Two park volunteers explain their passion for public service and enthusiasm for engineering the train.
“It’s part of you,” says Rick Stephenson, a seasoned train engineer at Wildlife Prairie Park. “The minute you pull through the front gate and see the woods out there, it’s just so peaceful… That’s why I do it. I really enjoy spending time away from all the mayhem, just enjoying the peace and serenity, and watching the deer meander through the park...”
“My favorite part of the job is the anticipation and pleasure that you see young and old receive by being there,” declares Steve Lindstrom, another veteran engineer and the park’s go-to “train guy.” “A senior citizen can be as happy and excited as a six-year-old. It’s the interaction with the public—seeing their excitement and making the event something they’ll remember.”
Memories, Sweet Memories
For years, these two train buffs have devoted much of their free time to conducting Wildlife Prairie Park’s popular family attraction, bringing a smile to everyone who hops on. And for both men, driving the train feels less like an obligation and more like a childhood dream come true. “I’ve loved trains all my life,” Lindstrom explains. “I look way back to my childhood… Everybody loved to go to grandma’s house… She lived right on the train tracks… [and] when that train came through, it shook the house!”
This infatuation that began at his grandmother’s home in Hanna City continued to grow throughout his life. As a child, Lindstrom began collecting railroad memorabilia, from pictures, padlocks and uniforms to lanterns, menus and even tablecloths used on board. And he’s always managed to find a way to surround himself with tracks. After leaving Peoria around the age of 18, he became a letter carrier in a Chicago suburb—where the primary mode of transportation was rail, and where he describes feeling like he was in “heaven for 40 years.”
When retirement brought him back to central Illinois, Lindstrom remembered the train at Wildlife Prairie Park and decided to see if it needed any help. “I always wanted to be an engineer as a kid,” he says. “And sure enough, they did need help. So now I can say I’ve done everything… my bucket list is complete.”
As for Stephenson, growing up around cable cars and amusement rides in the San Francisco Bay Area led him to take a keen interest in trains early on. He recalls the excitement of riding the California Zephyr at just two years old, and has fond memories of the train rides at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. After his career in radio took him all over the country, he finally settled in Peoria in 2001, first as a morning anchor for 97.3 River Country and now as the communications coordinator at Community Workshop Training Center. He discovered the train at Wildlife Prairie Park after serving as a “celebrity” engineer one Halloween, and has been volunteering ever since.
Despite his deep-rooted love for trains, Stephenson says it’s more than that which keeps him coming out to the park every Saturday. “My favorite part of the experience is when I pull into the depot and see all the kids smiling and looking at you in amazement,” he says. “They’re so excited about getting on the train and going for a ride!”
Having spent most of his life in the entertainment business, Stephenson’s philosophy is simple: Make the experience memorable. “I still remember getting on the train when I used to go to Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm… and I remember the sounds of the train. I remember the steam being let off when the train pulled in. I remember the bell ringing. I remember the ‘All aboard!’” he explains. “We try to instill that same experience when people come out to the park. And when they ride the train, they’ll walk away with some memories that they’ll have for a lifetime.
A Rewarding Ride
Youngsters are sure to love the half-hour, two-mile scenic loop, but adults can find enjoyment as well. And it’s a bargain: a round-trip ticket—with the opportunity to see a number of farm animals and woodland creatures along the way—costs just four bucks. “You sit back, relax and get to take a nice, leisurely ride through the woods,” Lindstrom says. “And we quite often see wild deer.”
The train comes by to pick up riders about every 15 minutes. While waiting, visitors can check out the train museum in the depot, an idea Lindstrom thought up back in 2006. Stocked with many items from his personal collection, unique displays of toy trains, books, photographs and other railroad antiques fill the space with memorabilia to engross kids and grownups alike. Lindstrom keeps his brainchild running largely through outside donations, and he’s always looking to expand the displays. When he collects enough change from the museum’s coin box, he rummages around at flea markets and garage sales looking for new, interesting pieces. “The park gives us the space, and we work on a shoestring budget to keep it going,” he says.
Given its budget crunch, the park is always looking for volunteers. While help is needed in all areas of the park, many are excited to learn that with a little bit of training, they too can blow the whistle, ring the bell and chug down the tracks just like Lindstrom and Stephenson. In addition to engineering during the train’s regular season from April to October, volunteers can also assist at special events like Wildlife Scary Park and the Polar Express Experience. Not only do volunteers keep the park’s operations running, they also get something back for their time and service.
“I don’t have a ton of money to give away. I don’t have a ton of things to give away. But the one thing I do have is my time,” Stephenson says. “I’ve always been a believer in volunteering, and… when you can do it around something you really love, like driving the train and watching the smiles on kids’ faces, it’s not just about helping out the park, it’s the total picture. It’s everything from making [it] a great experience for families and it’s also helping out the park and making me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”
“It’s rewarding because of the response you get from people,” Lindstrom adds. “When you see the eyes on a child get as big as a silver dollar when they see that train come in, why, that makes it all worthwhile.” a&s
On December 6-8 and 13-15, Wildlife Prairie Park will be glistening in holiday finery at “Wildlife Winter Wonderland.” Children can enjoy crafts and animal presentations in Forest Hall before boarding the park’s very own Prairie Zephyr Express train and being whisked away to Santa’s Wilderness Lodge, where they will meet the big guy himself and enjoy hot cocoa and cookies baked by Mrs. Claus.
Holiday tree lighting and caroling will also be featured, along with winter hiking. The train’s new sound system will play holiday stories and music as it winds its way through a spectacular display of lights in the woods.
“It’s pitch-black, and as you pass certain points on the track, all of a sudden the trees come alive with lights,” Stephenson describes. “It’s quite breathtaking.”
“It’s nice and spectacular,” Lindstrom agrees, “especially if there’s a little snow on the ground.” For times and additional details, call (309) 676-0998 or visit wildlifeprairiestatepark.org.