On a sunny Monday afternoon, retired engineer Ron Bartl watches his 5-year-old grandson, Steven, play on his 25-foot-long red caboose. The boy climbs up...
On a sunny Monday afternoon, retired engineer Ron Bartl watches his 5-year-old grandson, Steven, play on his 25-foot-long red caboose. The boy climbs up and down the red wooden stairs outside the caboose, then pulls down the ladder inside to climb up into the bunk area.
It was at Steven’s age that Bartl fell in love with trains. That lifelong passion morphed from riding real trains as a boy into building bridges for a transcontinental railroad as an adult. Then it went a step further.
Bartl started searching the country for part of a train to call his own.
He found it in 1986, buying a 1923 Great Northern Railway caboose for $2,900 from a Marysville man who got it from Burlington Northern Railroad in Seattle. Bartl trucked it to his Bellevue backyard and spent nearly 20 years renovating it.
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The caboose sits on train tracks at the bottom of a hill on Bartl’s 1-acre lot. At first it was a neighborhood attraction; new neighbors still stop by to see it. Inside the antique exterior, there’s cable TV, electric heat, a shower, toilet, phone lines and other amenities. He had originally planned to use it as a guesthouse, then considered renting it out, but he never did.
Now, after living in Bellevue for 50 years, the 74-year-old Bartl is preparing to move to a smaller home and is selling off his collectibles one by one. He’s already sold 75 locomotive models and railroad artifacts, such as lanterns, padlocks and vintage signs.
Last month he placed an ad on the Internet to sell the 1923 caboose for $50,000 — with tracks.
The caboose was last used as the ticket office for the Snoqualmie Railroad Club’s train rides in North Bend.
Where the train crew used to sit on benches there is a minikitchen, equipped with faux-granite countertops and maple-wood cabinets. The original wooden floors and walls have been done over in shiny white ceramic tiles and white paint.
A Minnesota native, Bartl made the place look like a tribute to the railroads of the Midwest.
The caboose is surrounded by railroad paraphernalia — railroad crossing signs line a wooden fence, and a 30-foot semaphore signal (a railroad stoplight) towers alongside. A 50-foot windmill turns against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds.
All the artifacts are authentic and Bartl knows the story behind each.
“We used to go to my grandma’s farm in North Dakota, and that’s how they got water,” Bartl said of the windmill, which he found in Minnesota.
The windmill, like the caboose, evokes nostalgia for his youth. As a child, he lived near a railroad switchyard in Duluth, Minn.
“The guys would let us ride in the caboose once in a while, or in the locomotive, and we could ring the bell,” Bartl said. “We watched for them all the time to come. It was neat to us.”
He still remembers saving money to buy his first model train.
“I was 13 years old and worked as a bagger at a grocery store,” he said. “I had a cigar box full of silver dollars.”
Bartl worked for Northern Pacific Railway in the early 1950s, building bridges. The country’s first northern transcontinental railroad ran from St. Paul, Minn., to Seattle, hauling freight and passengers. In 1970 it merged with three other railroads to become Burlington Northern Railroad; in 1995 it became the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway system.
“Most of the towns grew up after the railroads came through,” said John F. Strauss, Jr., author of three books about the Great Northern. Strauss, a Minnesota native who also considers himself a “rail fan,” worked as a passenger representative for the Empire Builder, the Great Northern’s flagship route started in 1929.
Strauss sees the love of trains, which he shares with Bartl and other railroad aficionados, dying out. “The fans of railroads are getting older and older, unfortunately,” he said.
Jeff Wilson, author of “Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest,” said people lost interest in trains because they don’t see them anymore.
“People lost their affinity for trains when passenger trains started fading in the 1960s,” the 43-year-old Wisconsin writer said.
“Now people don’t have the same feeling toward trains … It’s a completely different mind-set.”
Bartl said he’s had only about a dozen calls from railroad fans since he posted the caboose on Craigslist.
While he waits for the right buyer, Bartl continues to pass down his love for the rails to his grandson, handing off his rail-fan legacy with each model train car.
“Some people like boats, some like golf,” he said. “I like to play with trains.”
Taya Flores: 206-464-3825 or firstname.lastname@example.org