This newspaper article by Ruth Mullen was originally published in the Oregonian’s Homes & Gardens of the Northwest section on Thursday, January 26, 2006. I originally posted in on my website on October 2, 2007; I had very closely replicated the original layout of the article, but it didn’t translate well into this new format.
Thursday♦ ♦January 26, 2006
OF THE NORTHWEST
the 'snake wagon'
A leaky old caboose becomes a coveted hideaway
By Ruth Mullen
Most folks would have considered the battered old caboose little more than a heap of scrap metal.
Not Darril Clark. The retired truck mechanic from Scappoose has a penchant for projects and can't seem to turn away a good challenge.
Four years ago, he spotted an especially daunting one buried in a classified newspaper ad, and he drove out to take a look. He found the windows and wood floors of the leaky '70s-era caboose so rotted that the interior would have to be completely gutted. If the frame had been wood, Clark would have considered it a total loss. But his wife, Jennifer, 57, insisted they come to its rescue.
"I felt sorry for it," she says. "It was really dilapidated."
For train buffs such as the Clarks, cabooses are rare symbols of a golden age, when almost every city and town in America was serviced by rail.
Once derided with affectionate nicknames such as "doghouse," "bone-breaker" and "snake wagon," cabooses date back to the 1830s and initially were little more than converted boxcars for crews to use as shelters. In later years the accommodations were improved, and crews added such finery as lace curtains, easy chairs and family photos to their rolling homes. Each caboose was assigned to a specific conductor, for use by him and his crew, and parked in a rail yard between that conductor's trips.
The multipurpose car also served as an office, a kitchen and a lookout post for the brakeman and flagman in an age before automatic air brakes. The cupola, a lookout post on top of the caboose, appeared in the 1860s to help conductors keep an eye out for smoke from overheated wheel bearing and other problems.
Railroads began phasing out cabooses in the mid-1980s, and only a couple hundred remain in use today.
The Clarks didn't want to miss a chance to own a piece of railroad history. Charmed by its vintage looks, the Clarks had visions of transforming the 9-by-30 foot caboose into a guesthouse and hideaway for their grandchildren, Trevor, 7, and Allison, 8. The airy cupola, ringed by windows, is just 9 by 10 feet, a perfect spot for sleeping quarters.
For $10,000, it was theirs. Unfortunately, they discovered that the cost to move it from its former home on a tree farm in Tualatin to their 2-1/2-acre property in Scappoose was more than what they'd paid for it.
So Darril Clark, 55, got on the phone to his old trucking buddies and tracked down one who used to rebuild old railcars. Soon, he had all the help he needed. He jacked the caboose up, welded log-truck axles to the back, attached a kingpin to the front and towed it onto the freeway.
Since the cupola made the railcar to high to fit under power lines and traffic lights, Clark (who also happens to be a skilled metal welder) burned it off with a cutting torch and set it aside for a separate trip on a flatbed trailer. All told, the preparations took four days, and during that time, more than a few folks slowed down to watch.
"It's amazing how many people used that old caboose for a landmark," says Clark. "People stopped me and wanted to buy it."
Many shared the Clarks' vision of a cozy guesthouse or romantic summer retreat. But even cash offers couldn't dissuade the couple. They set off down the freeway, hauling the battered 28,000-pound metal caboose that was once the pride of the diesel-powered Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Back in Scappoose, Darril Clark laid the metal tracks and built a stone-wall foundation to help anchor it to the property. Then the real work began.
First, he gutted the interior, stripping it down to bare metal.
"There wasn't a stick of wood in it after we stripped it," he says.
Then, he replaced all the windows and rebuilt an all-wood interior: oak bead board on the walls and 7-foot-high ceiling, hardwoods on the floor, and cove and dentil molding. A gas stove bought for a song at a local auction keeps the interior toasty, thanks to the new windows and foam-insulated floors and walls. Clark put his welding skills to work by crafting a spiral metal staircase to the cupola (yet another space saver), which he turned into a loft bedroom complete with a full-size memory-foam mattress and flat-screen TV. On a clear day, this sunny nook provides a stunning view of Mount Hood and the Cascades.
"I like to come out here on a clear day," Clark says. "At night you can see the lights of Vancouver and North Portland."
Finishing touches included sandblasting off layers of red and chipped green paint, then repainting it cherry red with the words "Jenny's Railroad Express." The serial number on the caboose, 10348, is all that remains of its Burlington Northern heritage.
Four years later, Clark says, the caboose is finally near completion. He didn't keep track of the time or money he spent restoring it, he says, because that would have taken all the fun out of it.
"Nothing really worked out the way I thought it would," says Clark. "All the unusual curves and angles were really challenging."
But certainly not insurmountable. A curved glass-block wall created privacy for the bath without sacrificing space for a doorway, while a radiant-heated tile floor, claw-foot tub and built in cabinetry provide first-class amenities. Add a stereo, DVD player and refrigerated wine cooler, and you've got a snake wagon those old time conductors could only dream about.
Out of town guests, on the other hand, might just move in for good.
"Their eyes just light up," says Jennifer Clark of her grandchildren. They were out here last night wanting to spend the night." ♦
Ruth Mullen: 503-294-4059;
Webmaster's Note: This caboose, former Burlington Northern #10348, was originally built in 1960 by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in their Havelock, Nebraska shops as NE-12a class caboose #13577. A number of these cabooses survive today, including sister car CB&Q #13572 (later BN #10343), which is preserved in CB&Q colors at the Illinois Railway Museum.