DURANGO – She’s altered her appearance more than once. Christened “Galesteo” at birth, she’s legally changed her name several times.
Train cars aren’t supposed to talk, but if she could, she’d tell stories that would keep you wide-eyed for hours. She’d tell you about youth and the aging process. She’d then amaze you with tales of her multiple deaths and reincarnations.
And now, excuse the excess anthropomorphism here, she’d undoubtedly gush over her new, glamorous, about-to-be-unveiled persona.
The soon-to-be-christened “Yankee Girl” is expected to debut as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s newest parlor car when the train kicks off its 2014 summer season in early May.
Those who’ve been toiling on it already call her the pride of the everyday fleet.
That’s quite a feat for a car birthed in 1880 in Wilmington, Del., near the banks of Brandywine Creek.
The 134-year-old car is nearing the end of quite a makeover. Step inside the car shop at the D&SNG yard and take a look.
Before you reach Yankee Girl, you’ll pass by several workers in hard hats and overalls. Two of them are working on the trucks or undercarriage of a passenger car undergoing its annual overhaul. Some cars require more repair than others. A few steps to the south, the Alamosa parlor car is currently getting new wheels — manufactured in Pennsylvania at a cost of $2,500 each.
The daily and annual upkeep is all necessary, but it also means Yankee Girl has been put on hold at times, explains car shop foreman Sean Jackson. The vital work comes first.
Walk past the Alamosa and you’ll find Yankee Girl, named for an old mine on Red Mountain Pass. Called Pinkerton in its last incarnation, Yankee Girl has been in the shop for two to four years, depending on who’s memory you trust.
The car’s history is a little hazy. But this much is documented: It began as a coach car, numbered 46, and was renumbered 270 in 1886, according to Cinders & Smoke, a D&SNG guidebook. In 1924, it was remodeled into a kitchen-diner outfit car by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, which operated through Durango.
A photo in Cinders and Smoke from February 1969 shows it in the Durango yards when still a kitchen-diner.
In 1982, the D&SNG rebuilt the car as a coach, with the goal of restoring it to its original condition. It also was insulated for winter use.
The Pinkerton stayed on the rails for nearly three decades until just a few years ago when it needed a major overhaul. That’s when the car shop crew went to work.
A lot of it had rotted, explains Jackson, who began with the railroad in 1994 as a brakeman and has been full time since 2005. Water had leaked down from the roof and ruined the king posts — critical vertical beams.
After the roof and beams were painstakingly repaired and the siding redone, the big question loomed: Should they put the old seats back in and keep it as a coach, or meet a growing demand for first-class seats?
The latter choice was exciting for the car-shop crew, but it meant some intricate design work and detail, including some modern touches to go along with the old-time look. There’s a delicate balance between historical authenticity and the needs of modern American tourists.
“There’s some high-tech in it,” Jackson says, explaining tiny LEDs along the molding will provide light, and a sound expert is helping place speakers for maximum effect — important for rides such as the Polar Express with sound and light shows.
The nice wood, such as the expensive birdseye maple that decorates the inside, has been sanded, re-stained and varnished several times.
“This thing was pretty haggard,” says Chris Noce, who is using a power buffer to polish hangers for luggage racks, removing the tarnish and restoring their shiny brass finish.
Noce, in his eighth year with the D&SNG, has been fabricating metal for 27 years, and his blacksmithing skills show in the fancy wrought-iron grapevines he’s designed to cover glass cabinet cases. Along the vines are bunches of grapes, a motif used in several places in the car to tie the look together.
On the end of the car, he replaced chains with gates that will be safer for passengers who like to step outside during a ride and better enjoy the view.
Carpenter Dave Zook says the original craftsmanship on the old car never ceases to impress him. The work the makers did without power tools — the snug fits, the details — are impressive.
Zook’s cabinet and pressed-tin ceiling work add to the stylish look of the parlor car, which will seat about 24 passengers. The current cost for a parlor car ticket is $175. Parlor cars offer more room, comfort and touches of luxury than a standard car.
Zook, a D&SNG employee for 25 years, obviously has fallen in love with Yankee Girl. But he’s ready to see her on the tracks.
“Everybody in the shop is involved in this car. It’s been a team effort to get to this point,” he says. “We’re getting close to rolling it out of here.”
Soon Yankee Girl will be filled by excited train buffs, those who enjoy traveling in style. You have to think by May, she’ll be telling us how much she enjoys her new look and her new life.
Or as soon as she learns to talk.