Colonist Car Reveals Its True Identity

The restoration of Colonist Car 1202

If you renovate your home you will encounter your predecessors. Beneath sloppy layers of purple paint, at which you cluck your tongue, you discover the care and ambition of a skilled hand and realize you are opening a time capsule.

This is the experience of those working on the restoration of the Colonist Car. They see the cut marks of antique tools or pull square nails hammered in before their obsolescence in the first decade of the 1900s, and the ghosts of earlier journeymen in a much older workshop materialize from another century. While profoundly evocative, the work has also revealed an unknown history of the coach, including its true identity.

More than 50 years ago, the Colonist Car arrived in the Park identified as coach 2658, manufactured in 1912. No one questioned its identification. Why would they? They didn’t, until the careful dismantlement of the car revealed mysterious hand-stamped numbers on woodwork.

A window frame removed from the Colonist Car reveals a hand-stamped number from 1905, which proves to be the true numerical identity of the car, 1202Cabinetmaker Doug Zech, contracted to help with the project, found the tiny numbers hammered into the pieces of a window assembly and realized they identified the parts as well as location of each window. As many windows were disassembled, other numbers led the restoration team to believe this numerical system also identified the car itself. This proved the coach is not 2658 and was built seven years earlier than previously believed.

“We’re confirming and learning it’s even more important than we realized,” says Zech.

Curator Sylvia Harnden says Heritage Park now knows the Colonist Car was numbered 1202 when manufactured in Montreal. “As the car will look new when fully restored we can celebrate her as one of the first two cars of the 1200 series to roll out of the Angus Shops in 1905, and also recognize the fact that she commenced Colonist Sleeper Service just as western immigration was beginning to gain real momentum.”

Lumber is not what it used to be

Beyond this discovery, an important structural problem has been diagnosed. The car was listing to one side, and a damaged foundation beam was Heritage Park carpenter Doug Zech standing beside the coach’s foundation beam. Damaged and partially replaced in the past, it was originally a 67-foot-long, eight-inch-square timber made of solid Douglas fir.uncovered after stripping away exterior pine cladding. The car was evidently involved in an accident that broke a 67-foot-long, eight-inch-square beam of solid Douglas fir, upon which one wall of the coach is built. Zech says the beam was sagging at the location of the repair, weakening one side of the car.

Repairing the beam raised a fundamental issue in the restoration process. The Park’s priority is to retain as much of the original coach as possible or find exact replacements for pieces that cannot be kept. In short, seasoned eight-inch-square beams of solid Douglas fir, plentiful in 1905, are no longer available. Consequently, the team’s next option was to replace the solid wood with a laminated hardwood beam, providing a strong and permanent solution.

Montreal carpenters send greetings from the past

The interior of the Colonist Car, stripped and ready for the very early stages of restoration.Interior birch panelling, which will be retained, was removed to get at the beam, and at no other time did Heritage Park carpenters come closer to their predecessors than when Zech gently pried the panelling away, revealing the signatures of five men and the words Montreal, Quebec hidden on the backside.

“We have a plan to put that piece back in place, where it came from, with our names signed on it,” says Zech, “so we’ll add to the legacy of the craftsmen that have worked on the car. Then in 100 years when it gets renovated again, they’ll pull it off and shout, Hey, look at this.”

Until next time....

 
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Heritage Park Historical Village

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Calgary, Alberta
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