Historical railroad car finds new life in Northern Nevada

CARSON CITY — Wendell Huffman recalls the first time he saw the old train passenger car he considers one of the most significant artifacts in American railroad history.

Known as Coach 17, it was sitting in a storage shed at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, collecting dust as it had once picked up passengers. It was a cruel twist of fate for this venerable vehicle, once the very symbol of streamlined movement, to become so stationary and so forgotten.

Huffman, then a museum volunteer, had read about the train car and knew of its freighted history. In its infancy, the private coach had ferried officials from the Central Pacific Railroad to Promontory, Utah, where they met their business brethren from the Union Pacific on May 10, 1869. A pair of locomotive iron horses from the two great lines, with their characteristic smokestacks, brass fittings and distinctive paint jobs, came face-to-face to complete the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford was among the luminaries aboard the coach that day. Coach 17 also carried the golden spikes that were driven into a laurel tie in the ceremonial completion of a herculean project that had overcome political turmoil, American Indian raids and financial problems to revolutionize coast-to-coast travel.

The car had come a long way since then — pinballing from private rail coach for financial barons to standard passenger coach to historic prop for a host of Westerns and finally to neglected hunk of junk left to rot in the woods off the Malibu coast, its once-elegant redwood frame feasted upon by hungry woodpeckers.

Now here it was. As a historian, Huffman couldn’t believe his eyes.

“It was so cool to finally see something you’d read so much about,” he recalled. “Just to be able to touch that car was pretty special.”

Yet something wasn’t right. “The coach was there in a storage shed collecting dust. Nothing was being done with it,” he said. “At least it had a roof over its head.”

Critical decisions

That was 1991. Seventeen years later, Huffman, now the railroad museum’s curator of history, is overseeing the last bit of logistics that will see the car moved onto the facility’s main display floor to mark the 150th anniversary of the event that helped usher America into the modern age.

This latest chapter in Coach 17’s story is being spearheaded by a dedicated conservator who convinced museum officials they had a piece of history worth saving and promoting. The 70-year-old Huffman has made critical restoration decisions that will preserve the old rail coach just as it is — warts, woodpecker holes and all.

He’s also writing a book to chronicle Coach 17’s place in American history. Soon after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, he said, the Cincinnati Red Stockings traveled by train to California for a series of exhibition games, the results relayed nationwide by telegraph in real time, to help solidify baseball’s standing as America’s national sport. And the fact that trains ran on schedules, Huffman said, also led Americans to heed the hands of the clock — a cultural development that stands alongside the introduction of the smartphone.

And Coach 17 was right there in the middle of it all. One of the book’s chapter titles pretty well captures its tale of the rails: “A History Lost and Found.”

“The amazing thing to me is that it’s still here,” Huffman said. “This car is really something else. It’s a survivor.”

In his efforts to preserve Coach 17, Wendell Huffman ventured into America’s past.

Built in Sacramento in 1868, the car belonged to Central Pacific Railroad executive Charles Crocker, who saw it as a showpiece of California workmanship. Able to accommodate a dozen people, it featured a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom, a parlor and indoor plumbing. Its plush interior was constructed in California laurel with a rich oak trim.

“Crocker had an ego,” Huffman said. “He knew the coach would be used by Leland Stanford and other railroad executives, but once the project was complete, this was going to be his car.”

The coach brought four special spikes to the ceremony: two gold spikes, one silver and the last made from iron, silver and gold — all of the ore coming from Nevada’s Comstock Lode.

When the gold spikes were finally driven home, a telegraph operator typed the word “done,” and a war-weary nation still reeling from the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln simultaneously reveled in its signature accomplishment.

“They’d just fought the Civil War,” Huffman said. “So this was a very symbolic thing to tie the country together.”

Back to work

After that one shining moment, Coach 17 went back to work. In its lifetime, the car traveled back and forth to New York City four times. In 1876, as a private car, it was on hand at the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia.

The Virginia & Truckee Railroad bought the coach in 1878, when it was reconfigured into a general passenger car, its plush interior disposed of forever.

Then Coach 17 tumbled off the historical map. By 1938, the railroad was in bankruptcy and disposing its assets at a time when the nation’s so-called rolling stock — passenger cars and steam engines — was being relegated to junkyards.

Eventually, Twentieth Century Fox stepped forward with an offer to buy the coach. The railroad instead agreed to lease the vehicle, and off it went, said Huffman, “to Hollywood to become a movie star.”

The coach snagged cameo roles in such movies as 1939’s “The Story of Jesse James” and can be seen in Elvis Presley’s first film, “Love Me Tender.” Kenny Rogers used it in his “Gambler” movies.

