WATERMAN – When Pete Robinson first discovered the damage that vandals had done, he had to stop and think whether to continue to operate the Holiday Lights Train this season.
After about 10 minutes, however, he got to work. With the help of about 10 friends, he was able to repair some of what he estimates is $20,000 in damage to the various displays, lights and other set pieces around the one-quarter scale Waterman & Western Railroad in Waterman Lions Park.
“If these people want to be the Grinch that tried to steal Christmas, they’ll have to go someplace else to steal it,” Robinson said Thursday. “My wife [Charleen] and I already made the decision we’re going to continue.”
Pete and Charleen Robinson have run the Waterman and Western Railroad Holiday Lights Train along with several volunteers for 21 years. The holiday train rides, hot chocolate and popcorn are free because they don’t want any child to miss out, Pete Robinson said.
They’re committed to the attraction. On Thursday, the train was running just for a handful of people from the Open Door Rehabilitation Center in Sandwich.
There have been incidents of vandalism before, but the damage done overnight Friday into Saturday was worse than anything he’d seen before, Robinson said. Wire-framed decorations were pulled up and bent, more than 200 light bulbs were broken and decorations – including the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene – were thrown over a fence and into a nearby softball field.
The three giant arches 20 feet high that make up the train’s “snowfall” display were bent and broken. They’re propped up now with temporary supports so the train can pass under them, but Robinson said he’ll have to build new ones this summer, likely at a cost of about $5,000 each, Robinson said.
The snowfall display took five people an entire weekend to set up, and setting up all of the displays took a team of volunteers about six weeks, Robinson said.
This was the worst vandalism ever to hit the holiday train, Robinson said.
“It’s by far the worst, oh yeah,” Robinson said. “I’ve had people smash pumpkins and stuff at the pumpkin train, but I’ve never had vandalism like this before, never.
“This is just malicious.”
Police are asking the public for help in identifying suspects in the vandalism, which they say occurred sometime between 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday morning.
“We have no leads, we have nothing to go on,” Waterman police Chief Chuck Breese said.
Robinson said the railroad was offering a $500 reward for any information that leads to an arrest and conviction against the vandals. DeKalb County Crime Stoppers is also seeking tips from the public. Crime Stoppers also pays cash rewards and people can provide anonymous tips if they like by calling 815-895-3272 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The decorations might not be in the best shape, but the attraction was back up and running only a couple of hours behind schedule Saturday, Robinson said.
On that day alone, Robinson said, “more than 3,000 people went through.”
• Daily Chronicle Photo Editor Danielle Guerra contributed to this story.