Cathie and I drove to Roundup River Ranch this past weekend to see a caboose she has christened “The Benny,” in memory of her younger brother Bobby Bennett, a.k.a. Benny to his friends. I’ll tell you about The Benny, then explain why it should matter to you who follow this blog.
Four years ago, a friend invited us to a cocktail party in Colorado’s Vail Valley. It was, in fact, a fundraising party for a camp for children with chronic or life-threatening diseases, a camp much like the Hole in the Wall camps that actor Paul Newman inspired across the globe. Vail being one of the richest zip codes in the world, and its residents big-hearted, close to $20 million had been raised to get the camp built and launched.
It lacked one thing, my friend said. It would be built 10 miles north of Dotsero, Colo., with the Colorado River on one side and the Union Pacific Railroad on the other. Those of you who know Colorado geography will recognize that piece of railroad as the Dotsero Cutoff of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. Each day, some 15 trains belonging to UP, Amtrak and trackage-rights tenant BNSF Railway pass right by it, horns blowing.
What Roundup River Ranch needed but didn’t have, I quickly realized, was some identification with the railroad world that existed by its side. One thing led to another, and the following year Cathie and I agreed to find and deliver to the site a piece of railroad rolling stock for RRR. It was easier than I imagined. My first call was to Tom Hoback at the Indiana Rail Road. He in turn called Norman Carlson, then president of the East Troy Railroad Museum in Wisconsin. Funny you should ask, Norm said. This week we’re picking up seven former Milwaukee Road cabooses from a Baptist summer camp. We don’t need them all. Does Fred want one?
That’s how The Benny, which began life in 1956 as Milwaukee Road 02138, built by Thrall Car Manufacturing, found its way to Roundup River Ranch. The camp opened last year, and is now a full member of the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps. This year alone, 400 children have had a chance to forget for a week that their bodies are broken and to just have fun being kids. To learn more about Roundup River Ranch, go here.
But the caboose was a mess, inside and out, and off limits to the kids. This spring Cathie told me to get off my ass and fix it. She had saved some money, and her past and present employers had matching-gift grant programs. I found a contractor, Rick Dustall, willing to work on the project and donate some of his company’s labor. Camp manager Paul St. Ruth did anything I asked of him, the Georgetown Loop Railroad provided track materials, and the owner of a heavy-duty crane 50 miles away agreed, for little more than gas money, to move the rehabbed caboose to a permanent location right where kids step off the bus.
So that’s what Cathie and I saw this weekend (that’s her in the photo, taking one of her own). It looks simply beautiful. On the outside, platforms were removed to make it possible for kids who cannot walk to get inside. And the interior no longer represents a working caboose but a place where any number of activities (say, ice-cream parties) can take place. That’s just the way we wanted it. But railroad photos adorn the caboose, and if I get my way such photos will soon be found in every building of the camp complex.
What does this have to do with you? This nation is full of towns and buildings and institutions that have a railroad heritage or present-day railroad connection. One or more are surely near you. Is that heritage being acknowledged? Here’s your opportunity to do something, and I don’t mean to find a caboose. You can scale it down to a photo in City Hall or a talk to a school assembly. Spread the joy of railroading, folks. Or as Cathie said to me, get off your ass. — Fred W. Frailey