Bloomington owner of historic train car hopes for B&B renovation | History

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David Parker speaks at a meeting Sunday at the Country Inn & Suites off Illinois Route 9 about future plans for a 110-year-old sleeper car that was moved this fall from Harristown to Bloomington.

Brendan Denison

BLOOMINGTON — A 110-year-old electric passenger train car that was once outfitted with sleeping rooms may once again lodge overnight travelers.

Or so its new owner hopes.

After working for the last few months to move the train car about 50 miles to his backyard off Historic Route 66 in southwest Bloomington, David Parker said he plans to renovate the train car into a bed-and-breakfast that his wife will help run. 

Parker, along with a small group of local history buffs, met Sunday afternoon at Country Inn & Suites to set the car’s future track to being restored.

Parker said over the last five months, he’s been so obsessed with figuring out how to relocate the antique car that he’s just now determining what the next steps will be.

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Owner David Lee takes a photo in September as David Parker works to move a historic 1911 train car from Harristown to Bloomington. Parker plans to renovate it into a potential café or bed-and-breakfast.

During the meeting, Parker surveyed attendees on how they think it should be remodeled.

Some items discussed included what to name it, how many cabins the renovated layout will have, and whether to paint it green, in the style of a Illinois Traction System car, or orange, after the Illinois Terminal Railroad car.

Historical documents were also shared, like late 19th century Pantagraph archives advertising the traction car as the only interurban route to run sleeper cars.

Pictured is the system map for the Illinois Terminal Railroad, showing stops in Bloomington, Decatur, Peoria, Mackinaw, Monticello, Champaign, Urbana, Ogden, Danville, Lincoln and Springfield. Also shown is a card for the Interurban Saloon, located in downtown Bloomington in 1911. Documents courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History.

Parker said it’s been retrofitted four times before — as a coach car, a bedroom car, again as coach car, and then as a bunk car — and he envisions its fifth mission to be a bed-and-breakfast. 

Dale Jenkins, of Decatur, attended the meeting. He said the renovations should include “creature comforts,” such as a full bathroom.  

Watch now: Saving rail history is mission of this Bloomington man

Although Parker said he considers himself to be a purist, he wants the car to reach its mission of getting restored.

“The car has to pay for its own restoration,” he said. “My wife wouldn’t let me move until I eventually paid it off.”

The Pantagraph has previously reported Parker has experience remodeling airplanes from as early as the 1930s. At Sunday’s meeting, he wore a sweatshirt with a full-print image of a propeller airplane engine.

Parker said he’s put about $10,000 of his own money into the train car project. A GoFundMe page has raised nearly $4,000 of its $5,000 goal to renovate the train car.

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David Parker works in September to move a historic 1911 train car in Harristown to Bloomington. He hopes to transform the car into a café or bed-and-breakfast.

He estimated final rehab costs to go up to $150,000. Parker also said he plans to take out a loan and treat the finished product as real estate.

He suggested renting the rooms out for $200 a night on Airbnb and marketing them to travelers following Route 66.

Jenkins mentioned the sleeper car once had a hot plate and porter to serve heated rolls and coffee.

Retired McLean County History Museum Director Greg Koos recommended showing a closed-loop 1952 film that shows the older layouts of the car.

Jenkins added other films go back to 1935-1937.

Koos also recommended the car could be remodeled with interior steampunk aesthetics.

The history museum’s librarian, Bill Kemp, was also in attendance. He said a Route 66 hotel seems like an untapped market.

“When you’re traveling around Route 66 from Brazil or from New England, you’re going to pay the extra $50,” he said.

By the meeting’s end, Parker told The Pantagraph he thought the consensus was to paint it green and rebuild the interior with three cabins with double beds, and a shared toilet, kitchen and living area. And it would be rented out to one group at a time.

The name will be “Sleeper Car Illinois.”

Another problem to solve, he said, will be finding people to restore it, as he doesn’t want that to take 20 years by doing it himself on weekends.

“If you go to the Yellow Pages, there’s really not a category for train restorations,” he said.

David Parker works on Tuesday to move a historic 1911 train car from Harristown to Bloomington. It had been part of the Illinois Traction System. Parker was working with a Bloomington’s Shrink Wrap company from Bloomington that will safely move the train.

Clay Jackson

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