story by JULIE CAMPBELL
Nestled between the cornfields that line US-421 outside of Monon, a hidden gem protects almost two century’s worth of railroad artifacts. The Monon Connection Museum is much more than just a roadside attraction—it’s one man’s accumulation of priceless pieces of history from the Hoosier state and beyond.
What started out as the late Dale Ward’s private collection quickly morphed into a full-blown museum, complete with a train-themed restaurant—The Whistle Stop—in the early 2000s. Ward’s daughter, Nikki Wireman, is now carrying on her father’s legacy as owner of the museum.
“Mr. Ward started collecting railroad memorabilia because he thought the railroad was an important part of our country’s history,” said Mark Reynolds, the museum’s curator. “He started collecting in 1994, and his wife finally said, ‘Dale get it out of here.’ He rented a storage facility, and then we eventually opened up in 2005.”
Inside the museum, railroad enthusiasts will find everything from collections of conductor hats, bells, lanterns, signs, keys, and railroad badges, as well as a full-size replica of an Illinois Central Depot. There’s also a huge HO scale model train layout in one room and a beautiful collection of dining car china in another.
“It’s probably the largest public display of dining car china in the United States,” said Reynolds. “It’s not just from Indiana or just from the Monon, but it’s from all across the country.”
The museum’s newest acquisition is an 84-foot-long passenger car that wealthy businessman Henry Flagler built for his wife in the late 1890s. When Flagler contracted the Jackson & Sharp Company to build the car, he sent them a blank check and said, “I want the best money can buy!”
The exquisite passenger car is the perfect fulfillment of Flagler’s wishes, complete with 30 custom-made Tiffany glass windows, beautiful hand- carved woodwork, and a marble onyx fireplace—one of the first fireplaces to ever be installed in a train car.
Outside the museum, several railroad cars, railroad cranes, cabooses and signs beckon visitors to explore and take a selfie with a piece of history.
Train excursions are also a popular way for railroad enthusiasts to spend a day in the Hoosier state. You can ride in style on the Spirit of Jasper, which departs from the Jasper Train Depot. Three renovated, climate- controlled lounge cars have restrooms, comfortable seating and a cash bar. The depot is a replica of the former structure built in 1906, and features an old fashioned ticket window, rolltop desks, pot belly stove and authentic memorabilia.
The Indiana Railway Museum currently operates as the French Lick Scenic Railway, running passenger trains over 25 miles from French Lick to Jasper. Because the train IS the museum, visitors get a firsthand experience of how railway travel impacted both passengers and the world around them. Popular events include the Scenic Tours, the Dinosaur Adventure Train, Summer Splash Bash, Polar Express and more.
All aboard the Whitewater Valley Railroad, where riders can travel from Connersville to the charming canal town of Metamora every Saturday and Sunday between May 1 and October 31. Themed events like the Polar Express, Easter Bunny Express, Pumpkinliner and more are popular with adults and kids alike.
Take an hour and a half ride through the countryside on the Nickel Plate Express, which features themed excursions from February through December aboard historic Santa Fe El Capitan cars. The train departs from Forest Park in Noblesville.
In Michigan City, the Barker Mansion’s “Legacy of Freight” exhibit will take you through Michigan City from the 1830s to the early 1900s. The exhibit is a tribute to the Haskell & Barker freight car factory and its workers.
In Starke county, visit the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum which offers train rides on an authentic caboose. The county also celebrates their transportation heritage with the Yellowstone Trail Festival each August in the community of Hamlet, which was on the Yellowstone Trail–the first transcontinental automobile highway in the United States.
If air travel is more your style, a visit to the Grissom Air Museum in Peru is a must. Visitors can explore historic aircraft from the Cold War era, take off in a simulator, or climb the observation tower. Guided tours are led by former military guides who have either served at Grissom Air Base or have lived in the area long enough to know the special stories visitors want to hear.
At the Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum in Hagerstown, you’ll see the birth home of Wilbur Wright as well as a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. Complete with hand carved propellers, the replica took 10 years to build.
Over in Muncie, check out the largest collection of model aircraft in the United States at the National Model Aviation Museum. During the summer months (May – September), visit the 1,000-acre flying site and see the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) members fly their aircraft in competitions. The AMA is the world’s largest model aviation organization, serving as the collective voice for approximately 200,000 modelers in 2,400 clubs in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Rather keep your feet closer to the ground? The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn Is home to around 120 of the best classic cars in the country. The museum building is actually the museum’s largest artifact, constructed for the Auburn Automobile Company in 1929 from a design by A.M. Strauss of Fort Wayne. It is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the Midwest.
While you’re in Auburn, take a trip to the National Auto & Truck Museum to see a huge selection of historic cars from the early 1900s, muscle cars, trucks, and the GM Futurliner—one of twelve built by General Motors for the Parade of Progress tour in the 1940s and 50s.
Elwood Haynes was born in Portland, Indiana, before moving to Kokomo. He was the inventor of the first commercially successful gasoline- powered automobile, which he named “The Pioneer.” His former Kokomo residence is now the Elwood Haynes Museum and houses a collection of his possessions, inventions, and automobiles. It’s located at 1915 S. Webster Street in Kokomo.
At the Model T Museum in Richmond, you’ll find an impressive collection of vehicles including one of the first Ts and one of the last, a Pietenpol airplane, a vintage garage, showroom, working machine shop, T-related memorabilia, an extensive gift and book shop, and the Bruce McCalley Memorial Library and Research Center.
Known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500 race is enjoyed in person by around 300,000 of race fans every year. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is located within the famed 2.5 mile oval, and its collection encompasses automobiles and artifacts representing more than a century of Indianapolis 500 culture, drama and competition, plus vehicles representing NASCAR, Formula One, American short-track racing, drag racing and motorcycles.