Archive for Sunday, November 7, 2004

Train enthusiasts, retired conductors remodel cabooses for vacation homes

November 7, 2004

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— John and Nellie Egan are at the end of the line -- and that's where they like it.

The semiretired train conductor and his wife spend their summers in a remodeled caboose parked on a railroad siding, alongside other refurbished cabooses owned by trainmen and railroad buffs.

In winter, the Egans live in a mobile home in Largo, Fla., but the caboose feels like John Egan's true home.

"I lived half my life in the caboose anyway, working on the railroad," Egan, 77, said recently, as he relaxed with a beer and a cigarette on his back patio, a small concrete pad with a picnic table, a few chairs and a view of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

The old wooden caboose, once a symbol of railroading in America, has found a second life as everything from Pennsylvania motel cabins to antique shops, railroad museums and private excursion cars for rail fans.

Still, this semi-permanent vacation community in northeastern New Hampshire appears to be unique. The owners of about a dozen cabooses and one boxcar pay a modest rent to the Conway Scenic Railroad for their spots on the siding.

Evolution of the caboose

Some of the cabooses have been completely remodeled, while others are basic accommodations whose owners use showers and toilets in the railroad's freight house and warm up their meals in microwaves.

Cabooses served for more than 100 years as both primitive living quarters and working headquarters for conductors and rear brakemen. It is generally accepted that the first caboose was simply the last boxcar on a train, where a conductor named Nat Williams stored his equipment, wrote his reports and ate his meals, using a barrel as a table, in the 1830s.

Cupolas began appearing during the Civil War as window-filled crowns where the brakeman could perch and watch the train ahead for smoke indicating overheated axle bearings. From the caboose, the crew could put on the train's emergency airbrake, throw switches and put signals on the track to warn following trains of trouble. It was also a comfortable place to bunk and even cook meals on potbellied stoves.

Electronic braking, signaling and monitoring systems have eliminated the need for cabooses on most modern trains. But old wooden cabooses -- with their windows, good insulation, cupolas and historic charm -- lend themselves to conversion into antique shops, vacation cabins or museums.

Restoring railcars

The Egans' caboose, at a cozy 228 square feet, has its original heavy conductor's desk and simple cupola with elevated seats, accessible by ladder, but there are plenty of additions and improvements: a galley-style kitchen, a shower and toilet, a sitting area and a trundle bed that opens up into a double.

The couple paid $850 for their Grand Trunk Railway caboose in 1973. John Egan was among a group of volunteers restoring engines, passenger cars and tracks to start the Conway Scenic Railroad, which takes tourists on short sight-seeing trips in the Mount Washington Valley and the White Mountains.

He says once word got out the railroad was getting rid of its cabooses, they were snatched up by collectors, a man starting a chain of cheese shops in Maine and New Hampshire, and "rail fans." None of them had to be scrapped.

Egan grew up next to the railroad tracks in Gorham. As a teenager he worked in the train yard and the engine house, on the coal chute and on the track repair gang during summer vacation.

"My mother said as soon as I was old enough to look out the window, every train that went by, I had to see it," he said.

As an adult, he worked his way up from brakeman to conductor on the New England line of the Grand Trunk Railroad, which connected Portland, Maine, to Montreal.

Today Egan works as a conductor on the scenic railroad one day a week most of the year, but likes to work more during the fall foliage season.

Family heirloom

Next door, Don and Allison Audibert stay in a Central Vermont Railroad caboose they inherited from Don's brother Howard, an architect and train enthusiast who bought it in 1974.

The last car on the siding, a former Bangor & Aroostook Railroad boxcar outfitted to carry Maine potatoes, once belonged to Don's other brother, Paul. For years, the three brothers and their families rented a chalet nearby for a few weeks each summer and renovated first one rail car, then the other.

Most of the cars have quick-release water, sewer and electricity hookups so they can be moved if necessary, although they haven't been moved in years.

Don Audibert, 74, dates the brothers' love of trains to their childhood in Whitefield, when their father worked as a brakeman and their mother ran a tourist home near the tracks.

"When my father went by on the train, he'd drop off a block of ice for the ice box," he said.

All the comforts of home

Allison Audibert remembers the camaraderie in the caboose community a decade ago, when the brothers and their wives had retired and spent full summers there, living alongside volunteers and employees of the railroad.

"We opened up the roundhouse and had a party there once," she said. "We were all kind of like a big family."

The Audibert brothers renovated the caboose to include a full bathroom, seats up in the cupola that convert to beds, a stacked washer and dryer, bookshelves, a compact kitchen and built-in dining table, and a living room with fold-out queen bed. It even has air conditioning, electric heat, carpeting and hot water.

The former potato car also has all the comforts of home. Visitors walk up wooden steps to a porch, then cross a drawbridge-style ramp through the original boxcar door.

As a freight car it had no windows, but behind the original metal doors are a sliding glass door on one side and a full-length window on the other. Hatches at either end of the roof, once used for loading ice that kept the potatoes cool while they were shipped cross-country, now are skylights.

'Giving up the memories'

Don Audibert shows off the details with pride and a touch of sadness. Brothers Howard and Paul are dead now, and Don and Allison have homes in Cape Cod and Florida, so they have reluctantly decided to sell their caboose.

"This is what's so hard -- giving up the memories," he said.

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