SHIRLEY — It seems people all over town are thrilled about Shirley bringing up the caboose.
The excitement isn’t about running dead last in any way, shape or form; it’s about the prospect of nabbing a piece of history in the form of a vintage turret or cupola railroad caboose, circa 1909.
The Shirley Historical Society is chasing down the tracks after the historic rail car that is part of Tom Allison’s collection from the Carthage Knightstown & Shirley Railroad that operated for nearly 30 years before ending operations last August.
“We had kids bringing their kids (to ride),” Allison said. “That’s how long we’ve been here. But you can’t go backwards.”
Declining ridership on the 10-mile roundtrip jaunt the CKS ran between Knightstown and Carthage and increasing expenses finally forced the railroad to shut down.
“We’re going away in one way or another this summer,” said Allison, who along with his wife, Marion, owned the railroad and gave passengers a ride into the past through wooded farmlands and fields, over the Big Blue River and a stop for ice cream in Carthage on hot summer days.
The reverie of the ride was occasionally disrupted when the train was beset by masked gunmen during staged train robberies.
Now, however, Allison, 79, will be parceling his railroad out, and he’s agreed to hold the caboose for a while to give Shirley the chance to raise the funds necessary to purchase and relocate the car near the 120-year-old Shirley Depot Museum just off Main Street.
“It’s the last known wooden caboose known to exist that ran the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway,” Allison said.
That line, also known as the Big 4, crisscrossed the state during the heyday of the big locomotive, including runs that most likely passed through Shirley, said Shirley Historical Society President Jerry Duke.
The cupola caboose is essentially a wooden boxcar mounted on a rail car frame with an observation house cut through the roof so rail crews could watch the train from the elevated position. At one time, federal law required all freight trains to have cabooses. But technology and cost-cutting eventually made them obsolete; the cars fell out of use in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bringing the caboose to Shirley is a broad-based initiative that historical society members have been considering for some time, and it has solid backing throughout town, said historical society member Pat Reason.
In addition to the historical society, the Octagon House, Shirley Visionary Group and town hall are all looking for ways to support the project.
The fundraising pump has already been primed with a $500 donation, and the effort is also seeking grant opportunities.
Phase one of the effort includes a $9,800 push to purchase the caboose, which carries a price tag of a little less than $5,000, and then buy the rails and ties necessary to display it, Reason said. There will also be some relocation expenses.
Allison said he’d sell the caboose for what he purchased it for and then provide the track and ties for whatever the salvage value of the material is at the time.
“If we don’t sell the railroad, we’ll just take up the ties and give them to them,” he said.
Allison said he intends to start exploring the market for CKS in the next month or two.
“We’ll need about 250 feet of track between the depot and the doctor’s office to relocate it,” Duke said.
Dr. Wilson’s office, “A Country Doctor’s Museum,” is another of the town’s preservation projects that sits west of the Depot Museum.
The second phase of the project will involve restoring the old rail car, Duke said.
And that will be a job in and of itself, Allison said.
“Wooden railroad cars are notorious for having to be babysat,” he said. “They need constant attention.”
Allison’s car, which he admits will need a rather significant amount of attention to bring it back to its glory days, was rescued from a military base north of Detroit several years ago.
“It was just going to be destroyed,” he said.
There are a number of ideas floating around about how the caboose might ultimately be used, ranging from a food diner to a railroad museum, but Duke said nothing certain has been settled on at this early stage of the project.
The caboose will add to what is already a major effort by Shirley civic and preservation groups to display at least a part of Shirley’s history and boom-town gas field days along South Railroad Street, creating an economic tourist draw in the process.
“When all this is done, between the Depot, Dr. Wilson’s office, the caboose and the Octagon House, we’ll have a nice little history area down there,” Duke said.