By Mike Anderson

The Georgina Historical Society (GHS) has been busy refurbishing a 103-year-old railway caboose during the pandemic.

The project, which started in 2020, is nearing completion, with the exterior getting a fresh coat of paint, the roof repaired, windows replaced, and the interior converted into an exhibit space.

According to GHS President Tom Glover, the caboose was built in 1918 by the American Car and Foundry Company in Berwick, Pennsylvania.

It was initially purchased by the Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway (TH&B), and was later used by CN when CNR and CPR took over TH&B.

The caboose, now painted orange, is located next to the Sutton Train Station in the Pioneer Village.

Glover says it will be ready for public viewing by the spring and should prove to be a big draw, especially with school-aged children.

“We had a sign out there during the last Harvest Day, so kids could see that we were going to be doing something with it,” he said. “They were pretty excited because they’ve never been inside one.”

“The idea is to fix up the inside. There’s a caboose stove in the railway station, so we’ll put that in there. We’ll also put a bench and a table on one side like the conductor had. And, we’ll put the story of the caboose and pictures on the other wall.”

While the project is not considered a proper restoration, Glover and fellow members Paul Brady, Wayne Phillips, and Cliff Williams have already contributed more than 160 volunteer hours towards refurbishing the caboose, which has cost the historical society and members upwards of $6,500.

“It’s not a total restoration which would require moving the caboose to a heated shop and the expenditure of thousands of highly skilled and expensive hours,” said Paul Brady.

“What we are doing is taking a fascinating and valuable artifact and making it presentable for public viewing. We are not even going to repaint the back cupola area, as the time-worn patina is a story in itself.”

Exterior before refurbishment
Interior of caboose before renovations
Interior renovations in progress

The caboose, according to Brady, was the “nerve centre” of a freight train.

“The caboose was treated as an office. There would be three people working there, including a conductor who did all the business and two brakemen,” he said.

“It was pre-electronics, pre-radio, so everything was done with hand signals. That’s why the cupola [look out] is where it is, so the conductor could look across the train to make sure everything was working okay. And they would have signals to let the engineer know that everything was going well.”

“They were just keeping an eye on the train, making sure the bearings, which used to get hot as they went around a curve, wouldn’t smoke.”

Brady said the caboose also served as a spartan home-away-from-home for railway crews, equipped with a rudimentary bed, stove and toilet.

“They used to stay on the train for two or three days at a time,” he said.

The caboose was eventually rendered obsolete by the advent of the diesel locomotive in the late 1940s, which required fewer crew members and used electronics to monitor freight cars.

“They now change operators every eight to 12 hours. And they have devices to keep track of the hot boxes, which they would call the bearings when they would start to overheat and smoke. So all the business now is done up in the locomotive,” Brady said.

While the caboose graced the rails during the age of steam, it’s also had a colorful history in Georgina.

Purchased from CN by local businessman Gerry Verdoold, the decommissioned caboose joined a CN dining car in front of the IGA in Sutton, becoming a tea room for his customers.

When Verdoold retired, and the supermarket was sold to Sobeys, the caboose and the dining car were donated to the Town and the historical society.

The caboose was moved to the Pioneer Village, while the dining car became a long-time fixture at the Civic Centre until it was donated in 2015 to the Owen Sound Marine & Rail Museum.

The Town, at one point, also considered donating the caboose to another railway museum, as it was in a state of disrepair.

But the historical society didn’t want that to happen.

“They said they wanted to get rid of it because it was going to cost too much to fix it,” Glover said.

“But the historical society said it’s an artifact, and it’s part ours, so we’ll take charge of it.”

Both Glover and Brady are thankful the Town allowed them to proceed with the refurbishment and hope the caboose will be part of the Pioneer Village’s grand reopening in 2022.

“It had to be done,” Brady said.

“You just can’t let these things dissolve. And we just saw a need, and we were anxious to get it looked after.”

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