Railroads built the West and water made it bloom. A happy blending of the two is found just outside Solvang where, along a worn gravel driveway shaded by mature pepper trees, Caboose Number 3 stands on rusted rails, a carefully restored relic from the bygone Pacific Coast Railway.
Looking sharp in her cream paint and green trim, old Number 3 and brilliant splashes of California poppies command the picture window front yard view for proud owners Thomas M. and Carolynn D. Petersen. The couple bought the caboose in disrepair in 1989 and had it trucked to their yard for a historical restoration.
For Tom, who retired a few years later in 1996 as the longtime General Manager of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District Number 1, it was the ultimate fulfillment of his lifelong passion for trains. Aboard the caboose on a recent Saturday before heat baked away the cool morning, he shared stories from his wooden rocking chair.
“Her sister, Caboose Number 2, has been restored and is on display in the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento,” he said, casually sprinkling facts about his own 35-foot-long gem that, decades ago, rode the rails from the deep-water harbor at Port Hartford (now Port San Luis), north through San Luis Obispo and then south to Los Olivos.
“During restoration, we removed the siding. Each three-inch board had 26 nails, some toenailed, some straight in,” he said. “Over the years a lot of woodpeckers had attacked the wood and filled holes with acorns. When I pulled off a board it sounded like a slot machine!”
Turns out that over the years both he and Number 3 saw a lot of the Valley. Tom was born at Cottage Hospital in 1934, the same year that the last train came to Los Olivos.
He grew up on his father’s dairy along Alamo Pintado Road, a short walk from his current home. Back then the Valley’s population was only a few thousand, a fraction of today. His three children were the third generation of his family to attend the Ballard School and later Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.
His grandfather’s 1913-era barn housed 30 head of dairy cattle brought from Ferndale. That barn was dismantled two years ago, but the family house built in 1916 still stands. Tom lived there until his junior year of high school; his parents built a new home along Hill Haven Road, where his son, Tom, now lives.
Tom went to Stanford University where he met Carolynn. They wed on campus, and in 1956 moved to Stockton where he worked a short time for International Harvester prior to being drafted for the U.S. Army. Both went to Las Cruces, N.M. for his Army service. A daughter came along soon, s and it was back to the Valley.
Bradbury Dam was completed in the 1950s to form Cachuma Lake, and a water district formed in 1960 to bring irrigation water to the Valley, making it bloom. Tom joined that year, on August 1.
“My first job with the district was to secure all the easements for the water pipelines,” he said. “Sure glad I had to do it then, and not now!”
“There was very little irrigation in the Valley prior to the water district,” he recalled. Today, the district covers 10,858 acres, operates two reservoirs, two tanks, and five booster stations, and distributes water through a complex, 86-mile pipeline system to 8,300 individual household taps, agricultural connections and businesses to customers within and around the towns of Santa Ynez, Ballard, and Los Olivos, as well as to the City of Solvang.
In those days, Tom always carried a shovel in the back of his pickup truck and became recognizable for his slouchy hat. He knew nearly everyone through district work and his service with many groups including the Santa Ynez Valley Hospital Board of Directors, the County Farm Bureau, the Ballard Improvement Association and the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society.
Carolynn was named Woman of the Year in 2006 by the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation, following many years of civic service with groups such as the Santa Ynez Valley Coordinating Council and a number of other activities. The couple have been residents of the Valley since 1958.
Many locals know that Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos was built in 1886 in anticipation of railway customers and have seen the black and white photos on the walls. But to Tom they are more than a passing fancy. His large collection of historic Pacific Coast Railway photographs is so impressive that some appear in the authoritative book by the same name, now in its third printing.
Tom’s stories bring the photos to life. The 76-mile-long railway brought people and business to the region. Over its 66-year life, the railway operated 14 steam locomotives, one gasoline-powered locomotive, two electric locomotives and an electric interurban car. Its rolling stock amounted to over 500 freight and passenger cars.
“Originally, Cabooses Number 2 and 3 were purchased from the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway in Reno,” Petersen said. “Number 2 had side doors for baggage, but Number 3 was never modified. Later, Pea Soup Andersen’s Restaurant bought Number 3 and moved it to Buellton. Then it was moved to the old Santa Ynez High School site below the Red Barn restaurant and near Santa Ynez Park.”
Tom has no photos of the caboose during its Buellton years and solicits any local help in obtaining such a picture. Eventually, he said, the caboose was converted into an apartment in Santa Ynez and modified with window awnings. It fell into disrepair and was destined for the trash heap until Petersen inquired, drawn by its historical value and his longtime interest in trains.
“One of the guys said, ‘It’s worth $10,000.’ I said, ‘If you get $10,000 for it, go ahead,’” Tom explained. “A year later I went back and said, ‘I’ll give you $1 if you give me a receipt.’ “The crane and truck got here at eight o’clock and they were done by eleven.”
The caboose was placed on trucks (railcar wheels) and rails Tom had sourced. Restoration ranged from fashioning a new removable cupola based on the original, to extensive wood replacement inside and out, including the floor, and new ironwork to create new grab bars and a turnbuckle that runs the length of the underside. The mustard-yellow paint job was replaced with the cream and green trim, and the name and number were positioned just so.
At just eight feet wide, it’s not spacious inside quaint Number 3, but it is inviting. The glass display cases show railway photos and keepsakes and O-scale trains. The historic restoration clearly was worth it to Tom, who during World War II built his own toys because none were available.
Now he and his bride have an irreplaceable piece of Valley history—and the biggest train in the Valley—in their front yard.