Wheels O' Time museum opens new exhibit

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The importance of the Illinois River and the railroads in making the Peoria area what it is today is emphasized in a new exhibit just opened at the Wheels O’ Time Museum in Dunlap.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the 1/8th scale model of the TP&W Steam Locomotive, Tender and Caboose that traveled daily through the region carrying goods between Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, helping fuel the growth of commerce in the region in the 1930s and 1940s, before diesel locomotives came on the scene.

Also featured are models of some of the riverboats that have graced the Illinois River, including the Spirit of Peoria and the ill-fated Columbia.

But it was the gift of the locomotive model from Peoria native Fred Wilson that prompted building the new display, for which the ribbon was cut on Wednesday at the museum on Woodside Drive, across Illinois Route 40 from Lake of the Woods Plaza.

“He wanted us to have it and so he gave it to us. Then it took us some time to put the exhibit together. But we’re pleased with it,” said Bobbie Rice, head of marketing for Wheels O’ Time.

“He believed the train was an important part of Peoria history and that’s why he made the model,” she said of Wilson.

Wilson was working at Caterpillar when he would see the TP&W No. 80 crossing the bridge over the Illinois River from East Peoria, heading toward Iowa.

Wilson was laid off from Caterpillar and moved to Rockford to work for Ingersoll Milling Machine Co., now Ingersoll International Inc., where he eventually became the company’s CEO. But he never forgot the image of that steam locomotive crossing the bridge and he spent 22 years designing and building the model based on engineering drawings of the prototype locomotive he obtained from TP&W. He painted the No. 80 on it because that was the first one he saw while working at Caterpillar, Rice said.

Wilson knew the Wheels O’ Time Museum was building the exhibit when he passed away April 8, 2016. He was 83. “He would’ve liked it,” she said.

The model weighs 1,600 pounds and has moving wheels with sounds effects of the steam engine. Wilson was able to sit on the model on a seat above the tender and ride the train, which he did for the Maricopa Live Steamers in Phoenix, Arizona.

In the exhibit the model sits below a large photo of the real locomotive, one of six that were specially designed and built for TP&W because of the weight limits on the bridge crossing from East Peoria to Peoria, Rice said.

After diesel engines were put on trains, lightening the load considerably, those steam locomotives were retired after only 12 or 13 years in service. Each was scrapped at Keystone Steel & Wire, the last in 1950, she added.

Also part of the exhibit are models and artifacts from various riverboats that were key to the Peoria region’s growth. One item on display is the U.S. flag that was flying on the excursion paddle steamer Columbia when it sank in the Illinois River near Creve Coeur on July 5, 1918; 87 passengers died.

The exhibit also has part of the railing from that boat.

Ron Alexander, who headed up building the exhibit for the museum, said a dozen or more volunteers worked to put it together. “Each played a different part in getting it ready. It was definitely a team project,” he said.

Wheels O’ Time Museum is open noon to 5 p.m. each Wednesday through Sunday through October. The museum has many vehicles on exhibit, from automobiles to Caterpillar tractors to antique fire engines and agriculture equipment spread out in five buildings. One of the buildings is a workshop where guests can see restoration work in progress.

Entry is $7 for adults and $3.50 for children. The museum accepts cash and checks only; no credit cards.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).