By Terry Roberts
TC Media — Bristol’s Hope
It took plenty of creativity, patience and lifting power, but a derelict train caboose that had been rusting away on a lawn in Bay Roberts is now resting on a newly built trackbed in Bristol’s Hope.
It’s new owner, train aficionado Ken Mercer, has plans to restore this piece of Newfoundland history, and convert the interior into a “guest house” for his two young grandchildren, who live in Ontario.
“I’ve wanted one my whole life,” Mercer said Wednesday afternoon as employees with Simms Garage in Carbonear used cranes and a flat-bed to skilfully manoeuvre the 44,000-pound caboose into his narrow, tree-lined driveway, and onto a new railbed built specifically for his new acquisition.
It took more than two hours to position the old rail transport vehicle in place, and some observers at the scene were wondering if it could be done in such tight quarters.
But for Lester Simms, his son Brad and employee Gordon Forward, there was never any doubt.
“It’s just another day at the office,” the elder Simms said later in the evening as he stared at the caboose, perched safely and securely on its new tracks, positioned perfectly over a bed of Class A stone and a base of shale rocks. Just down the driveway, a set of railway crossing lights fixed to a metal post only serves to enrich the setting.
A familiar sight
The caboose was coupled at the end of a train, though most modern railways no longer use them. They were a familiar sight in this province during the more than 100 years the railway operated here.
This particular caboose was one of a half-dozen or so brought to this province by the Canadian National Railway Co. (CN) in 1967, said Ken’s brother, Walter, who lives in Harbour Grace.
But a decision to close the money-losing railway in 1988, sweetened by the promise of $800 million in highway improvements from the federal government, saw it and many other train engines, freight cars and cabooses auctioned off, sold, scrapped or turned over to towns or organizations to serve as mementos of the glory days of the railway.
This caboose eventually ended up being used to host birthday parties at the McDonald’s restaurant in Bay Roberts, and later found a home on the grounds of the Avalon North Wolverines search and rescue group, not far from the old train station in Bay Roberts.
Mercer made an offer to purchase the caboose, and a deal was reached.
After some meticulous preparations and planning, the big move was made on Wednesday, with many heads turning as the big red, box-shaped caboose made its way to its new home.
It’s a costly and enormous undertaking, but Mercer said it’s worth it in order to “rescue” such an important piece of this province’s history.
So who is Ken Mercer? His parents, the late Ray Mercer and Millicent Bradbury, were from Bay Roberts. Ken was raised mostly in Ontario, where he’s worked as a cabinet making instructor at a college for 30 years and owns a lumber business. He lives seasonally in Conception Bay North, having built a home on Main Road, Bristol’s Hope.
He plans to put his carpentry skills to good use as the restoration process begins.
He became interested in trains at an early age, and it’s a passion that’s stuck with him all his life. He collects train memorabilia, and is now on the hunt for items to place in the caboose, including a wood stove similar to those used by CN crews.
The caboose will not be available for public display, and is nestled out-of-sight behind some trees, but Mercer said if a local train buff wants to drop by, they are more than welcome.
“This is some grand old Newfoundland history,” he said, “and I plan to preserve it.”