No matter what the craft there are some people who are masters at it, whether that be woodworking, painting or crane operations. And such a person dropped by the other day to share his experience at being the guy who was the truck driver and crane operator who swung the cabooses into place.
One of the creators of the Featherbed Railroad, Len Bassignani, would often brag that the crane operator who swung the cabooses into place was one of the best he had ever seen, having barely broken two branches in the entire operation. It so happened that Bill Darr stopped by to check on his work these 27 years later.
“We did a lot of creative crane work getting those things in there,” he said. “We didn’t have to cut anything down or anything.”
Bill’s work was in recovery, working for a contractor who is still in business today that does things like clean up derailments and other railroad accidents. With that experience he’s used to lifting rail cars, including cabooses, so this was just another day at work for him. But, like all jobs of this nature, there were certainly challenges.
“Getting those Santa Fes there was a challenge - they’re pretty tall,” he said. So the team very, very carefully chose their route so as not to yank down any low power lines or hit bridges, both of which can ruin a trucker’s day.
“Nowadays you couldn’t do something like that.” he says, lamenting the number of regulations on just about everything there is.
He’s right - the County did make special accommodations for our special accommodations as a one-time deal.
“For what we did to make things work it was definitely a unique job. I enjoyed the heck out of it - I really did.”
Bill describes a few more of the challenges, again with the Santa Fe cabooses. Both he and Len were well aware of the fact that these cabooses were built more like army tanks than railroad cars which made them both huge and heavy.
“The crane we used wasn’t really that stout of a crane compared to what exists nowadays. Some of the newer cranes can hold 2500 tons and that was just a 30 ton truck crane. That was about the limit of what that crane could carry.”
So what happens when the load you have is just slightly heavier than the load a piece of equipment was designed for? “Well, the front wheels of the crane got off the ground a few times lifting those Santa Fe cabooses!” Yikes.
Some Featherbed Railroad history
A place like the Featherbed Railroad takes a lot of people with really unique talents, a somewhat crazy vision and persistence to make it happen. And the stories these people have to share is quite incredible. It’s not every day you meet a guy who thinks a train derailment is just another day at the office.
One of the questions we get asked all the time is "How the heck did you get those cabooses there?" It's actually a pretty complicated process.
The first thing you have to do is find cabooses for sale. When the Featherbed Railroad Company was founded in 1988 the railroads were retiring cabooses. In those days it was easy to find retired cabooses and they were relatively inexpensive. But, you still had to get them where you wanted them.
So, Kelly & Sherry McLean and Len and Lorraine Bassignani found nine cabooses and used the McLean's expertise in moving (they own Broadway Moving and Storage - a great company!) to move the cabooses here. Essentially, to move a Caboose, you have to put it on a special trailer called a Low Boy. Each caboose weighs approximately 50 tons, so you also need one heck of a truck to pull that trailer.
Once you've got the cabooses to the location where you want them, the next trick is getting them off the truck and to their permanent home. First, you lay track according to Federal guidelines. Then you place the wheels.
Then you get the best crane operator you can find to lift the cabooses off the Low Boy and onto the wheels on the track. This crane operator has to be good enough to miss tree limbs, bushes, electrical wires and even the guy who might want to stand under the caboose while it's in the air!
To turn a caboose into a permanent building you weld the wheels to the track and then bring in plumbing, electrical and gas. Now you've got a permanent building.
The next step is to take an empty, rusty metal "building" and turn it into a unique guest suite with all the amenities. We're still working on that side of the story and hope to get pictures, but we'll be happy to show you how a caboose looked before it became a suite - we have one left like that hidden away in the back.
We also get a good number of people interested in buying a caboose and you can get your very own rail car through a company called RailMerchants. There is also a company that makes replica caboose kits which are pretty slick.
Written by Anthony B. Barthel.
A blog about happenings in Lake County.