When he was young, John Edward Peterson used to take train trips with his dad. Together, the pair rode the rails to Nebraska City, Lincoln, Kansas City and Chicago.
The love of trains passed from father to son. So, in April 1971, after Union Pacific had discontinued passenger service and closed its historic Union Station, Peterson wrote to The World-Herald with a suggestion: Why not convert the old station into a museum?
Now 70, Peterson, a former minister, is a volunteer train car host at the Durham Museum, which currently occupies the old station. On Wednesday afternoons, he answers visitors’ questions about rail travel in the passenger cars on the museum’s lower level.
“I’m proud that it became a museum and I’m very proud that they were able to save the building,” Peterson said. “It would’ve been a shame if that building were to have been torn down.”
The Durham is highlighting Peterson’s story as it celebrates Volunteer Appreciation Month in April. Peterson is one of 140 to 150 active volunteers who act as docents, desk attendants, gallery guides and more for the nonprofit museum, said Jessica Brummer, spokeswoman for the Durham.
Union Pacific ended its passenger service and closed its 10th Street station in May 1971 after the establishment of Amtrak. The old station, built in an art deco style that was meant to evoke progress and speed, had first opened in 1931. In its heyday, thousands of rail passengers passed through daily.
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In April 1971, while he was studying in Chicago, Peterson heard that Amtrak planned to operate out of the nearby Burlington Station, leaving little use for Union Station. That month, he wrote a Public Pulse letter to The World-Herald, which ran under the headline: “Turn Union Station Into a Museum.”
“Why don’t the city or Joslyn Museum buy the Union Station and make it into a museum? ... Maybe the Union Pacific would be willing to sell the station rather cheaply or even donate it ...
“The main waiting room could be used for non-railroad exhibits and the west entrance for offices. I propose a partition in the present parking area and displaying trains in this plaza.”
In 1973, Union Pacific did, in fact, gift the museum to the city, which began plans to convert it into a museum. The Western Heritage Museum opened in November 1975, drawing a crowd of 3,000 its first weekend. In the 1990s, the museum underwent an extensive restoration funded largely by Charles and Margre Durham, and the museum was later named in their honor.
“As a volunteer there, that’s one of the comments people say the most, is how beautiful it is, how well restored it is,” Peterson said of the station. “I’m just very grateful the museum’s there.”