A historic Whitefish caboose was moved for the first time in decades last week, on its way to receiving a full restoration.
The red Great Northern Railway caboose once owned by Burt Schooley was lifted by a crane and secured on a semi-truck before being hauled to Columbia Falls, where its new owners Bill Swann and Kellie Knox plan to restore it. The wooden caboose has fallen into disrepair in recent years.
Swann and Knox have been keeping watch on the caboose for several years and knew they wanted to bring it back to its glory through a restoration process that Swann estimates could take 10 years to finish.
“This is a complete restoration,” he said. “I want to put the nails back in the same spot. I’ll be looking for railroad people to listen to what they have to say about how to do it. This is going to be a long, tedious task — but it’s history.”
The caboose was the fulfillment of a dream of its original owner who received the caboose after being seriously injured in a train wreck in 1971. According to a 1973 edition of the Pilot, when a company official said he wished there was something he could do for Schooley, he replied, “How about a caboose?” The company came through with a genuine Great Northern caboose, which was retired from the merged Burlington Northern, the Pilot wrote in 1973.
Tim Schooley, Burt’s son, remembers growing up in Whitefish and playing on the caboose in the family’s yard.
He recalled his father paying $1 for the caboose as part of his settlement with the Great Northern after his accident. Burt Schooley worked for the railroad for 15 years before he was involved in the train wreck that left him paralyzed.
“My dad loved the railroad,” Tim said last week. “He had a dream of building a museum with all his railroad stuff, but he never got around to it.”
The Schooleys are a railroad family. In addition to Burt, Tim and his sister Robyn both had grandfathers who worked for the railroad, as did their uncles.
“Life was hard back then, but once they got work with the railroad they were in a union, part of a brotherhood,” Tim recalled. “Even though the railroad took away [my father’s] ability to live life, he still loved the railroad.”
When Burt Schooley originally checked into the possibility of purchasing a caboose, he found that the railroad had decided that with all the requests they received for cabooses, it was easier to simply scrap the retired cars, according to a 1973 Pilot article. But after he was injured and asked about getting a caboose the company complied. Tim said he remembers the caboose being delivered from the railroad crossing just down the hill from his parent’s home. The age of the caboose is a bit of a question — Tim thinks it’s a 1930s or 1940s era, but Swann and Knox date it at 1925.
The track and wheels were delivered first and then the caboose was transported to the site on a lowboy, then Burlington Northern employees went to work setting up and welding stops to the track to secure it in place permanently, according to the Pilot at the time.
When it arrived at the Schooley home in 1973 it was bright red with a fresh coat of paint, but the years have taken its toll on the caboose. Its red paint is peeling, the Great Northern mountain goat on the side has faded, and many of its wood planks are deteriorating.
Tim said for the last 15 years he’s made sure the caboose had a new tarp every year put over it for protection, but the caboose needed more care than he’s been able to give. His father had many offers from people to purchase the caboose, but he would never give it up.
Burt Schooley and his wife Judy both passed away earlier this year. So now the caboose can go to a new home.
Though he admits it will be strange to have it gone, Tim is hopeful that the caboose will finally be restored perhaps the way his dad had hoped for.
“He loved that caboose,” Tim said.
Swann and Knox plan to honor Burt Schooley as part of the restoration process.
“We will get a memorial plaque for it with the Schooley name on it,” Swann said. “It was his caboose and we’re just the caretakers of it.”
Swann said they intend to keep the caboose at their home after it’s restored, but eventually plan to donate it to Whitefish.
“It’s all wooden construction and it will take time to examine it and recreate that,” Swann said. “I will be looking to a lot of people in the community to do it.”
Swann has experience working with wood, but he’ll seek experience for welding and recreating metal pieces of the caboose. He also plans to reconstruct the caboose in a traditional way.
Moving the caboose already took a considerable amount of planning to ensure it could be safely transported to Columbia Falls.
Swann and Knox said they had help from a host of businesses and individuals including, Robyn Schooley Calabretta and Tim Schooley, Dyllan and staff of Mission Mountain Railroad, Chuck with Harmon Crane & Rigging, Inc., Heath with Heavy Toy Hauling, Inc., Will of Ed Hankinson Trucking, Kyle with Pacific Steel & Recycling, Mitch with Acutech, Mike with Butcher Trucking LP, Kyle with Archer Excavating, Adam and Curtis of Northwest Parts & Equipment, John with Western States Equipment Company, Ron with Flathead Electric Cooperative, Whitefish Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol, Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, and from their neighbor Pam, who allowed for her fence to be removed so the truck carrying the caboose could make the turn into Swann and Knox’s driveway.