years ago, a local attorney purchased Caboose No.
1068 from the Alaska Railroad as an anniversary
present for his wife, who later decided it wasn't
quite what she had in mind as a memorable keepsake
of years of marriage and decided to sell it to the
Wilsons. Susan bought the caboose, surprising Mike
with the request to move it. Mike pondered for three
weeks, trying to decide how to move the caboose.
Because of the height of the power lines, which
became a moot point, because the caboose wouldn't
fit under the over passes! This was when Mike
decided to use to 980 Cat Loaders. He lifted the
train off the rail tracks and put the couplers of
each end of the caboose into the buckets of the
loaders, and chained the couplers to the buckets
thus enabling them to keep the caboose, at some
points, only four inches above the ground, clearing
the power lines. The two operators were in constant
contact by radio as they moved the caboose through
9.6 miles of busy intersections and steep hills;
however three hours later, they had moved the
caboose to the Wilsons' property.
Fairbanks was abuzz with the news! The Tanana
Railroad Association, who is currently renovating
narrow gauge steam trains at Alaskaland, a local
theme park, called the Wilsons to congratulate them.
During this discussion, they shared that Mt.
McKinley Hotel had offered them two pullman sleeper
cars. However, being interested solely in narrow
gauge cars, Tanana Railroad Association informed
Susan that these trains were available. Well...
Susan immediately called Mt. McKinley Hotel to ask
if the trains were still available. To her delight,
they were. Mike, thinking he had just accomplished
the unthinkable in moving the caboose to the Wilsons'
property, was aghast at the idea of moving two rail
cars 120 miles into Fairbanks.
gold and blue cars had been part of the Denali Hotel
since 1971. After the hotel burned down, they were
purchased from the Alaska Railroad to add housing
for tourists. They graced the entranced of the hotel
for 22 years, until the Wilsons purchased them each
for $1.00. They were manufactured in 1956 by the
Pullman Car Company, and were two of the 12 sleeper
cars built that year. They were named the "National
Emblem" and the "National Domain." Each car is 85
feet long, 10 feet wide , and 13 feet tall, weighing
90 tons each.
researched how to move these cars and found that the
cost to pick up the trains with cranes and place
them on lowboys was astronomical. The closest cranes
would have to be broke down and transported from
Anchorage, some 400 miles from Fairbanks. Mike,
however, knew there had to be a way to move those
trains to the Wilsons; property, within their
budget, and keep his promise to his wife that he
would move anything for her!
months passed, the Christmas season came, and the
Wilsons were attending the Operating Engineers'
holiday party. They ran into their old friend,
Wesley Mitchell. Wesley had worked the railroad
since he was 14 years old. Within three years he had
worked his way up to gang boss, until the railroad
found out he was under age and fired him. The
railroad lost a good man in Wesley, and the Wilsons
found the answers they needed in the same good man.
Within one week the plan was set into action.
Wilsons with the aid on Wesley's knowledge, hired a
crew of four men. The plan was to jack the train
cars up, with a 50 ton air-over-hydraulic jacks
placed under the jack pads. It would be necessary to
lift the train cars a total of 60 inches, in 7 inch
lifts. The train car would them be hooked on the end
of a 1991 International four axle tractor and moved
A dolly was made from the axle and frame of a dump
truck. A fifth wheel attachment and a cab for
steering and control were mounted. A special fifth
wheel pin hitch, made out of 1/2 inch T-1 steel,
then and 8x8 1/4 inch square tubing was welded to
the back of the hitch plate. Holes were cut in the
flange of the train frame and tubing bolts on each
corner of the hitch. The train car would be cross
trained to the dolly so it steer itself . That
January all necessary permits were attained. They
allowed for 136,000 pounds to be later transported
on a tilt top equipment trailer. Mike and the crew
headed down to Mt. McKinley to prepare the train
cars for transport. Temperatures had dipped to 40
degrees below zero. The weather , not cooperating
with machinery, froze the jacks, making them
impossible to use. The men took one 500,000 BTU
space heater, along with three 150,000 BTU space
heaters, placed them under the trains and completely
enclosed it with tarps, to heat the equipment.
