End of the line at Lansdowne

Shorty Miller gives up his railroad tribute of five cabooses after more than 20 years

November 16, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Shorty Miller paced in a cold drizzle yesterday morning, watching workers hoist tall cranes and wrap thick straps around the yellow caboose.

About 9 o'clock, as a man in a hard hat raised his arms like an orchestra conductor, the caboose rose into the air.

Miller, his white hair damp with rain, offered suggestions to the workers as the caboose dangled over the flatbed truck that would carry it away. Then in a quiet voice he said, "Well, I seen 'em come, and I seen 'em go."

More than 20 years ago, Jacob Miller, who is known as "Shorty," bought five older cabooses as a gift for the people of Lansdowne and a tribute to the area's railroad history.

The cabooses were set along a sliver of land near the train tracks on Hammonds Ferry Road, next to the Lansdowne Inn, and they became local landmarks where children played and visitors stopped to take pictures. But at 75, Miller finds it hard to maintain the cabooses and recently decided to sell them.

In addition to the caboose that was moved yesterday, another was carted off earlier in the month. Today, workers will hoist two more cabooses and drive them away on trucks, leaving just one blue caboose that still has not been sold.

The county plans to buy the patch of land as part of a streetscape program and create parking spaces for nearby businesses.

Across the street, Judy and Art Risso huddled against the wall of a barbershop, chatting with Miller's friend and pinochle partner, Dot Pruitt. The Rissos, who describe themselves as "train nuts," purchased the caboose and are donating it to the Hampstead train station in Carroll County.

"At first, we thought about putting it in the backyard for a playhouse for our grandkids, but then I thought it would be better at the train station where everyone could see it," Judy Risso said. The couple live in Boring, in northwest Baltimore County, a short distance from Hampstead.

The Rissos did not want to say how much they paid for the train car, but Miller said each of his cabooses is worth between $7,500 and $19,000. The couple said that they paid Rhinehart Railroad Construction about $15,000 to take the caboose to Hampstead.

Workers detached the caboose from its wheeled base and wrapped thick woven straps around it. Then they poised two cranes above the caboose and unfurled hooks on long cables. They attached the hooks to the straps and lifted the caboose - which Miller says weighs about 40 tons - several feet into the air. It dangled for about an hour as workers placed blocks on the truck bed to steady and support it.

While they were working, Miller ducked into the auction house that he used to run and returned with two albums of photographs from 1986. The photos, their colors faded to muted shades of blue and beige, show the cabooses being hoisted into position as a large crowd watched.

Other photos show hundreds gathered for a dedication ceremony on a sunny summer day. Miller, his hair a light brown, poses with politicians, and with an arm wrapped around his wife, Rose, who died nine years ago.

After they bought the cabooses, Miller and his wife restored, painted and decorated them. They rented out several of them as businesses, including the caboose moved yesterday, which once housed a skateboard shop. Miller said that his wife hung the curtains, which are stitched with images of ducks.

Pruitt, Miller's friend, said that she spent weeks helping him carry out items he had stored in the cabooses, including walkers and canes, plush animals and wooden game-of-chance wheels.

"I had never thought about trains before except as something to ride in, but I've become quite fond of them," said Pruitt, 73, a retired nurse.

Nghia Mai stood by the rain-spattered glass door of Great Style, where he works as a barber, and watched the workers lifting the caboose.

"What am I going to do without those trains," Mai said, laughing. "That's my spot right there. In the summer, when I have no customers, I go out and sleep on the steps."

As a knot of onlookers watched, Richard E. Rhinehart Jr., an owner of the railroad construction company, scrambled on top of the caboose with a blowtorch. He burned off two railings and a chimney jutting from the top so that the caboose could fit under bridges. Workers halted traffic as bright orange sparks cascaded onto the wet pavement.

Miller, worried that the torch would set the caboose on fire, offered advice to the workers, but they seemed to have a hard time hearing him over the roar of the blowtorch and cranes' engines.

Soon after the caboose was loaded onto the truck, Miller and Pruitt left for a pinochle game.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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