Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society Saves & Restores Historic CNR Caboose

CNR Caboose 78175 is freshly restored and is now the bright orange jewel of Prince Arthur’s Landing in Thunder Bay.

In the spring of 2015, Canadian National Railway (CNR) Caboose 78175 was sitting at Prince Arthur’s Landing in a state of disrepair. The City of Thunder Bay (CTB) was her owner, and unsure what to do with the rapidly deteriorating caboose. The City had plans to give her away or, worse, scrap her altogether. The railfan community rose up in protest to protect this iconic piece of our railway history.

The story of CNR Caboose 78175 begins in 1929. After amalgamating a large number of Canadian railways into the Canadian National Railway system a decade earlier, the CNR was investing heavily in their caboose fleet. Caboose 78175 was one of 25 cabooses born in the Transcona Shops, in Winnipeg Manitoba. They range from 78170 to 78194. Caboose 78175 served the CNR for nearly six decades before she was retired from service. We aren’t quite sure where she ventured over that time, but it was likely between Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

In the late 1980s, caboose 78175 was retired from service. She and sister caboose 78246 were given to the City of Thunder Bay and the Thunder Bay Model Rail Association (TBMRA). Caboose 78175 was saved, while 78246 was used as a parts source for the other’s restoration. Members of the TBMRA performed the restoration. On November 29, 1991, 78175 was moved to the city’s Marina Park and put on display. There she sat under the care of the TBMRA and CTB. Unfortunately she deteriorated badly and the local chapter of the CNR Pensioners had to step in to stabilize the caboose and perform a quick restoration in 2009. Around that time, the TBMRA dissolved and the caboose became the sole responsibility of the City of Thunder Bay. A few years later, to facilitate the redevelopment of the Marina Park, the caboose was moved to an undeveloped area of the park.

Neglected CNR caboose 78175 sits waiting for new owners and an extensive restoration job.

By spring 2015, the neglected caboose had deteriorated again and the City was looking to get rid of it. I was upset by the City’s disregard for this piece of our history and rallied the railfan community to save caboose 78175. At the time, the political climate in Thunder Bay was shifting dramatically; other historical assets in the City were under threat, prompting members of the community to put pressure on their local politicians to start saving the City’s history.

We approached the City Manager with an offer to repair the caboose ourselves. That offer was conditional on the City abandoning their plans to give away or scrap the caboose. A slew of meetings with City officials didn’t provide much traction. Thankfully, a couple of local politicians took an interest in the project and we finally began moving forward, albeit very slowly. On the recommendation of other historical organizations and heritage professionals in the area, we decided to contact the Ontario Historical Society (OHS). After talking with Rob Leverty, our direction became clear: we needed to become a not-for-profit incorporation to move forward. We soon did so through affiliation with the OHS, establishing a board of directors and a constitution. Rob personally attended our incorporation meeting in Thunder Bay on October 15, 2015, and the Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society was born. That really caught the attention of local politicians. The backing of the OHS gave us legitimacy and propelled us forward.

By the summer of 2016, we finally had an agreement in place with the City and began the restoration process. That agreement included a long list of conditions that the City wanted us to meet as well as a grant from the City to cover those costs. Once the conditions were met, the TBRHS would own caboose 78175 and have a long-term lease for the plot of land the caboose sat on.

Our contract with the City stipulated that we finish the exterior restoration by July 1, 2017. That only gave us one year! We began by removing all the windows for off-site restoration. We contracted a local sawmill to mill replacement siding. By the time the snow started flying, the windows were restored and all the siding had been primed and partially painted. We had a “caboose kit”. It was too late for installation, so the caboose was carefully boarded up for the winter.

Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society volunteers Bill Gillin and Larry Ezack replacing the siding on caboose 78175

Spring 2017 brought about another flurry of activity. All the siding was removed, the internal structure was repaired, and new siding was installed. We also finished rebuilding the cupola and installed the new windows. The toolbox was repaired and the roof walks replaced. The entire caboose was painted to match its appearance from the 1950s. We used modern paints matched to original CNR paint samples. Up to five coats of paint were applied in all areas to ensure the caboose would be well protected for years to come.
By the time our July 1 deadline (for the completion of exterior restoration work) rolled around, we had completed the exterior restoration of Caboose 78175 and therefore fulfilled our agreement with the City. The Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society took ownership of Caboose 78175 after two years of fierce advocacy and hard labour. The caboose is now in the caring hands of a not-for-profit historical society that will ensure her preservation for future generations.

CNR Caboose 78175 now sits at the south entrance to Prince Arthur’s Landing in Thunder Bay, Ontario. What was once considered trash is now the bright orange jewel of the City’s flagship park. The park redevelopment has expanded around the caboose and she sits there as a beacon to honour the City’s railway history. Under challenging conditions, our crew of dedicated volunteers have finished the most extensive restoration of Caboose 78175 to date. Every detail was painstakingly researched, and executed with great care and enthusiasm. She probably looks better now than she ever has. This same group is currently restoring the interior of Caboose 78175 to match its 1950s appearance. I’d like to personally thank everyone who had a hand in saving and restoring Caboose 78175. They are a fine group of craftspeople!

-Craig Symington, Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society