“But most of the time, it just sat there on the studio lot in downtown Los Angeles,” Huffman said. In the 1960s, the car was stored in Malibu Canyon, near the set where the TV show “MASH” was filmed. “In the show’s opening credits, you can see the woods where the train car was stored.”

The car made its last appearance in Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider” in 1985, when “Denver-California Western” was lettered across its side.

Finally, Hollywood had enough. When the Nevada Railroad Museum acquired the car in 1988, it was reduced to a humble state. “Several times, we tried to trade it away,” Huffman said. “It was like ‘Does anybody want this thing?’ ”

Saving Coach 17

Wendell Huffman’s life is defined by the railroad.

When he was an infant in Carpinteria, California, his parents lived by some tracks. As the curator tells it, after passing trains blew their whistles at a nearby grade crossing, his mother had to nurse him to get him back to sleep.

“Well, Pavlov did the rest,” he joked. “Whenever I hear a train whistle, I salivate.”

For Huffman, old trains were like dinosaurs with their huffing-and-puffing steam engines — creatures that would soon be extinct. He had to save Coach 17.

But the answer was not to return the car to its 1869 splendor. In Huffman’s eyes, there would be no Botox for this old railroad dame. She would stay as she was.

After any restoration, he reasoned, the museum would have a mere replica, not the real thing. “We all want to see historic things restored. But while this one may be ugly, it still tells a very important story.”

Not everyone agreed. Some officials didn’t want such unvarnished artifacts taking up coveted display space on the museum floor.

“Past directors didn’t think it looked as elegant as the restored items,” said Dan Thielan, the current museum director. “People scratched their heads and asked, ‘Why would you want to bring that thing up and show it off?’ People still tell me the decision not to restore this car is the dumbest thing we’ve ever done.”

There was pushback, Huffman recalled. So he pushed back himself.

“I told whomever would listen, ‘This car has a national story that will bring in a bigger audience,’ ” he said. “We’re not promoting it, and we need to be doing that.”

Three years ago, Huffman got lucky. California Railroad Museum officials visited Carson City to make their own claim to history. They argued Coach 17 was really more of a Golden State icon and should be on display there.

“We had the funds to restore it and suggested a loan situation where both museums could enjoy it,” said Cheryl Marcell, president of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. “At the time, they had no interest. Our offer fell on deaf ears. But we understood. After all, they owned it.”

Big anniversary

Huffman used the incident to step up his campaign. “I said we really have to get that car on the museum floor to show them that we’re doing something with it.”

That apparently did the trick.

The coach will be moved to the museum before the big 150th anniversary next May. After that, officials plan to let history speak for itself. Along with vintage pictures, the display will include a stuffed woodpecker to explain all the holes in the car’s body.

Huffman is looking forward to retirement, but not before the old train coach gets the attention and respect it deserves. Looking back, he’s just glad he was in a position to preserve and promote a small but valuable piece of railroad Americana.

So when Coach 17 finally basks under the limelight before curious museum crowds, will Huffman take any special satisfaction?

The curator shrugs his shoulders.

“Like that railroad car has always done,” he says, “I’m just doing my job.”

