The little train that could – how the caboose came to Issaquah

The caboose at the Issaquah Train Depot was built in 1942. It was modified by the Weyerhaeuser Company for use on logging railroads, damaged later in an accident and eventually donated to the Issaquah Historical Society in the summer of 1989.

The caboose at the Issaquah Train Depot was built in 1942. It was modified by the Weyerhaeuser Company for use on logging railroads, damaged later in an accident and eventually donated to the Issaquah Historical Society in the summer of 1989.

How did something that old, that big and that heavy, sidelined on a distant logging railroad track, get to Issaquah?

That story was told recently by three of those who made it happen: Greg Spranger, Executive Director of the Downtown Issaquah Association; Denny Croston, a carpenter and longtime museum volunteer now serving on the Issaquah Valley Trolley Committee; and Eric Martin, named Volunteer of the Year by the Issaquah History Museums in 2008 for his work on facilities.

Ground was broken in 1985 for the renovation of the Issaquah Train Depot by the Issaquah Historical Society. At that time, Spranger, Gordon Rust, President of the Society at that time, and Rowan Hinds, then Mayor of Issaquah, and others all agreed, “Now we need a caboose!”

Spranger had become interested in finding abandoned rolling stock for the depot museum after excursions with John Tobernoch, who hunted for donkey (logging) engines left behind in the woods.

“Find me a caboose,” Spranger told him. In the summer of 1989, two were found in Rainier, at Vail Camp, Weyerhaeuser’s big railroad staging yard for hauling logs off Mt. Rainier.

Spranger, Rust, Croston, Martin and Michael Yanac, another depot volunteer, went down to see. While the others inspected the cars, Spranger negotiated with Weyerhaeuser staff for the better preserved of the two, which the Company agreed to donate.

Meanwhile, Spranger had been working with the Burlington Northern (BN) public relations office to “maybe get an ‘RPO’ (railroad post office car) or a crane car” that was no longer in use. When no deal could be made, Spranger asked, “Well, how about furnishing a flat car and moving the caboose for us?” BN agreed.

Spranger, Rust and Croston gathered up tools and made the trip down to Vail Camp to prepare the caboose for transport. This involved taking off various parts to make it the required height and removing the “trucks” or wheel assemblies.

“I had worked on tug boats and learned how to move heavy equipment and lash things down,” said Croston. “But you just have to be creative. If you can’t figure out how to do something, you go find someone who does.” As Spranger said, “We just figured it out.”

To get the caboose on the flat car at Vail Camp, a log-stacker “like a giant forklift with a claw, used for lifting a full carload of logs,” easily lifted the caboose. However, while wheel assemblies of logging cars stayed on the ground when the load was lifted, these stayed on the caboose.

Apparently caboose wheels were always attached to the body, so that as the caboose rocked along at the end of a train, the body would not bounce off the wheels. So, the caboose was lowered back down to the ground to remove “keeper pins” and the wheels, which made the trip separately.

The work, on a gravel bed, was “dusty, dry and hot,” according to Croston, and the group became covered in grease and dirt. Unable to finish the job in one day, they went looking for overnight lodging. All accommodations were full. They eventually found a hotel in Olympia.

“I was dirtier than I’d ever been in my life,” Croston said. “Greg had one of the cleaner shirts, or had peeled down to his t-shirt, so he went in to arrange the stay. The rest of us snuck in the back way. I got to shower first. The water ran out brown.”

They finished preparations the next day. Transportation took three days to Issaquah via Everett, with Spranger tracking progress by phone.

From Everett, BN sent the caboose into Issaquah with the regular “butter train” to Darigold. Martin, who assisted with offloading the caboose from the flat car, explained that full use of the track at the depot was still possible then. BN jockeyed empty cars, full cars and the caboose, using manual track switches, to park the caboose in front of the Depot.

Martin recalled that Lakeside Industries provided a small mobile crane to take the caboose off the flat car.

But this crane was not able to lift the entire caboose at once. By using the crane to hold the caboose, putting rollers under the back end of the caboose, and easing the flat car back out from under the caboose as it rolled forward, the crew was able to lower the caboose onto its wheels on the track.

BN later moved the caboose to its present location. Volunteers and Eagle Scouts cleaned it up, restored the interior and painted it.

Today, the caboose is being rehabilitated by contract with the Northwest Railway Museum. Donations from community members and a 4Culture grant will fund repairs, re-painting, and new hands-on activities and exhibits.

Joan Newman is a docent at the Issaquah History Museums.