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Centralia, Illinois — One of the best railfanning hotspots you never heard of
Traditional railfan fare — that is, fast food — is mostly not visible from the main roads, nor from the area around the station. You are unlikely to stumble into something you like if you are not familiar with the city. But it's here.
Row" is on Broadway (the main drag crossing the
tracks at grade), about a half-mile west of the
station. There you will find most of the national
chains: Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Sonic, Hardee's, Taco
Bell, Long John Silvers, and another half-mile
further west, McDonald's. Burger King is closer to
the station at the corner of Poplar and McCord
Streets (US51 south and IL 161 west). There is also
another McDonald's, about 3/4 mile east on Broadway
where it intersects Lincoln Ave. DQ is on Poplar Street
(US51 south), not quite 1/2-mile south of Broadway.
There are several take-out pizza joints, so use your
smart phone to find something you might like.
Taco Jo's. Located at Poplar & 4th Streets, across from the DQ. A new, locally-owned taco stand with drive-thru and inside seating. Street-style tacos and a wide variety of "fast" but delicious Mexican fare. Highly recommended.
restaurants, if you are so inclined to spend a
little time away from the rails, are not
automatically bad options. There are several a
stone's throw from the tracks:
Rail Coffee Room. New railroad-themed coffee shop. On Broadway two blocks east of the station. Locally-baked gourmet pastries, designer sandwiches during lunch hours, and lighter fare. Also very recommended! "Table 6" has a limited view of the RR crossing. Closed Sundays.
House, which you will notice immediately to
the north of the station, is Centralia's one and
only "fine dining" establishment. Food is
traditional American menu. You come here for "white
tablecloth" ambiance. Folks will ride the Amtrak
round-trip from Carbondale to eat dinner here, if
only as an excuse for a train trip. Lunch and dinner
only, closed Sundays and major holidays.
Immediately across Pine St. from the station. Has
the best views of the tracks. Tequila is the latest
of several tenants in this space offering "Mexican"
fare, strong margaritas being their biggest draw.
hands. A hard-to-miss red and white metal
building at the corner of Calumet and Poplar
Streets, the Bonnie
Café serves traditional diner food in a large dining
room of closely-packed tables. Prices are
reasonable. No view of the tracks from inside, but
you are only a block east of the junction, so the
passing trains will taunt you about not being
trackside. Closes at 2:00 p.m.
Golden Pancake House. New ownership here as well. On Broadway a half-mile west of the station. Solid traditional fare, very reasonably priced.
If you previously
spend the night here, you will have been
frustrated by a
"challenged" selection of lodging in the
city. Fear not, we now have a brand
major chain hotel! The Best Western
Jolliff Bridge Road just off
of McCord Ave. (IL 161), two
miles east of the tracks, opened for
business in December 2017. Give 'em a
other hotel in
Centralia, in the
downtown area, is not recommended.
(If you notice a modern-ish
6-story hotel at the corner
of Poplar and Noleman,
is now a private dormitory for the local pilot school.) Next closest
in Salem (Holiday Inn Express, Super 8, Comfort Inn
and Day's Inn)
or Mt. Vernon (several majors).
schedule advice — if planning a visit, there are
three local events to be aware of in planning
overnight stays. First is Centralia
Balloon Fest on the 3rd weekend of August.
The local hotels will be booked solid with balloon
teams from Thursday through Sunday nights, with
reservations made a year in advance. Second is the
celebration, always the Saturday before (or
on) October 31, which also stress local lodging
Friday and Saturday nights. The third event is a
regional high school basketball tournament held the
last week of the year; Centralia
was at one time known for "The Winningest
High School Basketball Team in the U.S."
and is still very much a high school basketball town.
1/2 mile west of station on Broadway. This is a
major regional chain supermarket. Open until 10pm
every day, closed only on Easter, Thanksgiving and
Walgreen's and CVS. At the intersection of US51 and IL 161. CVS closes at 8pm, Walgreen's is open until 10pm. There are no 24 hour pharmacies near Centralia, closest is Walgreen's in Fairview Heights, 48 miles away.
There are many convenience stores in Centralia; most are open until midnight. Huck's at south Poplar (US51) and Calumet, and the Circle K on IL 161 roughly a mile east of the station are open 24/7.
Centralia Carillon. You're going to have a hard time missing the bell tower two blocks east of the station, off of Broadway. This is a genuine, honest-to-gosh carillon with real foundry bells, struck manually from a console. It is currently the 8th largest in the world. A resident carilloneur presents concerts three times a week, Wednesday and Friday noon to 1pm, and Sundays, 2-3pm.
Small towns with a significant railroad past are
apparently required to have a preserved steam
engine, this is Centralia's. Located in the park
1/2 west of the station on Broadway, it's hard to
miss this well-cared-for (but inoperable) 4-8-2. A
caboose was added to the display in August 2013.
Balloon Fest. Mentioned above, third
weekend of August. A modest event as such events go
(Albuquerque = 600) but is a big deal for our small
town, and the civic leaders pull out all the stops.
A fun time for everyone, typically featuring 40-50
hot-air balloons and four flying events. No impact
to rail traffic or railfanning since event-related
activities occur mostly at a large park on the east
side of town.
Celebration. The Saturday before (or on)
Halloween sees a large downtown festival culminating
in a parade with elaborately-decorated floats,
equestrian teams, marching bands, etc., etc. It is a
major event, and draws from the greater region. Until a few years
festival was significant to the
railfan because CN would display one or two of the
otherwise rarely-seen business cars, and a
freshly-painted CN locomotive. While
CN still participates in the parade
with their "Little
Toot" rubber-tired parade train,
given cutbacks at CN's
local maintenance facility it
is unlikely the equipment displays will return.