WATERMAN – A fire Saturday morning caused an estimated $250,000 worth of damage to the Waterman and Western Railroad, and a beloved community train used to make Christmas memories for local families.
The Waterman and Western Railroad is a quarter scale 15-inch gauge train located in Lions Park, 435 S. Birch St. in Waterman.
Every year for Christmas, the railroad’s owner Pete Robinson sets up more than 300,000 lights and handmade wire frames for the Holiday Lights Train. Rides on the train, popcorn, hot chocolate, coffee and visits with Santa Claus are free for the community, with donations accepted.
Robinson said that the state fire marshal believes that the fire was accidental, caused by a wood-burning furnace Saturday.
“I was with two workers there that morning, and we lit the wood-burning furnace like we have done probably 50,000 times before,” he said. “But it was moist and humid and windy … and the wind lit the ceiling on fire, and it spread from there.”
After leaving to run an errand, Robinson and his workers returned a short time later to see the building on fire.
“We were back in about 10 minutes, and by that time, with the smokes and flames, there was no building to return to,” Robinson said. “It was unbelievable.”
The railroad also hosts Easter Bunny and pumpkin train rides and runs trains during the Waterman Lions Club Antique Tractor Show in July.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holiday Lights Train this past December was held as a drive-thru event, and the other holiday trains were canceled.
Robinson said that he lost one of the two trains to the fire, and the building and all of its machinery is “a total loss.” The holiday lights and displays were not stored in the building, and were not damaged in the fire.
The train that was destroyed was the first train Robinson built, the train he and his wife Charleen were married on, he said.
“The second train has some fire damage, but it’s salvageable,” he said.
The railroad did not have insurance to cover the fire damage. A Go Fund Me page, Waterman Train Fire Restoration, has been established “to help cover the huge expenses to bring the train back to life.” As of Monday evening, $880 of the $50,000 goal has been reached.
“The train is more than just a landmark in Waterman, Illinois, it is the home of memories, laughter, gatherings and love,” reads the description on the Go Fund Me page. “To say the train is a loss to the community is an understatement. It is a loss that we feel to our souls. After the closure last year due to COVID, this year was going to be bigger and better than ever before.”
From noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, there will be a clean up party held at Lions Park in Waterman. The community is invited to attend and volunteer to help go through the rubble.
Robinson said that he has been surprised and humbled at the outpouring of support, including phone calls, emails and text messages from friends, the community and people across the country. He said as the fire was being put out, one firefighter came over to talk to him.
“[The firefighter] said that he was devastated because he rode on the train as a child,” Robinson said. “That just proves to me that I have to keep on going. No, the train is not gone forever. I want everyone to know that I will bring it back. It will run again. We will be hosting a Holiday Lights Train this year.”