Oral History of Forgottonia – Railroads in Western Illinois: Gavin Johnson’s Interview with Local Railroad Enthusiast Bill Leitze


“The railroads depended on population and product. The population and product depended on shipping. The railroads became the most valuable method of shipping, particularly for landlocked areas like Illinois.”

-Bill Leitze

As part of our Oral History in Forgottonia series, Cuba High School senior Gavin Johnson sits down with local Railroad enthusiast, Bill Letize to discuss the impact of railroads in western Illinois. Bill is a graduate of Canton High School in Canton, IL. He received a B.A. in Carthage College and a Master’s degree from Bradley University. Bill and his wife Judy have 2 sons and 3 granddaughters. Bill was a longtime teacher, coach, and Army veteran. Bill is also a passionate railroad enthusiast who gives local history presentations throughout the area about the important impact railroads have played throughout our local history.


  • The emergence of railroads in the western Illinois region and what these trains were like
  • How railroads impacted the area, especially in terms of making or breaking small communities
  • Why young people should learn about transportation history in our region 
  • Significant events in western Illinois railroad history: The recent Seville Bridge Collapse & Train Derailment, The Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887, & the TP&W Propane Train Derailment which led to the Crescent City Explosion of 1970


Gavin is a senior at Cuba High School and the son of Dale & Patty Johnson. Gavin has a love of all things history, especially railroads. He enjoys fishing, making model railroads, and four-wheeling. He is involved in history club and bass fishing. Gavin is also a huge Green Bay Packers fan, a Star Wars nut, and his favorite TV show is Impractical Jokers. After high school, Gavin plans to continue working for the township and possibly work on the railroad.


Our ORAL HISTORY of FORGOTTONIA series is part of the NCHE Rural Experience in America grant in partnership with the Western IL Museum, and the Western IL University Archives.  In 2021, the National Council for History Education (NCHE) recruited teachers nationwide to participate in free and open professional development that occurred asynchronously and synchronously online, focusing on rural history and historical inquiry using Library of Congress sources. Teachers travelled to Norman, Oklahoma to collaborate with a community partner selected from their hometown to create a public history project.

These community-based, service-learning public history projects enable students to investigate their local and regional histories deeply and to connect their own histories to the larger human experience. A key purpose of this project is to link rural communities and their histories to national narratives and primary source collections, and the targeted focus of this proposal provides an avenue for such purposeful connections.

Our project, The Oral History of Forgottonia, is one of several throughout the country featured by the NCHE. To learn about other projects featured by this grant, check out this list and visit the links at the bottom of this post.


Seville Bridge Collapse & Train Derailment; PJ Star photo, 10/4/13
Crescent City Explosion, Photo Cred – Kankakee Daily Journal, 6/20/20

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