Monday, April 27, 2009

Mixed messages

Mid last week I attended a meeting with our City Manager… his message: we have no money, some of you will lose your jobs, the jobs are not coming back…

So late last week I received a credit card offer… I haven’t received a credit card offer in months… (T. and I have good credit… the kind that makes car dealers start to drool, its probably because we don’t drive the cars they think we can afford.) The same day we received an offer from our mortgage holder to refinance… Is the credit crunch starting to ease?

Today I attended a meeting with my work group… (labeled “MANDATORY” in the email.) The message… first the bad news, We have of 32 positions in our department, 4 have been eliminated… they are gone… the good news, only one of the 4 positions is currently staffed… the others are budgeted, but no one currently is in place, or they are retiring, so only one person will lose her job. She does have bumping rights. It sucks to be her (and it may suck to be someone else should she decide to bump another employee (outside our department)). For the rest of us we can relax for the time being. Or not. And we still need to get all the work done.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Caboose…. Or how the summer of love met railroad preservation

- Warning - Railroad content follows...

So my current side project is rebuilding a wooden narrow gauge caboose… a railroad car… small as cabooses go at only 26,500 lbs…

The car was set aside in 1932… railroad accountant speak for removing all the metal parts that can be sold as scrap, then selling the body for use as shed or house.

Our car body kicked around west Marin county ending up in Samuel P Taylor State Park… where it sat, rotted until the roof came near to collapse…

About 1968 the state parks gave the car to the “Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway Locomotive Historical Society” an enthusiast group, trying to build a railroad museum near Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. They sent the car to the Bethlehem Ship Yard in San Francisco for restoration.

San Francisco in 1970 was something of a impromptu social experiment. The most obvious evidence was the so called Summer of Love, Free love, readily available drugs, incredible music, and dancing in Golden Gate Park. But there was much more. An intellectual and philosophical movement. Ferengetti and Kerouac and the beats. Archie Green and the glorification of labor and the labor movement.

Against this background a shipyard, staffed by union members, a mix of old craftsmen, and at least some of which are young men there in a quest for truth through traditional work, are asked to restore a then 80 year old railroad car. The work on this is early in the history of restoration… there wasn’t much in the way of guiding ideas.

The shipyard workers did well where ever they had something original to copy… So, the roof system was well copied… the platform framing was faithful to the original received… then, in the absence of historic examples or facts they just started making stuff up. The car had long lost its mechanical systems… trucks, couplers and brakes. Parts were located, at the shops of an abandon logging railroad.

Of course those parts didn’t always fit or match what the car had once had… So the shipyard workers got creative, and not in a good way… The couplers didn’t match the draft gear, so the couplers were “fixed” or rather butchered in a way that allowed them to be mounted to the carbody, but they were cosmetic, and would allow the car to be pulled, or worst pushed.

The brakes are best described as a work of fiction rather than friction. Good fiction, but still fiction. We had spent several days working on the car, setting hand brakes to keep it in place before we discovered that they were not connected, and that the parts that were present were so “wrong” that they needed to be removed and replaced entirely. Traditional railroad car brakes are a series of levers and rods. With one exception the rods pull as the brakes are applies. This car was set up by someone who assumed the rods pushed.

While laying under the car studying the brake problem we discovered that the car was missing a set of iron truss rods which support the wooden car body… then we started looking more closely and discovered that the current set installed by the ship yard are way too small. Early on we had realized they didn’t install the platform tension rods, so those were added to the work list.

The shipyard liked plywood… a material previously not found in this car… they replaced the tongue and groove (T&G) siding and flooring with sheets of plywood. The interior arraignment makes no sense... But it had all the stuff the railfans thought is should have, bench seats that could be used as bunks in an emergency, a big wood burning stove and a conductor's seat.

The paint and lettering was especially showy, with no historic precedent. The interior is painted a color called "seafoam" green, commonly used on Southern Pacific cabooses but adopted 10 years after this car was scrapped. The exterior is a peachy yellow, which is close to one of the colors used on the car, but it is set off with a large 4' in diamiter "redwood tree" herald, used on the companies stationary, but never on the cars... but it looked good to the railfans directing the work.

The resulting car looked good from 30’ away. It would roll (something it hadn’t been able to do since 1932) But it wasn’t functional as a railroad car and much of it was a work of fiction. I have to assume the readily available drugs were had some affect on the car we received... Its the best explanation I can think of...

Now we are making it functional… We have researched the car's history and written a pre-restoration plan to guide the work. We have pulled the decking off the end platforms, removed the couplers and found a way to remake the couplers so they will work. One of our boxcars has the same coupler miss-match, which the railroad solved about 1913, so we have a known railroad developed system to copy. We have a blacksmith at the park who can do the heavy bending… I found draft gear springs in our spare parts supply.

