A piece of the past finds a new home

By Drew Myron

Gary and Sylvia Groce stand in the front yard with their fully restored 26-ton caboose. “It’s just fun, a piece of history,” Gary says.

Some take pride in their manicured yard, others in a bountiful garden. Gary and Sylvia Groce enjoy a massive lawn ornament: a 26-ton red caboose.

Blending family history with quirky novelty, their Pine Grove home boasts a fully restored caboose parked on railroad track.

For Gary, the caboose is a reminder of his heritage and a wistful nod to the past.

“It’s just fun, a piece of history,” he says. “When you’re a kid you count the train cars, and you always look for the red caboose.”

Gary’s grandfather, George Long, was an engineer for Southern Pacific Railroad Co. He worked in Portland for 47 years, with his last run in 1958. George’s daughter—Gary’s mother—adored trains.

“Her fondest memories were being around trains,” Gary says. “She dreamed of putting her own caboose on their land.”

Gary inherited his mother’s love of trains.

“I would tell Sylvia this story all the time, of the caboose that never happened,” he says.

In 2010, Sylvia—a phlebotomist and part-time real estate agent who has a knack for finding unique houses and cars—was glancing through the classified ads when she spotted a doozy: “For sale, railroad caboose, $8,500.”

The Burlington Northern car was in Monroe and in bad shape. Tagged with graffiti inside and out, it was full of trash, reeked of creosote and diesel, and the toilet was full of waste.

Sylvia and Gary were grateful that many of the original components remained intact: a conductor’s desk, overhead grab bars, hardwood floors and lights. The possibilities were clear.

Long before the caboose was restored to an artful piece of the past, it was a junkyard mess of grafitti and trash.

“We were used to restoring houses that were really trashed,” says Gary, who works as office coordinator for nuclear medicine at Providence Hospital. He was undaunted by the challenge.

Invigorated with a dream come true, the couple bought the massive caboose and arranged for delivery.

The road home, however, was pocked with pitfalls. The Groces’ train car endured a tough journey before making its way to its new home in the Hood River Valley.

Drivers removed the caboose body from the wheels, and transported the heavy load across the state with semi-trucks. Overpass and clearance issues went smoothly, and all was well until they arrived at the couple’s long, steep, winding, gravel driveway.

“At the bottom of the hill they got stumped,” Gary says. “They were out there for over an hour figuring it out.”

Soon it was pitch dark. Critical to the mission was Dave Couch, a local excavator who talked the reluctant drivers into the move and navigated transport up the hill.

“It was touch and go,” Gary says of the long haul up the quarter-mile driveway with a 10 percent grade. “The caboose leaned over, wheels were on edge.”

The caboose is a now a blend of vintage charm and lodging comfort.

“You heard a lot of screeching,” Sylvia says.

When the crew finally made it to the flat landing, a crane was used to lift and set 33 feet of railroad track bought from Mount Hood Railroad that the caboose was set upon.

“It’s precise work,” Gary says.

“You’ve got one chance to get it right,” Sylvia adds.

Getting the train home was the first step. Restoration took a crew of men nearly one year to complete. Today, the renovated caboose gleams as both art and artifact.

Historically, a caboose provided shelter at the rear of the train where the crew could exit to inspect the train for shifting loads, broken equipment or hot boxes—overheating that can lead to derailment. The caboose also served as an office for the conductor, with the cupola as a lookout. Conductors typically personalized their cars with curtains, family photos and posters.

Cabooses were first used in the 1830s. They were part of every freight train until the 1980s when safety and monitoring technology improved, and fewer crew and cabooses were needed. Now, cabooses are used only on rail maintenance, hazardous materials trains or tourist railroads.

Gary and Sylvia are not certain of their caboose’s heritage, but estimate it hails from the late 1960s.

A caboose historically served as an office for the conductor.

The Groces repainted the car to reflect railroad history. The caboose was originally a yellow and green Burlington Northern Railroad car. BN merged with Great Northern Railway, and later merged again to become Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

The couple recreated a classic caboose’s vintage charm, keeping the conductor’s desk, turning the cupola into sleeping bunks, and adding decorative touches with curtains, blankets, and black-and-white photos of Gary’s family and their train life.

Fresh and bright, the red caboose now serves as a comfy getaway for friends and family—and for Gary, who often snuggles into the comfy caboose and listens to the original two-way radio as it broadcasts train activity.

“I love to go out in the winter, fire up the wood stove, hear the rain on the roof and listen to the dispatcher talking to the engineers,” Gary says. “It’s a lot of chatter and joking. I get a kick out of listening to people work a job that my grandfather used to do.”