It was curiosity about a 1910 railroad car that originally took us to a property for sale in the local mountains. But when my wife and I saw the land, we nearly forgot about the old car and made an offer for the 40 wonderfully wild acres. A month later we owned it and the old Southern Pacific coach.
At the time we couldn't decide if the car was a bonus or a liability, and we still haven't. Can we use it as a cabin?
I've always liked trains, so the idea of owning an actual passenger coach from the golden era was intriguing. But vandals, rats and the elements had left it in terrible shape. We have yet to spend a night on the property, though we drive up for the day nearly every weekend because it is only two hours from L.A. (we're keeping the location secret to protect the neighbors' and our privacy).
Back in the early 1960s, the previous owners had managed to make it into quite a grand weekend retreat, considering that they found it in a wrecking yard, with one end caved in and the insides chopped up into a dozen or more little cubicles, according to one previous owner. He and a partner paid $900 for it.
The car began life as a humble 34-seat Harriman passenger coach. It was never a fancy car — the economy seating of its day — though there are elegant stained-glass transoms above the 11 windows that opened on each side. We know what it originally looked like because there's a nearly identical car in better condition at Travel Town museum in Griffith Park that I've studied closely.
Ours was turned into a railroad maintenance car at some point, and Southern Pacific added an interesting caboose-like platform to one end. The car ended up at the scrap yard after it was involved in an accident.
While it was sitting on a siding in the San Fernando Valley, the previous owners of our property and some buddies transformed the coach into an elegant Victorian-era private car, complete with fancy carpets, plush fabrics, a fireplace and ornate scrollwork.
New partitions divided the car into a living area and two bedrooms, one at either end. An antique iron fireplace heated the living area. There was even a small kitchen with a wood-burning cook stove. The rooms were lighted with ornate reproduction propane gas fixtures. None of these rooms was terribly large, given that the car is only 9 feet wide on the inside, though it is 67 feet long.
Rich fabrics and patterned wallpapers covered the walls, and plywood wainscoting was added below the windows. Antique wool carpeting from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, or so the owners were told, covered the floors. We found a few unused rolls that showed how bright and colorful the old floral carpet had been.
One of the owners was in the high-end furniture business, so the car was outfitted quite nicely with sofa beds, chairs, tables, dressers, even a secretary.
The previous owners removed the brake wheel and added ornamentation to make the caboose-like platform look like the fancy observation platforms from which presidential candidates once campaigned.
The renovated car was then trucked to the mountain property by a house mover and set on a short section of track laid in the canyon bottom. Several neighbors have told us how truly magical the car was. I wish I could have seen it.
Forty years later, little remains of the glamour. A flash flood partially buried one end of the car, and rats have ruined the inside. Not city rats, mind you, but the wild, native wood rats, the kind some call packrats because they cart off shiny objects. They seem to eat everything, or shred it for bedding. They've eaten huge holes in the lovely old carpets, pulled the stuffing out of the furniture, gnawed on the wood, shredded the upholstery and built stick nests in the springs.
And they've left their droppings everywhere, an inch thick in some corners. I've spent so much time cleaning up rat droppings that I actually have nightmares about it. We do not have electricity, so all this cleaning is done with dustpans and whiskbrooms. At some point, I'll have to buy a generator so I can run my shop vacuum.
Another nuisance is the peeling paint that rains from the ceiling. A power washer would help here, but we don't have power and we don't have water. Getting the well working is our next big project.
The car's exterior has generally fared better than the interior because it is made of riveted steel and iron, built like the Queen Mary. But some of the exterior panels near the floor have rusted through. The roof was once covered with asphalt or something similar, which waterproofed and protected the curved steel panels, but that protective covering is long gone, and I have no idea how to replace it or with what.
For me, the old car is alien technology. Give me a few 2-by-4s and some plywood or sheetrock and I can build a room addition, but cast iron, rivets and steel I know nothing about. I haven't even figured out how to drill holes in the stuff.
Everything about this Iron Age coach is heavy and huge. There are very few pieces that I can pick up or move by myself. When the last owners cut off the brake wheel and gear housing, they simply let them fall to the ground, where they lay for 40 years. I wanted to restore them to their original location, but my wife and I could barely stand the unit up, much less lift it onto the platform.
But a neighbor, who maintains heavy equipment for a living, said he could do it over Memorial Day weekend, when his family gathered at his place for a reunion. He brought over a bunch of relatives and a welding outfit. They hoisted the wheel and gear onto the platform and welded them on.
So it is possible to work on the car, it just takes know-how and lots of help. In return, we invited everyone to tour the old car, since many had seen it for years but had never been inside.
That was when it had an inside. Although we planned to simply fix up the interior and use the car as a temporary cabin, we've found that there is little we can salvage, and the only way to get it clean is to take everything out and start over.
So last weekend, we reluctantly gutted half the car, including the kitchen. We tore up the carpet, took down the partitions, removed the cabinets and even managed to tip the big rusted stove up and flip it out the window. A few gas fixtures remain, but we had to take out much of the piping in order to clean behind it.
With the partitions, carpet and furnishings gone from half the car, it has a kind of industrial charm that we rather like. It certainly looks a lot bigger inside, and you really notice the stained-glass transoms now that they are the only ornamentation left.
When the weather cools off a bit, we'll tackle the other half of the car. The temperature rose to 105 inside the steel car when we were working on it last weekend because we can partially open only a couple of the windows. Most are rusted shut.
In winter, the thermometer recorded a low of 16.5, so we'll probably keep the fireplace. Maybe we'll yet come up with a really clever idea for this old car, but for the moment I think we'll look into building a cabin and treat the car like the railroad relic that it is, our own little Travel Town in the woods. It is fun to just sit inside (on cool days) and imagine the scenery speeding past.
The station's ticket window is now closed
Next to the railroad car is a little building that was moved here from Hollywood when they put in the Ventura Freeway. It had been an old gas station, according to the previous owners, but they remade it into a mock train station, complete with a bay ticket window and platform. Unfortunately, part of it was also buried in the flash flood, the bay window is falling off, and the rat smell inside is almost overwhelming. There would seem to be no fixing this old structure, so we'll probably demolish it, unless someone desperately wants an early 1900s one-room wood gas station. Inside is an old player piano, in equally bad repair, that will have to go too; rats have built stick nests in it so the keys barely move.
Next: Getting water.
Robert Smaus can be reached at email@example.com