Thankfully for local history buffs, Tacoma resident Dave Burns likes old trains. Three years ago, he rescued an abandoned 1910 Northern Pacific dining car from Easton, Wash., hauled it over the Cascade Mountains, and found a temporary home for it on Tacoma’s tide flats.
The goal? Restore the dining car to its former glory.
To that end, he created a non-profit organization, Tacoma Railcar Preservation Society, and had some success in fund-raising: a $1,000 grant from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation; a fund-raising dinner raised $6,000; and $50,000 is available from Washington State if Burns can raise enough matching funds.
But there were also expenses. New trucks for the rail car body set him back $2,500. After wind tore through several tarps, Burns shelled out $800 on a pair of silver heavy-duty tarps. “I’ve got it wrapped up pretty well. Now the dining car looks like a big Costco hot dog,” quips Burns. He also keeps a de-humidifier running 24 hours a day in order to protect the interior’s Cuban mahogany and ornate finishes. That costs Burns about $230 every other month.
His latest hurdle? Finding covered storage space to protect the dining car and prepare to begin work removing and repairing the roof.
On some weekends, he drives through the tide flats and around the Port of Tacoma looking at warehouses and noting the addresses of buildings that could house the 9′ x 75′ railcar. “Anything that looked big enough, I’ve left notes asking them to contact me,” says Burns.
“I can’t do this myself,” he adds. “It’s hard to get out on my own to find covered space. I thought maybe I should put some feelers out there. Maybe someone knows of some covered storage space.”
Last week, he contacted Historic Tacoma. The organization shared Burns’s need in its e-newsletter to members. On Monday, he spoke with the Tacoma Daily Index.
According to Burns, the dining car has its roots in our city. Northern Pacific, once headquartered in Tacoma, was starting to introduce food service on its trains instead of in its stations. The company ordered 15 dining cars from Barney & Smith Car Company in 1909. Burns’s dining car was in operation between 1910 to 1949, and operated on the North Coast Limited run. “This car would run from Seattle all the way to Chicago,” Burns explains. “Then, at some point, it would alternate, and take the Yellowstone route, which would take you to Yellowstone National Park. All the records we found, everything shows it being on the North Coast Limited Seattle-to-Chicago route, and the service or repairs would be done in a South Tacoma shop.”
If it weren’t for Burns, the dining car would have probably been sold for scrap.
He first noticed it 20 years ago. He was originally struck by Easton’s charm and connection to timber and rail histories, and made a point of stopping in to snap photos of the town. That’s when he first saw the dining car, which had been renamed the Sportsman Diner.
Over the years, Burns thought of ways to acquire the car and move it to Tacoma, where he would renovate it into a cafe and museum. The diner had shut down in the early-1980s, but the owner wouldn’t sell the train car.
In 2006, however, the tide turned. The owner’s daughter, who had originally planned to renovate the old car and keep it in Easton, passed away.
The owner transferred ownership of the car to Burns. In October 2006, Burns arranged to transport the car over the Cascade Mountains and to the Tacoma tide flats.
If you can lend covered storage space or have suggestions, contact Burns at NPDiningcar@comcast.net or (253) 468-8180. To watch a video with more information about the project, click here. Visit Burns’s Web site here.
To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of Dave Burns’s 1910 Northern Pacific dining car restoration project, click on the following links:
- Local historian will share “Tacoma Then and Now” photos (Tacoma Daily Index, August 7, 2013)
- Covered storage space needed for 1910 dining car restoration (Tacoma Daily Index, November 17, 2009)
- Space needed for 1910 dining car restoration (Tacoma Daily Index, November 14, 2009)
- In an old hilltop mansion, a strong voice for preservation (Tacoma Daily Index, April 14, 2009)
- Apply now for Washington Trust for Historic Preservation grants (Tacoma Daily Index, January 7, 2009)
- A Feast of Railroad History (Tacoma Daily Index, September 4, 2007)
Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.