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.

News Videos
Report knocks Las Vegas for ozone, but local officials cite improvement
The American Lung Association says Las Vegas has some of the highest ozone levels in the nation, but Clark County air quality officials insist the community is improving when it comes to the smog-causing pollutant. (Michael Quine)
It's Rattlesnake Season
As temperatures start to rise in the Las Vegas area, people are heading outside for various activities. Possibly hiking and maybe with a dog. People and pets aren’t the only creatures coming out of their winter homes – so are snakes. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP Trooper sustains dog bite during rescue
A small dog loose on the freeway bites the hand of an Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper that saved it.
Henderson fails to investigate the drug overdose death of one of its officers
Henderson Police Department's internal affairs did not investigate the 2014 drug overdose death of an officer. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP trooper and good Samaritans save a life
Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Jacob Fisher and a group of good Samaritans performed lifesaving CPR on a driver suffering a heart attack last month in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Syphilis Awareness Day
Dr. Joe Iser, District Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District, discusses the effects and issues with syphilis in the Las Vegas community on April 16, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas diocese IDs 33 ‘credibly accused’ of sexual abuse
The Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas released a list on Friday of 33 “credibly accused” of sexual abuse who at some point served in the Las Vegas Valley. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CCSD Arbor View meeting
The Clark County School Board hears from the public about racial tensions at Arbor View High School on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Amelia Park-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Parents of autistic student battle Clark County School District
Joshua and Britten Wahrer, parents of a special education student, are battling the Clark County School District for the right to equip their son with a monitoring device. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Metro homeless outreach a shift in strategy
Lt. Joe Sobrio discusses the new homeless outreach team for Metro. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prayer for Opportunity Scholarships
Las Vegas students and adults hold a prayer meeting about the Opportunity Scholarship program on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Solar scams on the rise in Nevada
As Nevada’s solar industry has made a resurgence, solar scammers have followed suit.
Clark County schools and the late bus issue
Year after year, late or no-show buses in the Clark County School District draw the ire of parents and students alike. One year the problem even prompted a parent to crack a school bus window in frustration over a late drop-off. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
I-15 southbound congested near Primm Sunday afternoon
Drivers heading toward California on Interstate 15 should expect heavy traffic and a 13-mile backup Sunday afternoon.
Learning lifesaving skills in advance of fire season
Students and firefighters attend a training session at Fire Station 80 in Blue Diamond, Saturday, March 30, 2019. The training session helps volunteer firefighters obtain necessary annual certification to work wild fires.
Car restoration behind prison walls
Inmates share their experiences working for the Southern Desert Correctional Center auto body shop in Indian Springs while learning valuable skills.
Parent remembers Las Vegas boy killed by car
People visit a memorial at the intersection of South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue at at Faiss Park Wednesday, March 27, 2019, where Jonathan Smith, 12, of Las Vegas, died after he was struck while crossing Fort Apache Monday. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Couple left with surprise medical bills after visit to the hospital
Michael Pistiner took his wife, Marta Menendez-Pistiner, to the ER in January after she fainted twice and appeared to be having a seizure. Despite paying $856 monthly for health insurance, the two, self-employed musicians, were stuck with more than $5,700 in hospital and doctor bills after than hour-and-a-half visit. Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Las Vegas police brief the media on fatal crash
Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Nick Farese addresses the media about a car accident at South Fort Apache Road and West Arby Avenue that left one minor dead and one hospitalized on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Mike Shoro/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Arbor View parent talks about racial issues at the school
Lawanna Calhoun, a former Arbor View parent, talks about the state of the school. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jim Foley talks about 30 years of living HIV-positive
Jim Foley, who was diagnosed as HIV positive 30 years ago, talks at his home in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Traffic Slows to a Crawl on I-15S Near Primm
Traffic slowed to a crawl around 2:30p Sunday, on I-15S near Primm, Nevada.
Homeless residents speak about safety
The homeless residents living at the corner of Owens Ave. and Main St. reflect on how they feel about their safety after two homeless men died, one was hit crossing the street and another was beat to death by another homeless man. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
CCSD Superintendent address alleged racially motivated threats at Arbor View
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara gives update on alleged racially motivated threats against Arbor View High School, and says such threats will not be tolerated. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Super Bloom Near Lake Elsinore, California
Crowds packed the hills near Lake Elsinore on Saturday to capture a rare selfie amidst the super bloom of poppies turning the landscape purple. The super bloom was caused by the larger rainfall this year. (Todd Prince/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fiery accident in Las Vegas
A three-car accident on Spring Mountain Road around 6:30 pm on Monday night
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Stardust implosion anniversary
Twelve years ago today, the Stardust Resort and Casino was imploded. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Lawsuits filed against security contractors at Nevada National Security Site
Two lawsuits were filed today against the current and former government security contractors for the Nevada National Security Site, one on behalf of Jennifer Glover who alleges sexual discrimination and assault and the other on behalf of Gus Redding who alleges retaliation after he gave statements supporting Glover’s claims. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New housing option helps Las Vegas moms keep kids while kicking drugs
WestCare Nevada Women and Children’s Campus in Las Vegas has added a new transitional housing wing for women who have completed the inpatient treatment at the behavioral health nonprofit to help them as they go through outpatient treatment, shore up their finances and prepare to secure long-term housing. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Local Videos
Library director talks about library as community center
