America’s railroads have been called one of the oldest and most romantic enterprises in the country, which is probably why they continue to have such wide appeal.
Doing their bit to preserve that part of American history in El Dorado County, a group of local volunteers has restored an old caboose that was parked at the county museum for 20 years. On Sept. 5 those who had a role in the caboose’s restoration will celebrate with a luncheon and turn over of the keys to the museum
Built in the 1920s, the caboose was originally used to haul lumber, freight and workers for the Camino, Placerville and Lake Tahoe Railroad, which was a subsidiary of the Michigan-California Lumber Company. The railroad connected a lumber mill in Camino with the Southern Pacific Railroad in Placerville. Later it was acquired by a family who used it as a playhouse for their children. When the owners sold their home in Shingle Springs, the new owner, Sandra Koop, donated the caboose to the museum where it sat in a state of disrepair.
Coming to its rescue was Placerville resident Ron Sexton, 73, who for many years owned High Country Woodcraft before retiring.
He wrote a proposal to restore the old caboose and presented it to the El Dorado County Museum Commission and the El Dorado Museums Foundation. In December 2013 he received approval for the project and $30,000 to pay for it.
Sexton began by building a one-eighth scale cutaway view model of the caboose as a reference during the restoration work and to also familiarize himself with how the actual caboose was made. He said he was able to do so based on CAD drawings provided by another volunteer, Bill Rodgers. That scale model is now on display in the museum.
Sexton and team of skilled volunteers — with the average age of 74 — worked on the caboose for more than seven months at the Shingle Springs Depot. They worked on the caboose two days a week with nine to 10 people showing up at a time — most of them experienced woodworkers. Volunteers from El Dorado Western Railroad and people who just walked in also helped.
“We have an incredible group of volunteers, with accumulated woodworking experience of about 425 years,” Sexton said during the restoration process. “When asked, they show up and then ask what are we going to do.”
One of the regulars was Homer Rail, 77, who volunteers with the museum and is also a member of the Gold Country Woodcrafters. “We’re all old guys,” said Homer, who said he became involved after taking a ride on the local railroad.
They started by tearing out the old wood so the caboose could be rebuilt from the floor up. The pieces were labeled so they could be used as templates in cutting the new wood. The original framework did have some pieces missing and they had to estimate those dimensions. They also visited a railroad museum to study how cabooses are put together.
“The idea was to create as exact a replica as possible,” said Rail, noting they used the same building techniques originally used, including the use of mortise and tenon joints along with a limited number of metal bars and bolts strategically placed so the car can flex when it rolls down the rail.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the team was removing the cupola, which weighs 500 pounds. Lacking a way to lift it, they built a ramp and slid it down. Rail said commonly the conductor would sit in the cupola and watch for hot boxes (overheated axle bearings), hobos or other problems. In an emergency, he could apply the brakes.
The restoration work did not include putting in brakes which is why, at least initially, there are no plans to use the caboose for rides; although, it could be done later.