For Peter Weller, an 80-year-old Washington resident, his love for all things that run on rails started in childhood.
Weller grew up in Chicago in the heyday of streetcars in the 1940s and has fond memories of riding them with his family. It was often their main form of transportation.
“My father never drove a car so we were on trains a lot. The steam engine was a fixture of my childhood,” he said.
Watching and understanding how the streetcars work was one of Weller’s favorite things to do.
“When we were riding, I’d go stand up at the front platform to watch where we were going or the switches we went through as we switched from one street to another. I became very familiar with the systems,” he added.
But the Chicago-native’s love for railcars went beyond understanding how they work — he also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of his favorite railways.
“Chicago had well over 3000 streetcars operating through World War II and the conversion to buses began in 1946. The last street cars were taken off the streets in 1958,” he recalled.
Weller also remembers the switch from steam to diesel engines.
“As soon as World War II was over, the switch to dieselization hit high gear and by the 1950s, the steam engine was essentially gone. Without the war, diesel probably would have taken over five to ten years sooner than it did,” he said.
In addition to riding and learning how railways run, Weller is also a collector. Later in life, the train-enthusiast had more than two dozen different model locomotives and freight cars to accompany his models.
“I had more trains in my 60s and 70s than I could dream of as a child that I would own,” he said.
One of Weller’s favorite railroad lines is the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which ran through Mt. Pleasant.
“It developed a fleet of passenger trains called the Zephyrs, named for the Greek god of the west wind. These were streamline’s and they were wonderful. It was a first-class operation,” Weller said. He added the railway system slowly became obsolete once the interstate highway was built and people began to drive instead of taking the train.
“That railroad was a class-act up to the last day,” he added.
It comes as no surprise that as a child, Weller dreamed of operating his own electric railway.
“If you asked me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up,’ I would have probably said a streetcar motorman. It was always in the back of my mind. That’s what inspired me to get involved with Old Threshers and the trolley operation,” he explained.
Though Weller never operated trains for a running railway, he did get to live out his dream at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. For close to 25 years, Weller helped operate trains at the annual event before retiring in 2015.
“I started in 1991 as a conductor and within two years, I was a qualified streetcar motorman,” he said.
The train enthusiast said one of his favorite parts was understanding the different “personalities” of each motorcar.
“There are certain cars where you better know how to handle it or it will handle you,” he said.
Outside of operating the trains, Weller also enjoyed the Reunion because it memorializes a time of the past.
“They were THE form of transportation to get anywhere. If you go back to days before gravel roads in Iowa or any of these Midwest states, the depot was the center of life in town. When the train came in, there were people ready to ride it,” he said. With the fate of the Reunion up in the air, Weller said he would be sad to see the event canceled. Even though he stopped operating trains for the Reunion, he still attended and helped out at the fair booth.
“These trains defined a way of life in their day,” he said of why they should continue to be remembered.
Moving forward, Weller said it’s difficult to know for sure whether there could be a resurgence in passenger use of railways, especially considering competing industries like airlines and automobiles.
“I think there will be a place in the medium distance market,” he predicted, “If there are shortages down the road where automobiles are not viable, railways could come back.”