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Once a humble rail car, then a grand cabin, a mountain retreat faces an uncertain future.

June 29, 2003|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

It was curiosity about a 1910 railroad car that originally took us to a property for sale in the local mountains. But when my wife and I saw the land, we nearly forgot about the old car and made an offer for the 40 wonderfully wild acres. A month later we owned it and the old Southern Pacific coach.

At the time we couldn't decide if the car was a bonus or a liability, and we still haven't. Can we use it as a cabin?

I've always liked trains, so the idea of owning an actual passenger coach from the golden era was intriguing. But vandals, rats and the elements had left it in terrible shape. We have yet to spend a night on the property, though we drive up for the day nearly every weekend because it is only two hours from L.A. (we're keeping the location secret to protect the neighbors' and our privacy).

Back in the early 1960s, the previous owners had managed to make it into quite a grand weekend retreat, considering that they found it in a wrecking yard, with one end caved in and the insides chopped up into a dozen or more little cubicles, according to one previous owner. He and a partner paid $900 for it.

The car began life as a humble 34-seat Harriman passenger coach. It was never a fancy car -- the economy seating of its day -- though there are elegant stained-glass transoms above the 11 windows that opened on each side. We know what it originally looked like because there's a nearly identical car in better condition at Travel Town museum in Griffith Park that I've studied closely.

Ours was turned into a railroad maintenance car at some point, and Southern Pacific added an interesting caboose-like platform to one end. The car ended up at the scrap yard after it was involved in an accident.

While it was sitting on a siding in the San Fernando Valley, the previous owners of our property and some buddies transformed the coach into an elegant Victorian-era private car, complete with fancy carpets, plush fabrics, a fireplace and ornate scrollwork.

New partitions divided the car into a living area and two bedrooms, one at either end. An antique iron fireplace heated the living area. There was even a small kitchen with a wood-burning cook stove. The rooms were lighted with ornate reproduction propane gas fixtures. None of these rooms was terribly large, given that the car is only 9 feet wide on the inside, though it is 67 feet long.

Rich fabrics and patterned wallpapers covered the walls, and plywood wainscoting was added below the windows. Antique wool carpeting from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, or so the owners were told, covered the floors. We found a few unused rolls that showed how bright and colorful the old floral carpet had been.

One of the owners was in the high-end furniture business, so the car was outfitted quite nicely with sofa beds, chairs, tables, dressers, even a secretary.

The previous owners removed the brake wheel and added ornamentation to make the caboose-like platform look like the fancy observation platforms from which presidential candidates once campaigned.

The renovated car was then trucked to the mountain property by a house mover and set on a short section of track laid in the canyon bottom. Several neighbors have told us how truly magical the car was. I wish I could have seen it.

Forty years later, little remains of the glamour. A flash flood partially buried one end of the car, and rats have ruined the inside. Not city rats, mind you, but the wild, native wood rats, the kind some call packrats because they cart off shiny objects. They seem to eat everything, or shred it for bedding. They've eaten huge holes in the lovely old carpets, pulled the stuffing out of the furniture, gnawed on the wood, shredded the upholstery and built stick nests in the springs.

And they've left their droppings everywhere, an inch thick in some corners. I've spent so much time cleaning up rat droppings that I actually have nightmares about it. We do not have electricity, so all this cleaning is done with dustpans and whiskbrooms. At some point, I'll have to buy a generator so I can run my shop vacuum.

Another nuisance is the peeling paint that rains from the ceiling. A power washer would help here, but we don't have power and we don't have water. Getting the well working is our next big project.

The car's exterior has generally fared better than the interior because it is made of riveted steel and iron, built like the Queen Mary. But some of the exterior panels near the floor have rusted through. The roof was once covered with asphalt or something similar, which waterproofed and protected the curved steel panels, but that protective covering is long gone, and I have no idea how to replace it or with what.

For me, the old car is alien technology. Give me a few 2-by-4s and some plywood or sheetrock and I can build a room addition, but cast iron, rivets and steel I know nothing about. I haven't even figured out how to drill holes in the stuff.

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