Proposed train museum could utilize Milwaukee Road depot

Robert Moen, President of The American Passenger Train History Museum, talks to an interested person at the Cedar Valley Engine Club Thresher's Reunion outside Rockford recently. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra
Robert Moen, president of The American Passenger Train History Museum, talks to an interested person at the Cedar Valley Engine Club Thresher’s Reunion outside Rockford recently. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra
By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

Robert Moen loves trains and he’s willing to bet that you do, too.

Moen created the American Passenger Train History Museum this past June in an effort to create a passenger train museum that would be erected near the Charley Western train depot.

An added bonus to this proposed museum would be the relocation of the Milwaukee Road depot about two blocks south and right next to the Charley Western.

“The community started calling us because they knew that we were looking at starting a museum. My phone started ringing off the hook in June wondering if we could do something,” said Moen.

Either way, Moen is planning a museum that could be opened by 2023 near North Grand Avenue — but the clock is ticking regarding the fate of the Milwaukee Road depot.

The depot is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and demolition was supposed to take place last week, but Moen and his group have helped put the brakes on that, at least for now.

“They want the building moved. They will not accept it being on its current location. It must be off their property,” said Moen, who stated that CPR would donate the depot to a group that was able to move it. 

Moen has been able to delay demolition until at least next spring or summer, giving his group time to see if it can raise enough funds to save the structure and transform it as part of what Moen calls the only passenger train museum in the United States. The restoration process of the depot — if is able to be relocated — could begin in 2020 and last two years. 

“If we don’t have the money by next summer, I think we’re in deep trouble,” said Moen, who is also owner of the Charles City Railway Co. that owns passenger cars and property near the railroad tracks.

He bought the Charley Western Shop and railroad yard from Nav Fosse back in 2003 and has been collecting and restoring railway cars ever since. 

Moen said the group will have to show the Canadian Pacific Railway that it is making progress toward the proposed project, and the money it would take to move the depot is substantial. After receiving estimates, Moen said it could take anywhere from $260,000 to $350,000 for the move to take place.

That’s money his group does not currently have.

“We have a purpose for it, we just need the cash flow to maintain it,” said Moen. “If we can move trains, we can move a building. This isn’t rocket science.”

Moen held a meeting on Monday at the Charles City Public Library for people who wanted more information or to get involved in the proposal, and he said he was encouraged by some of the interactions he had regarding the effort to save the depot.

“We had some people ready to write a check right away. We had other people that want to get going on volunteering to help with the fundraising effort,” said Moen. “The decision is really yours. If you want to save this it’s going to take an effort by the community.”

Moen said the outside of the building, which was built in 1912, is in surprisingly good condition and the inside has held up well considering it hasn’t been used since the 1960s. He said the building needs more of a cosmetic restoration on the inside and needs all the basic systems essentially replaced, like bathrooms, plumbing, heating and electrical.

He said he isn’t aware of any grants available for the relocation process, but once the depot would be moved, grants can be applied for to restore it. Moen’s rough estimate on the restoration cost is $100,000 to $150,000.

Moen’s plan for the depot to morph into a museum also has possibly four trains that would be on display and five to seven cars. There would be coach, lounge, dining and sleeping cars that would be restored and available to walk through on tours to explore the unique intricacies of a working passenger car.

Moen sees about 5,000 to 7,000 people annually attending the museum — which would have videos for patrons to view and displays featuring the history of Charles City’s railway system.

“The only other railroad museum in Iowa that I’m aware of is in Boone. They do have train rides down there, but they aren’t trying to display historic passenger trains,” said Moen. “Most railroad museums have a lot of locomotives and a bunch of cabooses.”

Moen said in addition to the tourism benefits that the museum would bring to Charles City, the area could be a trail head for the Charley Western Bike Trail, which sits just off 11th Avenue near the depot.

Moen foresees the museum being open six to seven months and open daily during the summer. He also mentioned the museum could be used for other community events or needs as well.

It’s been more than 58 years since passenger cars last made their way on tracks in Charles City.

Anyone who is interested in donating to help relocate the Milwaukee Road depot or to help fund The American Passenger Train History Museum, or who wants more information, can contact Moen at 612-240-4407 or email CharlesCityTrainMuseum@Gmail.com. The address is Box 683, Charles City IA 50616.

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