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Into Engine House

Rail Caboose, Northwestern Pacific Railroad #13

Year Built:
Type of Equipment:
Rail Car
Rail Trucks
Standard Steel Car Company
Manufacturer Location:
Hammond, IN
In Service:
Northwest Pacific Railroad
Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society
On Tuesday October 11, 2003, late in the day, NWP Caboose #13 crossed the tracks on East Commercial Street in Willits for the first time in over 30 years. But it wasn’t on the NWP tracks; it was on a lowbed truck on its way to its new home at Roots of Motive Power and the Redwood Empire Railroad History Project (RERHP.) The story of Caboose #13 starts back in 1909. In that year NWP (the NWP was organized in 1907 by the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads) purchased four cabooses from the Standard Steel Car Company. These were the first new cabooses purchased by the fledgling railroad, as all other hand-me-down cabooses had come from the predecessor lines that made up the new NWP. The Standard Steel cabooses, numbered 6010-6013, were wooden cabs on wooden frames with wooden platforms and steps. They were originally Class CA from the 1905 SP classification system and would be re-classified C-30-1 in 1917 under the new system. All had narrow and low cupolas which were inset with a 9-inch walkway around each side of the caboose. These cupolas proved to be unpopular with crews due to their cramped quarters and poor visibility and would often see replacement with more spacious accommodations in later years. Caboose #13 would ply the NWP rails for the next sixty years. At some point in its existence, possibly in the late 1930s, its wooden underframe would be replaced with a steel frame, steel platforms and steel steps. At this time it would be re-classified C-30-2. It would also lose its original arch-bar trucks in favor of newer Bettendorf trucks. Around 1948 the cupola would be modified to the full-width and slightly taller version. At the same time the cabinetry beneath the cupola would also be expanded to provide more storage space. In 1949 Southern Pacific Railroad began leasing the last of the wooden cabooses to the NWP and soon all-steel cabooses would show up on the property. By the late 1960s most of the wooden cabooses had been retired, but a handful would remain until final elimination in 1971. Approximately 14 NWP wooden cabooses are believed to remain to this day, although none in the restored condition of #13. The restoration of Caboose #13 started in June of 2000 when an e-mail message was received by Lynn Fostine, secretary of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society (NWPRRHS). The message was from Ed Churka and said that he had an NWP wooden caboose for sale in Pleasanton. The message was forwarded to NWPRRHS President Angelo Figone, who made contact with Mr. Churka and determined that the Society should obtain, preserve and restore this rare artifact of the NWP. After brief negotiations an arrangement was made where the Society could purchase the caboose for a reduced price in return for providing Mr. Churka with the opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation of a large portion of the value of the caboose. So on August 7th the caboose was moved from its home of several years on the old SP right-of-way in Pleasanton to an interim location south of Sebastopol where it could be restored. The history of Caboose #13 is a bit more sketchy. Prior to being purchased by Mr. Churka the caboose apparently spent several years near Moffett Field on the San Francisco peninsula, where it was ingloriously converted into half of a pizza house. The insides were stripped and holes were cut into the walls. The end doors were removed, as were the toilet, the bunk beds, and the conductor’s desk. And of course the air gauge and unique hardware items also disappeared. How #13 came to be a pizza house is not known. All NWP wooden cabooses were retired by the railroad in 1971 under an order from the Federal Railroad Administration which banned such construction in operating rail equipment. The last known photograph of the caboose in NWP operation is at Eureka in June of that year. Upon being purchased by Mr. Churka, who appreciated the value of such a piece of historic railroad equipment, he and Russ Trapani undertook to try to restore the caboose to its original appearance. In 1991-92 they replaced structure in the walls and re-sided where the holes had been cut. They cleaned and painted both inside and out with what they believed was appropriate to this caboose. They boarded up the windows to deter vandals and secured the access through the ends with sliding doors. The caboose then sat for several years on display in a park in Pleasanton. The recent restoration of the caboose was organized for the NWPRRHS by Bruce Evans of Ukiah, who holds seats on the Board of Directors of both NWPRRHS and Roots. Bruce is also the librarian for the new Roots research library in the RERHP and is the chairman of the NWPRRHS Preservation Steering Committee. The restoration would be conducted at the yard of Jeff and Don Millerick, also NWPRRHS members. They donated space for the project and opened up their metal shop to help with major portions of the work. Other workers would come from all over the Bay Area and the north coast. They came from Lodi, Walnut Creek, Humboldt County, Petaluma, and even from Hemet in Southern California. It was a labor of love and the ten or so dedicated workers continued on the restoration project from January of 2001 until October when the caboose was moved to Willits. Even then they came to Willits to do some finish work. The first year of the project was spent on three priorities: closing the caboose in from the elements, protecting the caboose from damage due to vandalism, and preventing any further deterioration. These priorities were met by first covering the caboose with tarps during the winter and, as soon as possible, installing new windows and the two end doors. We also placed a new roof covering on the entire caboose. So by winter of the first year of work these initial priorities had been met. This was not an easy process as there was a lot of wood rot that needed to be repaired before the new roof covering could go on. Most of the first year of work was spent just digging out rot and replacing damaged boards. This in itself proved to be a challenge. The materials that had been used in the caboose, both in the original structure and during its major remodeling in the late 1940s, were not the sort of item that you could pick up at the local hardware store. All of the structural elements that were replaced were milled from oversize stock. Straight-grained clear fir was obtained by purchasing recycled lumber that was probably 70-80 years old. All of the siding that was replaced was clear dry redwood tongue-and-groove. This is in contradiction to the original material, which was clear fir, but the material came with the caboose purchase, and so it was used in the restoration. The doors (the originals had been removed) were completely handmade from clear fir, utilizing those in caboose #14 at the Foppiano Vineyards in Healdsburg as patterns. Special moldings for the windows in these doors were made to replicate those originally designed by the NWP shops in Tiburon. The restoration would continue through 2002, as more wood rot was replaced, including the entire right rear corner of the cupola. This included major repairs to an underlying beam which ran the length of the caboose at the upper wall. More repairs would be made to the same major beam on the left side where one of the “pizza” holes had been cut into the beam. At the same time all of the woodwork was taking place, the crew was pondering what to do with the old SP journal bearing trucks that had come with the caboose. One truck had a 36-inch wheelset while the other had the standard 33-inch wheels. The journals on at least a pair of the axles were in need of turning or replacement. There was also the problematic issue of journal bearings requiring extra maintenance and the inability to interchange equipment with this type of bearing. After considerable research the decision was made to convert the old journal bearing axles to roller bearing axles with new wheels. After long hours on the phone, the axles were located in Southern California and the required adapter plates were located in Iowa. The conversion required some cutting on the journal boxes of the sideframes, but the original cover plates – and hence the original appearance – were retained. This past year, 2003, saw the finish work taking place, with coats of primer and paint on the inside, outside and underneath. A conductor’s desk duplicating the original was built, but the toilet and the bunk beds will wait for continued remodeling. Also in 2003 the search for a place to display the caboose was made. The original plan had been to place the caboose in excursion service on the NWP, but as the railroad had been shut down for several years, this was not an option. The California Western was also approached, and while interested, soon went into bankruptcy which put that plan on the back burner. As the NWPRRHS has no facilities for storage or display of the caboose, Roots of Motive Power and the new RERHP have become the logical place for the caboose. There it will be protected while on display and will also be available to Roots for use on its new track. There is still the possibility that the caboose could be moved to the NWP or Skunk for use when those lines become viable again, but for now the NWPRRHS is happy to have created the relationship with Roots and to have the caboose in a safe and protected site where it can be enjoyed by the general public. by Bruce Evans