Island Group Considers Not-for-Profit Status for Railroad Bed Preservation | Mclean County

Scott Hillard and the Friends of Island (FOI) organization, a group made up of island residents who help facilitate projects in the town center off Main Street, have been keen to try to revitalize the island.

And in a way, the point is to show people what the city was like in its heyday.

“The survival and future success of our hometown rests solely on our ability to preserve our past,” Hillard said. “Everything that made this a thriving community a century ago must be a story that is displayed and told along First and Main streets.”

FOI has been working to preserve the island’s history through small and large-scale efforts since 2017.

Some of their work can notably be seen, including the Island Heritage Garden project to honor community veterans; installing historic road signs and stop signs in 2017 and 2018 respectively; a painted mural replica of the one-room schoolhouse on Old Livermore-Island Road; School Street and West Main Street which was completed in July 2021 and the start of painting the concrete bridge over Main Street near US 431 (Adams Avenue) which began in October after receiving approval from the city.

Hillard notes that the many operations came and went in the city, such as the loss of the coal mine industry in the 1910s and the closure of Island Elementary School in 1995, which caused both the decline and the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure.

“There’s no doubt that many have lost much of the appreciation and interest in our hometown…” Hillard said.

Hillard said a previous nonprofit called the Island Heritage Council was formed in 1997. This group saved the wooden bridge, which was eventually moved to a park they built with its namesake between First Street and Kirtley Ave. The council, however, instead disbanded in 2001 after the park was completed.

Now, one of the most vital parts of the community that Hillard and FOI seek to preserve is the historic Owensboro to Nashville railroad bed, which originally ran through the town of Island just off the center. -city and paralleled US 431.

The railroad operated from 1872 before being renamed the Owensboro and Nashville Railway. The railway also offered passenger train service until 1947 and finally stopped running through Livermore in the late 1980s before being discontinued at Island in the early 1990s.

“(The railroad) has had the greatest ability to attract investment interest to our community, but has been a source of resistance for the few who live there despite its current state at the heart of our community,” said Hillard said. “…The railroad is probably the most instrumental piece in the history of our community.”

Hillard said FOI’s hope is to preserve part of the railway bed that stretches from where the old island station depot was between the years 1872 to 1953 until to the Main Street Bridge, while allowing residents and out-of-town visitors to be able to trace the routes passengers took when boarding the trains through historical markers and information screens to “tell the rich history of the community (of the island) in a unique way”.

Hillard admits he “beat that horse” in terms of preserving the rail bed and hoped he and FOI were going to be able to salvage the 3.5 miles of bed he encountered with “too many resistance”.

Instead, they will save part of the bed and turn the old Wilkerson Market building into a new depot, which closed in the early 2010s.

“The idea started in the fall (of 2021). I just wasn’t sure which direction to go because we thought we could use this building for a country store and then someone opened a small grocery store – which is good,” Hillard said. “…There is no place in McLean County that has any history or information of the railroad that passed through (the county), so we sort of lean that way down to the depot – I looked at pictures and it won’t be the same as the one that was in Island.

Hillard said plans for the depot whether or not it will be operational are still pending.

With that, Hillard said FOI will “likely” seek non-profit status in order to complete the preservation of the historic railroad, which will help them expand the project from the old building of the ‘city Hall. It is located directly across Wooden Bridge Park to the Historic Island Railway Station Mural, which is on the building that houses DB Hair Grafix near the Main Street Bridge.

Not-for-profit status would also allow FOI to be eligible for additional grants and funding.

“…Until now everything was private property…so we couldn’t apply for non-profit status and it’s not a business we seek to make money in …but we want it to be something beneficial to the community,” Hillard said. “It would be educational in the community and it would serve the community. That’s still what this building has become. was just a matter of time….”

Hillard said plans aren’t final in the depot space, but preliminary thoughts are leaning towards creating a deli and cafe that would be based on the stories of the island and the path of iron.

“When you’re there, the vibe of the place is that of a depot. The Island Station Depot is what it was called when it was built in 1872,” Hillard said. we think is call it The Lost Depot but it’s going to have the appearance on the outside of a real train depot with the front and back being accessible to the public and overlooking the bed of the railway that goes to preserve up to the part that we have, which is the most visible part of the city center.

While Hillard hopes these projects will help rejuvenate interest in the island, the recent addition of businesses such as Bridge View Pizzeria and Small Town Grocery and More, coupled with past and current FOI efforts, has attracted more people inclined to visit.

“That was really the mission from day one because if you had walked through downtown on the island right when we started Friends of Island in 2011 it was more about (how) we had so much dilapidated buildings around and we were trying to focus on that and encourage people to get involved and remove them,” Hillard said. “…Now you see a lot more people walking around, sometimes a lot more kids out and about. You see a lot of people coming and going to the pizzeria, and then obviously while they’re there, they go to the grocery store. And when we got the snow, it was great because people were saying how awesome it was after 10+ years of not having to leave your community to get milk. You could just walk up the street if you had to, and they also deliver groceries; so, it was just great for a community of 500 or less to have essential services here now, again, that we haven’t had in over a decade.

With that, Hillard is optimistic about what Island can potentially become.

“Just knowing that you see people every time we drive through downtown and there’s something going on…and see people walking down Main Street again and cars down Main Street again …it’s going to build on that and if it can improve as we continue to do that and build interest in downtown and people seeing that businesses can survive and do well if we keep them basically giving it a new face,” Hillard said.

Freddie Bourne, [email protected]

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