Trains have always represented freedom, romance and adventure. Many would like to hop on board a turn-of-the-century railroad car and travel back in time — if only through the tales of "old-timers" who recall the heyday of the rails.
On Saturday in downtown Petaluma, there's an opportunity to do just that through the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society. The association of train buffs and former railroad professionals is inviting the public to celebrate the restoration of Caboose No. 1, a train car originally manufactured in 1896. Returned to its authentic condition by the group over a period of eight years, nearly 4,000 hours of labor, and a cost of $30,000, the car is now fully functional and is the centerpiece at the restoration yard at the DiCarli property on the corner of East Washington and Copeland streets.
On Saturday, the same day as the Butter & Egg Days parade, visitors will be able to climb on board Caboose No. 1 and explore railroad history, learning how the train was run in the 1900s. That includes the desk where the conductor's "office" was located.
"The conductor was the 'boss' of the train in the early days," explains Charles Siebenthal, president of the association, "and he would do all his paperwork in the caboose."
People often decorated the caboose with touches of home on their long journeys. "There were overhead pull-down beds and an iron stove where they could heat up coffee or cook meals that also provided heat for the car," said Siebenthal. Even the stove works now, as the crews who restored the car can attest—they often put it to use when working on cold days.
Members of the association will be on hand to show visitors around and answer questions. One they always get, according to Siebenthal, is "Why were cabooses almost always painted red?"
The answer is that red was a warning color — bright, noticeable, and easy to see from afar, marking the end of a train.
Visitors will also be able to climb up to the cupola and have their picture taken in the same place that the conductor or other trainmen sat over 100 years ago to watch for any trouble with the cars and report it to the engineer.
Tours and videos of the three other rail cars at the yard will show how the restoration is done, a painstaking and costly process.
Clark Stewart, vice president of the association, and a former locomotive engineer, notes that, "The people who volunteer their skills, time and money love the trains and want to make sure that future generations can share in the excitement of the early days of the railroads." The Northwestern Pacific Railroad, known as the "Redwood Empire Route" was created in 1907, said Stewart, and was given the affectionate nickname, "Nowhere in Particular."