doing was a continuously owned railroad from Logansport, Ind., to Peoria to Springfield and south on the old C & IM, which was predominantly a coal hauling road for power plants. Their headquarters was in Springfield. PP&U’s headquarters was in Creve Coeur. The TP&W headquarters was in East Peoria.”

Through taking photos of trains, Cridlebaugh has gotten to know those who work on the railroads.

“You go and visit with these people. Amazingly enough the engineer, many times, they know us,” Cridlebaugh said.

The engineers are friendly, but Cridlebaugh said he has never been allowed to ride on one of the trains when he is photographing them.

“That is one thing they are strict about,” he said.

In fact, Cridlebaugh helps enforce the security at the railroad.

“I’ve gotten so involved in it, I’m on the volunteer security detail with Burlington Northern Sante Fe and Norfolk Southern. I carry an identification for both of those. It is sort of ... my sworn duty to warn my colleagues in the railroad (rail fans) to get the hell off the rails, you might get hit by a train,” he said.

But through his volunteer security position, Cridlebaugh did get to ride in the engine on the TP&W when there was an excursion from East Peoria to Bushnell.

When there were radio problems, Cridlebaugh volunteered to walk from the engine to the second car to check on things.

“They said, ‘Well, we’re moving.’ I said, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ Well, yeah. It was one of these kind of locomotives where you go out the door, and in motion, and you walk along this little catwalk and hold on for dear life.”

Despite any fear Cridlebaugh may have had, he said, “That’s the kind of stuff you give the fingernails off of your right hand for to get to do.”

Over the weekend Cridlebaugh went to Railroad Days in Chicago at Union Station. Another place he likes to visit is the Monticello Railway Museum. 

When he is not busy chasing trains, Cridlebaugh serves as the chairman of the East Peoria Planning Commission and is also a lay pastor at the church he attends in Pekin.