Finally, six days later, the first car was jacked
and ready to go.
first winter storm watch of the season was in
effect. On the first blind corner out of Mt.
McKinley, Mike had to make a sharp turn to avoid
hitting four moose, thus breaking the cross chains.
This was our first challenge of the Great Alaskan
miles out of McKinley, the lug nuts came loose on
the outer wheel of the dolly. The train hobbled into
Nenana, where a local garage lent us wrenches to
repair it. It took one full day to move 120 miles,
with an average speed of 35 miles per hour. They
crossed eight bridges on icy and snowy roads.
the train reached the Wilsons' hillside property, it
took five days to move the train 1,000 feet! The
first obstacle was to take a train, tractor and
dolly, which measured 126 feet, around a 40 foot
curve. The belly of the train was pivoted around the
inside off the curve, this maneuver taking half a
day. The last switch back on the road to the final
resting place of the cars had an 80 foot radius.
However, it was on a 15% grade. To stabilize the
train from tipping, it was tied to an International
TD8 Dozer and a 966 Loader, as well as several 150
foot spruce trees. On this switch back, we almost
lost her several times, the first being when the
caught up on the inside of the corner. This happened
because of the icy conditions. The truck slid
sideways because it was unable to stay on the high
side of the curb. The weight of the train made it
impossible to stop the truck. God was watching over
us, and stopped the train car by a break in the air
line, stopping the tractor's wheels only inches away
from a 20 foot drop off. The men stopped, had a cup
of coffee, fixed the air line, did a little Cat
work, built the bank up and proceeded with caution.
Inching our way around the switch back, we began to
slide again, this time all but tipping the train on
its side tearing the bolts out of the frame of the
fifth wheel attachment. The men once again sat down,
had a cup of coffee, and went to plan "B." They
needed to figure out how to keep the tractor up on
the corner and stabilize the train at the same time.
With the experience of the crew, they pulled through
with no loss of life or equipment! They did this by
taking a loader, pulling it with the top picking
eyes, and pulling it back upright. Then, jacking and
cribbing, they got the fifth wheel plates welded and
repaired, and finished around the corner at the
breakneck speed of six inches per hour, completing
out five days of sheer terror! Because of the
incredible time we had on the final switch back, the
men have named it the "SOB," also known as "Slide
that the move was over, it was time to begin
renovations on the two sleeper cars, as well as the
caboose. The Wilsons plan on converting the train
into a bed and breakfast, called the "Forget-Me-Not
Aurora Express now consists of seven authentic
Alaska Railroad cars resting on winding track,
nestled on fifteen acres of towering spruce. Each
room commands a panoramic view of the Tanana River,
the Alaska Mountain Range and the City of Fairbanks.
A 20 minute drive will take you to most tourist
attractions, as well as Fairbanks International
caboose is name the "Golden Nellie," in honor and
memory of Susan's grandmother, Nellie LeVision, who
was lead mechanic at Eilson Air Force base, near
Fairbanks, during World War II. After the war, she
retired to Eagle, Alaska, to live in a tent and pan
for gold. The caboose is the "presidential car" of
the Aurora Express. With gilded golden ceiling,
heavy emerald velvet curtains, queen size bed and a
private bath, the Golden Nellie is our most
extraordinary treasure. The original chairs have
been restored, so one may sit in comfort after
climbing the golden ladders into the covered
observation deck high above.
"National Domain" has been restored into four
elegant suits, with queen sized beds, private baths
and entrances. Replicas of old brass pounded ceiling
glisten above, heavy burgundy velvet curtains
trimmed in gold fringe add a luxurious feeling,
while cherry stained walls compliment Victorian
beds, lamps and wall paper.
"National Emblem" provided the cozy accommodations
which sleeper cars offered their passengers in the
past. She has been restored to her original
splendor. Small but delightful rooms share baths,
while double beds magically fold down from arched
ceilings, and passenger seats offer comfortable
seating. This is a wonderful car for those traveling
in large groups with children.
anyone wants to learn how to move trains or has
questions about of move feel free to call us. We're
more than happy to share our experience!