1903 RPO Car comes to St.johns
At approximately 2:53 pm on Tuesday October 17th, 2006, a very special delivery was made to the historic Grand Trunk Railroad Depot in St. Johns, Michigan. A well worn, but much loved and admired retired member of the Detroit Mackinac Railroad system was hauled by truck to its new home, where it will become part of the new railroad museum. The Barney and Smith RPO (Railroad Post office car) has been residing in a historic roundhouse in East Tawas, Michigan, since 1964. We believe it to be only one year older than it’s sister car the “Sault Ste Marie”, who patiently awaits restoration at the City Water treatment plant. The two cars were in very close proximity to each other as the RPO sat waiting to make a right hand turn from US27 onto North Clinton Ave. When our crew arrived in St. Johns, we were confronted by the fact that work was being done on Clinton Ave., and we could not pass. It was our only way into town. The Construction Company working on the road graciously made a 10’ wide path for our cargo to make its way to the Depot. The semi cab, trailer, and railcar commanded 124’ of roadway, and 10’ of width, 14 feet and 2inches of height. 45 degree turns required each member of the crew to be on the street either blocking traffic, directing it, or making manual adjustments to the railcar as it pivoted on the custom fifth wheel plate assembly made just for this trip. As far as we know, no wooden car has ever been transported in this manner. Two sets of tandem axle street tires replaced the rear trucks ( wheels of the railcar). The front and rear sets of 6-wheel trucks, each weighing 2300 lbs, were removed and brought to St. Johns separately. Basically speaking, we made the railcar into a trailer. This was done to preserve all of the running gear on the bottom of the railcar. All of that material would have had to be removed if it were lifted onto a flatbed trailer, not to mention that it would have been too high, (over 15’) to pass under many overpasses on the route.
This entire project was taken on by a group of volunteers who are dedicated to preserving as much of the railroad history as possible. Not only the city of St. Johns, but so many other towns exist only because a railroad ran through their town. We all believe that the fact that our children, or grandchildren, may never see a railroad car is a very disturbing thought.
Saving the RPO car has involved over 6,000 hours of man/woman power, and a total of over 20,000 miles of travel back and forth to Tawas. It is a wonderful thing to look to our future, but let’s not forget where we came from.The RPO car is the third car to have been rescued by the Clinton Northern Railway. The first was the 1902 Barney and Smith sleeper car which came to St. Johns in November of 2005. The Second car is a 1926 Ann Arbor Crew Car, rescued from Traverse City. The Crew Car is now open to the public the first Sunday of each month from 1-3 pm for tours. In future colums we will provide you with more history about this car, as well as other happenings with the railroad museum.
During many of the hours in Tawas, preparing the car for travel, we were approached by local residents who were so grateful that we were saving” their” car. We have guessed that approximately 200 people stopped by to ask questions, and wish us well. We are grateful to those folks for the support, as well as the East Tawas police department for keeping an eye on it for us, and their expert assistance when we finally got on the road.
A last sad note. On the very day we brought the RPO car home, the historic roundhouse in Tawas, where our car was housed for so many years was destroyed. The Detroit, Bay City and Alpena Railroad built it in 1881. Fourteen years later it was taken over by the Detroit Mackinac Railroad. It was a beautiful landmark and now it’s just another piece of history lost forever. To the folks of Tawas; we are sorry for your loss.If you are interested in helping in the restoration process of these cars, call or write using the information below. The Clinton Northern Railway is located at 107 E. Railroad Street, St. Johns, next to the Veterans Memorial. For more information call 989 66 TRAIN. M. Elaine Twichell is the Project Manager for the Railroad Project.