The steel for the new platform tension rods should arrive on Wednesday (along with the steel for the couplers.) The bolts holding the platforms to the car body are loose… and generally don’t have washers… and the bolts heads are trapped under the floor so we have to tear out the plywood floor to get at the heads… That will allow us to replace the plywood with correct T&G, which luckily we have on hand for a boxcar project.

In the meanwhile we will be rebuilding the cupola… which had a close encounter with a low bridge while the car was being transported from Sacramento. We have rebuilt the cupola already (that was last Labor Day weekend) but still need to install the new windows and cover the roof with the canvas painted with linseed oil paint (both the large pieces of heavy canvas and paint are hard to locate, but have been found)

I think I can make brakes out of spare parts on hand, so those will be cheap. With a bit of luck the car will be complete and operable by our railroad fair in September…

It’s a weird hobby as some of our visitors have noted in the past, but I enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Its hot

So here in Northern California its hot today, summer hot. It's kind of inspiring. I have been out this morning clearing the garden patch. I have been haunting our local nurseries for the last month.

I have had a vegetable garden since a child. As a kid both neighbors had gardens. We had one. Even in college I had a tomato plant in a pot. The current garden is about 5’ wide (varying widely from 3’ to 6’), and nearly 60’ long. I have been tilling it since we bought the house over 20 years ago. I tend to abandon the garden sometime in December. The weeds grow too tall, and by spring it’s a major job to get it back in shape. I started to clear it this week. This is late. Usually by now I have plants starting to sprout, tomatoes a foot tall…

I bought a machete. While for now it is for the garden, eventually it will join the “pioneering tools” in the Escape. A folding shovel, a come along, some blocking… all the stuff you need if you are really off road.

The artichoke patch is doing well, and nearby I found that my carrots from last year had done well over the winter. There are still some semi wild potatoes to be dug. A couple of years ago I created a meal based on the leaks and potatoes that I found during the spring weeding.

This year its different when I visit the home centers and nurseries… Everyone is here, buying and planting a vegi garden… I am not sure if it’s the economy, or the green movement or just a step backward (in a good way). I seem to be riding a wave of gardening …

So this year I am thinking I may not plant corn… I can get really good fresh corn at the farm. This year I have dove poo… the greatest fertilizer ever… so hot it can kill weeds if applied too heavily. The doves have built a nest our to the carrot tops I gave them to eat… More doves are apparently on the way. I dug in a bit in the tomato patch…

I am thinking tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, row crops including carrots, beets, radishes, some onions, of course the artichokes and strawberries. A bit of squash… yellow crookneck and pati-pan mostly, but of course one zucchini.

On other issues, I am trying to arrange repairs on a car 800 miles away… It’s the old Saturn, loaned to our son. It died one day… I am trying to figure out who I can trust 800 miles away without eye to eye contact. Steph and I will fly up in a week or so to bring it south, so she can use it, including driving cross country to Maryland where she will be helping out as a family nanny with her cousin’s family.

Camps, museums, cross country trips… it’s a full summer… and of course, I am rebuilding a wooden narrow gauge caboose…

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Trying to find a 21st century solution to a 19th century problem… and adventures in goat herding…

In between running camps for 25, 6-12 year olds, running a house museum, and holding home and family together, I am trying to rebuild a 1895 caboose, and maintain a 19th century horse drawn railroad.

Just today I had to herd goats… I mean living, breathing, breeding goats, some with horns… we have lots of them at work… 5 got away, into a neighborhood. The goats aren’t my responsibility, but I was the one the public found, about 5:30 pm after the park staff had left, and no one else was answering the phone… We (myself and a crowd of citizens living over the back fence) were able to get four of five wandering fire control goats back into the park. One didn’t want to cooperate. The goat herder, his two dogs arrived just in time to capture the last errant goat before a car or the police intervened… I then repaired the fence with found twine, wire and a rotten fence post, and left the Sheppard, and dogs, to care for his flock

Currently I am trying to find a good solution to holding square head bolts within a timber frame. Its the caboose, rebuilt about 1970 by shipyard workers in San Francisco by men who had (apparently) never seen a wooden railroad car before… The end platforms, with couplers and such are loose, and can’t be tightened because the (square) bolt heads turn in their (round) holes. On a box car with thick floor boards they used a bolt socket… as casting which held the head and grabbed the flooring. I made a pattern for that part some years ago in epoxy, bondo, and silicone rubber… But this is a new problem, and my regular 19th century sources are silent on solutions… To them this was so obvious that anyone knew how to deal with it… unfortunately over the last 110 years we have forgotten the solution… Given a week or so I may come up with something… a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem.

Next I have to figure out how to make a canvas and paint roof, and forged spiral springs… I think I have those covered.

Of course, I still have a couple of days with the 25 kids… it’s a budget thing. And I have to let the kids pet a goat tomorrow..

I could say all is good, but it would be a lie.