CSX Huntington forces put extra into caboose restoration

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Huntington shop and Kentucky Steam representatives pose with the newly restored Chesapeake & Ohio caboose.
Chris Anderson
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — As the metal rolling door arose on the paint shop building at CSX’s Huntington Heavy Repair shops last Tuesday, anticipation among members of the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp., was high. The group was at the shops by CSX’s invitation for a special reveal that would not have been possible without some generosity, extra effort, and a lot of determination by Huntington shops employees.

After a nearly six-month restoration, CSX, released a newly-refurbished caboose to its new owners. Chesapeake & Ohio caboose No. 3203 was donated to Kentucky Steam. The restoration project on the 50-year-old caboose, which was undertaken by CSX, began in June 2018 when the cab arrived at Huntington. “It’s simply stunning,” says Kentucky Steam President Chris Campbell upon seeing the caboose for the first time.

A new, sparkling paint job adorned the caboose, which once again proudly displays the elegant “C&O For Progress” logo on its carbody. But it was the work under the blue and yellow paint that made the project a remarkable accomplishment for the employees at Huntington.

When the caboose was donated to KSHC last year, the then-out-of-service car was worse for the wear. The 1969 International Car Co.-built cabin entered service for the C&O upon delivery and was retired from CSX in 2018 after having dwelled on a siding in Cordele, Ga., for an extended period of time. CSX Director of Network Planning Eric Hendrickson said crews had to cut trees in order free the 3203 from its place of rest. The caboose — then adorning the number 903203 — still wore the same Chessie System livery it had received following a repaint in 1979 that took place at Huntington.

Only upon its return to Huntington in summer 2018 was it entirely evident how time and the elements had taken their toll. The caboose had its windows plated over following conversion to a shoving platform. Holes had rotted in areas of the floor. Other areas had water damage. Those issues, coupled with decades of use and millions of miles rail traveled left No. 3203 in a state of disrepair, one suitable for an appointment with a scrapper’s torch.

According to a statement from KSHC, the initial plan was for a light restoration, including new paint. Officials with CSX told KSHC members, however, that employees at the Huntington shops embraced the project, refusing to settle for just a quick paint job, and they restored the caboose to like-new condition, performing a top-to-bottom restoration.

The crews working on the project removed the plating from the windows and sand-blasted the faded vermillion paint and the iconic Chessie Cat logo down to the bare metal. They fabricated new metal components to replace rusted and rotted areas of the carbody, sealing the caboose tight in anticipation of its new paint job. The interior was also meticulously refurbished and detailed, and new windows were fabricated and installed. The project, the railroad said, was a “labor of love” for the Huntington shops employees.

And that labor was certainly not lost on the KSHC members present for the reveal. When the paint shop door was raised revealing 3203, the KSHC members who were present cheered and clapped before being allowed to inspect their shining “new” Chesapeake & Ohio caboose.

“It’s hard to believe it’s the same car,” Campbell said. “When CSX announced the donation, they sent us pictures of what the caboose looked like and what it might look like when finished. But this surpasses anything we could have hoped for.”

When the KSHC members finally entered the paint shop — their faces aglow like those of children getting trainsets on Christmas morning — they were greeted by some of the very men, some second- and third-generation railroaders, who helped restore the 3203. And they got to shake some of the very hands that helped bring 3203 back to life.

“They embraced it,” Hendrickson said of the Huntington shops employees. “They took this project to heart and wouldn’t settle for anything less than the best. CSX is very proud of them.”

The KSHC members were given all the time they needed to examine and photograph their new caboose. Many in the group took time to discuss the restoration process with the Huntington shops employees, who were just as proud of the caboose as the group from Kentucky, and were anything but shy about talking about it. After hundreds of photos of the caboose and dozens of trips walked through it, the KSHC members joined the Huntington employees for lunch inside the main locomotive shop building. There, the railroads and the preservationists alike were given a special gift by the railroad.

Hendrickson, who over the past three years has been an integral part of several high-profile restoration projects by CSX and executed at Huntington — including the restoration of former Clinchfield Railroad EMD F7 no. 800 — thanked the Huntington employees for their hard work on the refurbishment of No. 3203. Although it is unclear how many man-hours were spent on the project, Hendrickson said there were no lost-time injuries on the project. He complimented the employees for their hard work and their safe work, and he welcomed them to a lunch of chicken wings and potato wedges provided by CSX from a local eatery.

Hendrickson also informed the employees and the preservationists that they all would be receiving a commemorative T-shirt featuring the logos of CSX, C&O, KSHC, and a reproduction of the stenciling adorning the side of the 3203 indicating it was painted at Huntington Heavy Repair, or HHR for short.

KSHC plans to use the caboose as a showpiece at is Kentucky Steam Heritage Center in Ravenna, Ky., and also for caboose trips and educational opportunities once the center officially open. It will eventually be moved to Ravenna, but a date for the move has not yet been determined. The caboose remains stored at Huntington out of view of the public.

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