Peter Callaghan: Piece of Tacoma rail history could go by the wayside

Dave Burns thinks he knows what goes through people’s minds when he starts talking about his dining car.

“People think I’ve got a screw loose,” he said last week. “But some people have Harleys. I have this.”

“This” is Northern Pacific Dining Car No. 1663, wrapped in gray tarps and standing next to Tacoma Rail tracks on the Tideflats. The 80-foot-long car is the sole survivor of a 15-car fleet built around 1910 by the Barney and Smith Car Co. of Dayton, Ohio.

It is the only piece of historic passenger-rail rolling stock in a town that was built by and for the Northern Pacific. Yet it is in danger of being lost to Tacoma unless Burns can finally get some help from those who share his hopes of seeing it restored and displayed. Tacoma Rail has told him they need the right of way he is leasing to allow the utility to improve tracks for an industrial customer.

That leaves him three weeks to find a new location, preferably indoors, to allow him to keep working on restoring the car. He’d love to attract some help to raise the money to hire experts and craftsmen to complete the work. That’s all part of his dream of having the restored car displayed somewhere in Tacoma.

With a wife and four kids and just six years until retirement from Tacoma Power, Burns was already on the edge of running out of time — even before getting notice that he had to move. His timetable just got very short.

I met Burns in 2004. That’s when he first described how an old dining car stood at the nexus of his love of history and his love for his hometown. The story had begun two decades earlier when he was a student at Central Washington. As a hobby, Burns would drive around the central part of the state taking pictures of historic sites and buildings. In Easton, he came across The Sportsman Diner and noticed that on the side of the dining car-turned-diner were the words “North Coast Limited.”

Having grown up near the South Tacoma Shops, Northern Pacific’s massive rail repair and maintenance operation, Burns knew the North Coast Limited was Northern Pacific’s passenger service between St. Paul, Minn., and Puget Sound.

Meals on the limited were less like a diner and more like a four-star restaurant – white linens, white-coated waiters, heavy china, fine silver, crystal stemware. While No. 1663 has been modified – first by the railroad and then by the restaurant owners – it still had much of its original finishes. The walls are covered in Cuban mahogany, and the windows are etched with the Northern Pacific logo.

Research by Brian Kamens at the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room revealed that No. 1663 was the last of 15 cars built for the railroad. It was retired in 1949 at the South Tacoma shops.

Burns put the car in the back of his mind and didn’t think about it again until he stumbled across his photos. On a lark, he called the owner and found that the restaurant had closed and was available. He purchased the car, arranged to have it transported to Tacoma in 2006 and found space where he could protect it behind a fence and connect it to power for heat and dehumidifying.

A restoration expert crafted a plan for the car, which he described as a good candidate for refurbishing. But the pricetag is $435,000.

It takes some imagination to see what Dining Car No. 1663 could be. Burns has taken a lot of the finishes and details off the interior to protect them from theft or deterioration. With its tarp wrapping, Burns jokes that it looks like “a big Costco hotdog.”

So far, he has put $60,000 into the project with the prospect of paying several thousand more to have it moved again. But what he has tried to avoid might be forced upon him if he can’t find some allies.

“If I am unable to secure a site I will be putting the car up for sale, as I have no other options,” he wrote in a letter to the Tacoma Historical Society.

The historical society has provided organizational help and some fundraising, but more typical is a comment on Burns’ website: “I want to join (if there’s no cost).”

It is frustrating, especially as the city is again embracing its railroad heritage by reclaiming the Prairie Line trail on the right of way that brought the first NP train to saltwater in 1873. Tacoma also is home to the Washington History Museum, which tells the railroad story with photos and artifacts but no cars.

Despite the investment of time, money and disappointment, Burns retains his enthusiasm, often apologizing for talking too quickly or for too long. It was on display again last week when I asked about two mahogany doors leaning in the vestibule. He had found them by accident when the car was being moved from Easton.

“When the crane lifted the car up somebody said ‘Hey Dave, you’ve got to come look at this,’ ” he said. “And I go, ‘Holy smokes.’ And then I didn’t know where they were to go until I looked at the plans, and I said, ‘Oh, these are the linen closet doors.’”

Burns can be reached at NPDiningcar@comcast.net.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657