The new caboose is open

Published 6:00 am Sunday, August 23, 2009

That Friday morning more than 15 years ago was a refreshing contrast to the month’s previous sun-baked, stifling days. The temperature was in the low 80s, a welcome breeze rippled through the cool air and overhead the cobalt sky brought to mind October’s bright blue weather.

Traffic was brisk on Water Avenue for a block or so beyond the bridge, but the automobiles and trucks slowed as they neared the corner of Green and Water, where a full view of The Old Depot Museum entered their field of vision.

Soaring above the roof of the handsome red three-story structure an enormous bright yellow crane reached skyward. And dangling from its heavy steel cables was a large old railway caboose, total weight 53,000 pounds.

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With good humor, Danny and Rick of Steel City Crane ignored the shouted instructions from members of the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, ultimate destination of the old caboose, who paced nervously about as the move proceeded.

And when the caboose was finally in place and the truck moved out toward Calera, a cheer went up from the crowd of spectators. But no one left. Everyone waited to see the powerful crane lift and move into its permanent space the restored “Little Red Caboose” that is the museum’s pride.

The Southern Railway “yellow-bellied” caboose was a gift to the museum from Norfolk-Southern about 20 years ago. When the St. James was rebuilt, the small red caboose located on a vacant lot needed for the hotel, was also given to The Old Depot. It is a genuine antique probably 150 years old, completely restored, one of several projects undertaken by the museum in its plan to accurately and totally portray the history of this Black Belt community, and a few months ago had some exterior renovation by friends from the Freedom Foundation.

(Other projects include The Firefighters Museum, a shed for another fire truck, a pole barn to shelter a collection of antique farm implements and a restored building that is the future military museum.)

The Heart of Dixie Museum worked for months to make arrangements, which were finally completed with the assistance of Alabama Power Co., and the hard work of museum railway buffs Jeremy Cole and his father, Tommy, and Thomas Vickery. Restoration on their caboose began almost immediately, taking almost a year to complete.

At the Old Depot, The Little Red Caboose is in place, housing a collection of railway artifacts. These include antique railway signal lanterns, once used by switchman and yard conductors; a collection of railway magazines; a wonderful assortment of handmade miniature rail cars and engines; and photographs of old rail days.

The Little Red Caboose is proudly open.