Ron Heezen discusses his hopes for the new East Las Vegas Library. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Property Brothers visit Michael’s in Las Vegas Valley
Twin brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott are the hosts of Property Brothers, the hit HGTV show where they help couples find fixer-uppers and transform them into dream homes. In 2018, the brothers collaborated with Michael's on their first custom framing program. Today they're releasing new frames into that collection that range from natural to bright looking. Jonathan and Drew discuss their brand and why frames was something they wanted to pursue. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
I-15 traffic jam
A semitrailer stopped in the middle of Interstate 15 near Charleston Boulevard has slowed traffic in central Las Vegas Wednesday morning, April 17, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rainy Tuesday
The Las Vegas Valley saw cooler temperatures and rain Tuesday afternoon. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Tiger Woods Bettor Collects
James Adducci bet $85k on Tiger Woods to win the Masters. He collected his $1.19M from William Hill sports bet in the SLS today. (Mat Luschek /Review-Journal)
Endangered frogs released at Springs Preserve
Dozens of endangered Relic Leopard Frogs were released at the Cotton Grove inside Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Thursday, April 11, 2019
Vintage World War II aircraft arrive at Henderson Executive Airport
The Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour comes to Henderson Executive Airport with a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, P-51 Mustang and a P-40 Warhawk. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Honoring Pearl Harbor veteran
Ed Hall, a Pearl Harbor veteran in Las Vegas, is honored with Quilt of Valor during an event in a Las Vegas. (Erik Verduzo/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UNLV Anthropology professors excavate Maya ruin site of Caracol, Belize for 36 years
The husband-and-wife team of UNLV anthropologists has spent several months a year at the remote site of Caracol in the jungles of Belize, excavating ruins and uncovering secrets from the region’s once-dominant civilization. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Things to remember when adopting a rabbit this Easter season
As Easter and spring time approach, some people may be tempted to adopt a rabbit for the holiday. But like adopting any animal, it is important to be responsible and know what a rabbit requires to be a happy, healthy pet. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bike Giveaway in Las Vegas - Piero’s Italian Cuisine
Evan Glusman of Piero’s Italian Cuisine hosted a party in the restaurant’s parking lot to distribute over 150 bikes to local kids. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Charleston/I-15 ramp configuration
The new Interstate 15/ Charleston Boulevard ramp configuration was unveiled Tuesday morning. (Mick Akers/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Northwest Vegas farm's abandoned pig problem
Someone abandoned a several hundred pound pig at Sharon Linsenbardt's farm. Her farm is a rescue for animals, but she doesn't have room or resources to take on another such creature, so she's asking the community for help. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Chalk Talk: Black Student Union
Students talk about the Black Student Union in the latest episode of Chalk Talk. (Angus Kelly and Amelia Pak-Harvey/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Individuals with Parkinson's participate in dance class
Pamela Lappen leads a dance class for individuals with Parkinson's Disease at the Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas, Thursday, March 28, 2019. Caroline Brehman/Review-Journal
Animal Foundation Preps Pups For Best In Show
The Las Vegas Animal Foundation is preparing its prime pups for their 16th annual Best in Show event, which takes place at the end of April. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Dog Yoga At Hydrant Club
The Hydrant Club in downtown Las Vegas, is a social club for dogs and their people. Recently the club started hosting dog yoga. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Butterflies At The Springs Preserve
The butterfly habitat is now open at the Springs Preserve. Learn about butterflies and take in the peaceful surroundings. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
The Bellagio Conservatory's spring display has a Japanese theme
The Bellagio's conservatory is hosting around 65,000 flowers, to form a Japanese theme this spring. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bonnie Springs closes (Caroline Brehman/Kimber Laux)
Bonnie Springs Ranch near Las Vegas officially closed its gates Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Honoring a fallen North Las Vegas Police officer at his namesake school
The 20th Annual Raul P. Elizondo Honor Day celebrates the fallen North Las Vegas Police officer's legacy at his namesake school. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Windy day in Las Vegas Valley
The Review-Journal's camera on the under-construction Las Vegas Stadium the was buffered by high winds on Wednesday, March 14, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
March gloom falls on Las Vegas
After a rainy overnight, gloomy skies hover over Las Vegas Tuesday morning. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
John Katsilometes gets his head shaved at St. Baldrick's
Las Vegas Review-Journal man-about-town columnist John Katsilometes gets his head shaved by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman during St. Baldrick's Foundation shave-a-thon on the Brooklyn Bridge at New York-New York in Las Vegas Friday, March 8, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Blue Angels take flight over Las Vegas Strip
The Blue Angels’ U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron flew their signature Delta formation over a part of the Las Vegas Strip, McCarran International Airport and east Las Vegas and were scheduled to fly over Hoover Dam. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Gross World Records
A group of about 20 children gathered around a TV at Sahara West Library on Feb. 27 for a history lesson on the most disgusting world records.
Graduation for Renewing HOPE program
The Renewing HOPE program graduation for homeless who spend nine months in Catholic Charities program. Graduates are preparing to enter the workforce. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Car crashes into Starbucks near Las Vegas Strip
Lt. William Matchko of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police gives details about a car crashing into a Starbucks at Sahara Avenue and Paradise Road, near the Las Vegas Strip, on Friday, March 1, 2019. (Jessica Terrones/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Car crashed into PT’s Gold
A 60-year-old man who police believe was impaired drove into a PT’s Gold at Silverado Ranch and Decatur boulevards Thursday night, Metropolitan Police Department Lt. William Matchko said. The driver was hospitalized and is expected to survive. A man inside the bar was hit by debris but drove himself to the hospital, Matchko said. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Driver crashes vehicle into PT’s tavern in south Las Vegas (part 1)
A driver suspected of impairment crashed a vehicle into the wall of a PT’s Gold tavern, at 4880 W. Silverado Ranch Blvd., in Las Vegas on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It is a rainy Valentine's Day in Las Vegas - Video
These scenes come from the Las Vegas Stadium LiveCam (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Home Front Page Footer Listing