NEWPORT NEWS—Newport News City Council recently accepted the donation of a restored 1980 Chessie Caboose from the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation. The foundation acquired the caboose from the CSX Transportation Company, saving it from the scrapyard, and invested $18,262 along with more than 200 volunteer hours to fully restore it. The caboose is currently being stored at Fort Eustis, and the City will fund the relocation from that site to the Lee Hall Depot in April, where it will be part of the museum experience.
“The caboose was built in 1980 by Fruit Growers Express in Alexandria,” said Lee Hall Train Station Foundation president Ken Jones. “CSX had retired it as a caboose many years ago, then used it as a shoving platform, which is used when trains need to back up more than a certain distance. But I guess maintenance caught up with it and it went completely out of use.”
According to Jones, one of their Board members, Billy Grimes, works at Fort Eustis and saw the caboose in a yard in Newport News. He notified Jones and got some information so the Foundation could send out a grant request with CSX. “A month or so later, we got a letter back stating they would donate the car to us,” said Jones.
“The caboose is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of American railroading,” said Grimes. “Typically bright red and for many years found on the end of a train, the caboose served as quarters for the train crew until innovations in technology made them obsolete and almost non-existent on trains of today. The main function of the caboose was to allow the crew riding in it to monitor the conditions of the train; inspect for defects, and stop the train should a problem arise. However, trackside detectors and end of train monitoring devices have replaced the need for a crewmember to ride at the back of the train.”
The caboose was turned over to the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation in 2018. It was moved to a side-out track at Fort Eustis that was near an existing rail shop, and the car was completely renovated.
“The Foundation got a grant to get the car cleaned and painted, and volunteers did the work on the inside, which meant stripping the whole car out and putting it all back together,” said Jones. “We had to replace some metal panels in the sides and some of the floors had rotten out, so we had to replace all of that. I took some photos after the restoration and sent them to CSX. They were super impressed because it looks like it just rolled out of the shop at Fruit Growers Express.”
After all that work and effort, one might wonder why the Foundation turned around and donated the car to the City. The answer is, the Foundation had submitted a grant request to CSX to move the caboose by rail from Fort Eustis to the Lee Hall Depot. Jones got the paperwork back, a date was set, and he was ready to sign until he read the fine print. It stated that the requestor would need $5 million worth of liability insurance and agree to hold the railroad company harmless in the event of any problems. “When I read that I was thinking, ‘we’re a small foundation; we can’t do all that,’” explained Jones. “So, we came to the conclusion that we needed to turn the car over to the City since they were going to maintain it anyway. We got approval from CSX to do that, and the announcement was made at the October 26 City Council meeting.” At this point, the plan is to move the caboose sometime in April 2022, then have an official dedication ceremony on Friday, May 13.
Once in place, the caboose will be available for tours as part of the Lee Hall Depot museum experience, which includes the restored depot that now features a locomotive simulator that is inside the museum. “It’s a markup of a diesel cab you can climb in,” says Jones. “It has a real engineer’s seat, a control stand for the engine, and a screen that works with a DVD player to take you on a virtual trip from Williamsburg to Newport News. It’s got sound effects and everything. That one we sometimes have to pry the adults out. They get into the seat and they don’t want to give it up.”
In the meantime, the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation is still looking for public support in funding their efforts to refurbish Lee Hall Depot and tackle some other projects. “We have a World War II military medical car we’ve been working on for five years that’s still a work in progress,” said Jones. “But we really need newer members to join the Foundation. We’re all getting older, and people are starting to get to the apex of their ability to be interactive, so to speak. If we can get some younger people involved, as well as increase our fundraising activities, that would be really, really, special.”
For additional information on the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation, visit their Facebook page.