John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

ad-high_impact_4
News
Melvin Dummar dead at 74
Melvin Dummar has died at 74. Dummar was famous for claiming to have saved Howard Hughes in a Nevada desert in 1967. Dummar claimed to have been left $156 million in Hughes’ will. The will mysteriously appeared after Hughes’ death in 1976. It was dismissed as a fake two years later. Dummar never saw a dime of the billionaire's fortune. Dummar died Saturday in Nye County.
Officer-involved shooting in Nye County
The Nye County Sheriff's Office gives information about a shooting in Pahrump on Thursday night after a man began firing shots outside of his home. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Law Enforcement Active Shooter Training Exercise
Multiple Las Vegas Valley law enforcement agencies held an active shooter drill at the Department of Public Safety’s Parole and Probation office on December 6, 2018. Officials set up the training exercise to include multiple active shooters, a barricaded suspect and multiple casualties. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Public memorial service for Jerry Herbst
Archiving effort hits milestone at Clark County Museum
The Clark County Museum catalogs the final item from the bulk of Route 91 Harvest festival artifacts. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pearl Harbor survivor Edward Hall talks about his memories of Dec. 7, 1941
U.S. Army Corps Edward Hall, a 95-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor talks about his memories of that horrific day. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Final Route 91 Harvest festival remembrance objects catalogued at Clark County Museum
The last of the more than 17,000 items left at the makeshift memorial near the Las Vegas sign after the Oct. 1 shootings have been catalogued at the Clark County Museum in Las Vegas. The final item was a black-and-white bumper sticker bearing "#VEGASSTRONG. An additional 200 items currently on display at the museum will be catalogued when the exhibit comes down. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dozier execution timeline
Scott Dozier was set to be executed July 11, 2018, at the Ely State Prison. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez delayed the execution.
Grand Jury Indicts Constable for theft
A Clark County grand jury indicted Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell. A Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation prompted the criminal probe. The newspaper found Mitchell wrote himself thousands in checks, took out cash at ATMs and traveled on county funds. He faces four felony counts of theft and a county of public misconduct. Mitchell and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
93-year-old WWII veteran arrested during visit to VA hospital
Dr. S. Jay Hazan, 93, a World War II veteran, talks about his arrest during his visit to VA hospital on Friday, Nov. 30. (Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal @Erik_Verduzco_
Pearl Harbor survivor struggles in her senior years
Winifred Kamen, 77, survived the attack on Pearl Harbor as an infant, works a 100 percent commission telemarketing job to make ends meet. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Metropolitan Briefing 18th street gang
Las Vegas Metropolitan briefs the media on the recent arrests made regarding the 18th street gang.
Man shot in Las Vegas traffic stop had knife, police say
Police said the man fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop in downtown Las Vegas had a “homemade knife.” Demontry Floytra Boyd, 43, died Saturday at University Medical Center from multiple gunshot wounds after officer Paul Bruning, 48, shot him during a traffic stop. Bruning pulled Boyd over on suspicion of driving recklessly at 7:41 a.m. near Sunrise Avenue and 18th Street.
Catahoula dogs rescued from home in Moapa Valley
Catahoula dogs were brought to The Animal Foundation after being rescued from home in Moapa Valley.
Intuitive Forager Kerry Clasby talks about losses in California wildfire
Intuitive Forager Kerry Clasby talks about losses she suffered in California's Woolsey Fire in Malibu in November. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Benefit dinner for Kerry Clasby, the Intuitive Forager
Sonia El-Nawal of Rooster Boy Cafe in Las Vegas talks about having a benefit for Kerry Clasby, known as the Intuitive Forager, who suffered losses on her farm in California’s Woolsey Fire in Malibu. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former President George H.W. Bush dies at 94
Former President George H.W. Bush has died at the age of 94. He died Friday night in Houston, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara.
Las Vegans Celebrate Big Snowfall
Las Vegans celebrate big snowfall at Lee Canyon.
Exploring old mines for denim jeans and other vintage items
Caden Gould of Genoa, Nev. talks about his experiences looking for vintage denim jeans and other items in old mines and other places areas across Nevada and the west.
Officers share photo of dead gunman after Las Vegas shooting
A little over an hour after SWAT officers entered Stephen Paddock's suite at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas police officers far from the scene were already sharing cell phone photos of the dead Oct. 1 gunman.
Frontier jet safely returns to Las Vegas after losing engine piece
Frontier jet safely returns to Las Vegas after losing engine piece. (@FlightAlerts_)
Park Service plans ahead for lower lake levels
National Park Service releases new plans to maintain access to the water as Lake Mead continues to shrink.
Women claim abuse at Florence McClure Women's Correctional Facility
Current and ex-inmates, including Merry West, are suing Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Facility, claiming abuse and inadequate medical care. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Butte County Sheriff's Office Body Cam Footage
Bodycam video from Butte County (Calif.) Sheriff's Office Deputy Aaron Parmley, who was in Paradise November 8 helping with evacuations. (Butte County Sheriff's Office)
NDOT construction blasting along State Route 106
NDOT construction blasting along State Route 160, near Mt. Potosi Road, in Clark County as part of a $59 million, 6-mile-long highway widening project that began this summer. (Nevada Department of Transportation)
Car crashes into Papa Murphy's Pizza shop
A driver crashed a car into a western Las Vegas Valley pizza shop on Tuesday morning, police said. (Joe Stanhibel/Special to Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Low-lake-level pumping station nears completion
