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Historic railway car being refurbished in Valpo
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Historic railway car being refurbished in Valpo

VALPARAISO — When Norfolk & Western Car 300 was built in 1917 by Pullman Co. in Chicago, face masks were being used to fight the influenza pandemic.

Now, 104 years later, face masks are in use for the COVID-19 pandemic as a small team of volunteers finish refurbishing the car to go back into service. They plan to move the car to its new home on Oct. 12.

“This car is light years ahead of other cars, like the train museums. Those cars have been sitting outside for 40, 50, 60 years. There’s nothing but rust. It would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to get those cars up to operating condition,” said Bryan Lalevee, president of the Norfolk & Western Car 300 Preservation Society.

“This is what they call a barn find. It doesn’t get much better than this. I’ve been involved in preservation for over 20 years, and I’ve been on board some railway cars that I was afraid I was going to fall through the floor, and we don’t have that issue here,” he said.

Car 300 was put in a warehouse in 1991 by its previous owner, away from the weather that attacks railway cars stored outside.

A 104-year-old railway car is special, but Car 300 has something almost every other car that age doesn’t have. It was a private car built for the president of Norfolk & Western’s use.

“The president would travel on the car, most often with his family. They would tack the car onto the back of freight trains and passenger trains. There were, I’m sure, numerous meetings in this car. It served many presidents over its 70 years at the Norfolk & Western,” Lalevee said.

The president would wine and dine potential customers in the car, hoping to sign lucrative contracts to transport their goods.

Inside the car

Step into the car and you’re in the lounge. “The couch was built in the car, and it was custom built for the car. You can tell by the way it fits around the radiator,” Lalevee said.

“We have polished all the wood. We have primed and repainted the ceiling so it’s back to its original color,” he said. The flooring tiles have been replaced, too.

All 29 window shades were restored at Adams & Westlake Co. in Elkhart, which built them in the 1950s. The company president came to Valparaiso last week to show how to adjust the tension on the shades.

The secretary’s bedroom has two fold-down beds and half bath plus closet space.

Next down the narrow hallway is Bedroom B. “This was originally the master bedroom a long time ago, before the car was modernized. This originally had an upper berth, but we removed it and donated it to the Hoosier Valley Railway Museum in North Judson. They’re also getting the fluorescent lights,” Lalevee said.

That bedroom included a full stand-up shower, all stainless steel. “This was the worst of the bathroom in terms of peeling paint and whatnot,” he said, although the entire railway car was “a moldy mess.”

The master bedroom is impressive. “This is a very large bedroom and a very large bathroom for a railroad car,” Lalevee said.

Grates were sandblasted and powder coated in Wanatah as part of the group’s restoration.

The dining room served as a meeting room and sleeping area, too. “This features two Murphy beds that were put in the car around 1955," Lalevee said.

The dining table includes a button one used to summon crew members. “This has two leaves to it, so it becomes a very large table, and there are eight chairs that go around the table,” Lalevee said.

The electrical cabinet reflects the modernization that gave the current rehab crew a big head start.

“This car was completely rewired in 1988. All the old 8-volt and 12-volt system was completely removed,” Lalevee said. “This is a smart system. It looks for the 480 head-in power which comes from the locomotive. If it doesn’t sense that, it looks for the 240 standby power, and if it doesn’t find that it looks for 120 ground then if it doesn’t find that, it automatically starts the generator.”

Lalevee is grateful for the rewiring done as part of making the car ready for use by Amtrak. “This here puts us ahead of 99% of other museums because this car is completely rewired.”

The kitchen included liquor left over from the previous owner. “This has been here for 30 years. This is all the sealed stuff; I dumped all of the unsealed stuff,” Lalevee said. “There is a 1979 bottle of Crown Royal, still sealed.”

The kitchen also has three freezers and two refrigerators. Part of last week’s restoration work was getting them operational.

Back on track

This renovation isn’t the Car 300’s first rodeo.

In 1955, the Pullman car was modernized to radically alter its appearance. Considered a heavyweight business car when it was built 38 years prior, Norfolk & Western needed to make the car look like new ones that appeared more streamlined.

A rounded “balloon” roof was put on, along with new sides that flattened the contour, hiding the Pullman belt rail that went down the side of the car.

“If the car looks worn down, it’s not going to be a good look for the railroad,” Lalevee said.

“That was the biggest of the restorations. Otherwise, the other would have been in 1988, when the car was certified for Amtrak.”

The previous owner purchased the car for $36,800 and rode it across the United States and Canada, including to conventions for private cars.

In 1991, he put Car 300 in a New Jersey warehouse, where it sat idle for 29 years before being shifted to Valparaiso. “He paid a lot of money to have this car stored,” Lalevee said.

The car was donated to the preservation society on Oct. 9, 2019. It arrived in Valparaiso in January.

“It took about three years of legwork, and a lot of persistence and patience,” to get the car, Lalevee said. Then the months of restoration began.

“Because of the 1955 restoration, it’s impossible to turn the car back to what it was in 1917. It’s not possible because they removed so much of the inside,” Lalevee said. It’s being restored to its condition in the early 1980s, when it was near the end of its career.

“When you spend 10, 11, 12 hours a day at least once a week getting to know the car, you get to know every little nook, cranny and curve,” Lalevee said.

“She has a personality. Railroad equipment have personalities. When I first got the car and it arrived in Valpo, I sat in the lounge and closed my eyes and let the car talk to me. I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be OK. It sounds crazy, but this is what we do. They have souls.”

New destination

Next month, if all goes according to plan, Car 300 will be transported to Coldwater, Michigan — its new home base — at a cost of $22 per mile. The society is raising funds to cover the transportation cost. Railspotters, enthusiasts who like to shoot video and still photos of historic railway cars, plan to document the journey.

Once there, the car that served titans of industry will be available for anyone buying a first class ticket on the Little River Railroad. Car 300, while still owned by the preservation society, will be tacked onto a Little River Road train for its journeys.

“With these types of cars, these types of business cars, the general public rarely had a chance to ride one of these cars because it was reserved for the executives of the railroad,” Lalevee said. “So that’s our thing, to be able to ride like a president. We just think that is so awesome.”

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