Barnard Construction and the Southern Nevada Water Authority give one last tour before the new low-lake-level pumping station is activated.
Trailer: Valley of Fires
Sultan’s Playroom from Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada
Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada’s Scott Rosenzweig talks about granting Sultan Bouras Souissi’s wish, and what went into building it. (John Hornberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local
NFR- Kory Koontz
NFR Team Roper Kory Koontz talks about his years at the event since 1992, his dynamic with a 23 year old partner Dustin Egusquiza, and how he contines to perform with diabetes with Aaron Drawhorn outside of Thomas & Mack before round 5 of the National Rodeo Finals.
Meet the woman behind the Las Vegas Bowl
Melissa Meacham-Grossman is the associate executive director for the Las Vegas Bowl. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NFR Highlights Day 4
NFR highlights day 4
NFR Introduces Golden Circle Of Champions
For the first time, the National Finals Rodeo has partnered with the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo to offer the Golden Circle of Champions. The event brings in 20 children and their families from around the country that have previously or are currently fighting life-threatening cancer.
NFR Time Lapse 2018
Watch Thomas & Mack Center transform from a basketball court to an arena fit for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Video courtesy of Las Vegas Events.
RJ's Mark Anderson on the UNLV loss
Review-Journal sports reporter Mark Anderson recaps UNLV's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Joel Ntambwe on performance against Illinois
UNLV forward Joel Ntambwe talks about the 18 points he scored against Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Amauri Hardy on loss at Illinois
UNLV guard Amauri Hardy talks about Saturday's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Marvin Menzies on loss at Illinois
UNLV basketball coach Marvin Menzies talks about Saturday's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Baby Roman's mother and his doctor talk about his medical condition
Baby Roman's mother and his doctor talk about his medical condition. Roman was born Dec. 13, 2017 and has been at Sunrise Children Hospital with a rare heart condition since. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
NFR 2018: Unique Gifts At Cowboy Christmas
Before you head over to the Thomas and Mack for NFR, be sure to check out some of the unique and one of a kind items at Cowboy Christmas!
NFR: Dale Brisby
Day two of the National Finals Rodeo has started and Premier Vegas Sports host Cassies Soto interviews social media influencer Super Puncher Dale Brisby.
103-year-old celebrates birthday at gym
Joe Rosa of Las Vegas celebrated his 103rd birthday celebration at 24 Hour Fitness in Summerlin Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. After being the victim of a hit-and-run crash, Rosa's medical team told him he would never walk again. Rosa credits physical therapy and a personal trainer at the club for his return to health. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson native Mason Clements finished second in NFR bareback go-round
Mason Clements discusses his second-place bareback ride on opening night of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Dec 6, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Marvin Menzies on where UNLV stands at this point
UNLV basketball coach Marvin Menzies talks about where UNLV stands at this point in the season. (Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Public memorial service for Jerry Herbst
The Mob Museum
Saddle bronc rider Joey Sonnier earns spot at NFR after overcoming years of drug addiction
Joey Sonnier started saddle bronc riding at 18, but at 20 he began using methamphetamine to cope with the work of the rodeos and became addicted. At 39, after years of addiction and a low point that pushed him to rehab, he's qualified for the National Finals Rodeo. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Core Arena opens at the Plaza downtown in time for NFR
Core Arena, downtown's first permanent outdoor equestrian center, opens to the public at the Plaza. The arena will be used for events throughout the year, including the 10-day 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas
MountainView Hospital celebrates the opening of the new Sunrise Health GME Simulation Center.
MountainView Hospital celebrates the opening of the new Sunrise Health GME Simulation Center. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
NFR Preps Livestock for the Limelight
NFR’s Jed Pugsley discusses the care that goes into preparing the rodeo’s livestock for Las Vegas’ big event.
Grand Menorah lighting begins Hanukkah
Rabbi Shea Harlig led the ceremonial lighting of the menorah to begin Hanukkah at the Fremont Street Experience. There were also performances by the Desert Torah Academy's choir and the Dancing Dreidels. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Perla Gumm has spent the past few years collecting toys for kids for the LV Rescue Mission
Perla Gumm has spent the past few years collecting toys for kids for the LV Rescue Mission. It's something she started even before the rescue mission was her beneficiary; she just felt a need to collect toys and teamed up with them later. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Marvin Menzies on Cincinnati
UNLV basketball coach Marvin Menzies talks about Cincinnati and his own program. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Tony Sanchez wraps up the UNLV season
UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez wraps up the season. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Tony Sanchez wraps up the UNLV season
UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez wraps up the season. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Joey Logano talks about Champions Week in Las Vegas
NASCAR champion Joey Logano talks about the future of Champion's Week in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 28, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rain hits Las Vegas Valley
Widespread rain hit the Las Vegas Valley on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Valley Hit with Rain, Clouds
Rain and clouds hit the Las Vegas Valley on Thursday afternoon.
Ducks have Lorenzi Park to themselves
Thursday’s rain kept people inside, leaving Lorenzi Park to the ducks.
Kyle Busch Reflects On Disappointing End To Nascar Season
Kyle Busch reflects on disappointing end to his 2018 season during NASCAR Champion's Week in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 28, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like