Late folk musician and avid railroad man Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ rail car was set on its tracks at the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture in Weed Saturday.
Phillips’ family’s organization, The Long Memory, and the BBCRC raised nearly $25,000 to bring the car here from North Ferrisburgh, Vermont. It will be remodeled into The Utah Phillips Library.
The historic rail car, a “flanger” car designed to clear snow and ice from within the rails, was once home to Utah while he recorded three albums at Philo Records’ “Barn” in Vermont.
Bruce Shoemaker, owner of the 50-acre center, allowed the family to set the car on his land. He said the condition of the 1893 Vermont Central Railway caboose was a lot better than a lot of the cars they have received.
The 124-year-old caboose-like car was found for sale online by a friend of Duncan Phillips, Utah’s eldest son. He sent Duncan an email when he was celebrating an anniversary last year. When his wife, Bobette, heard about it, she said, “I guess we’re buying a caboose!”
Phillips’ sons Duncan and Brendan were in Weed Saturday to direct the placement. Duncan had laid the rail for the caboose to sit on. He taught himself how to do that.
“I had zero experience,” Duncan said. “I knew the rails had to be 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches wide.”
Driving from his home in Salt Lake City, he said he laid the gravel one month and set the railroad ties the next. The third month, he set the rail and spiked it in with help from people at the BBCRC who are fellow railroad enthusiasts.
Duncan created The Long Memory, a website in tribute to his father’s life’s work. The family sought help from BBCRC board member Ron Kaminkow in raising the funds.
The seller of the caboose said if they could raise the money to ship it to Weed, he would give them the rail car. He is an avid fan of Utah’s.
Friends and fans of Utah’s as well as various musicians and bands, railroad buffs and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Phillips’ union) all helped raise the money for the move.
They are close to reaching their fundraising goal, as there were some cost overruns, Kaminkow said.
The caboose’s wheels, or “trucks” as they are known to railroad enthusiasts, went on one truck. The caboose went on a second extra-long truck. That truck had a clearance of only five inches above the roadway.
The caboose truck driver, Brent Utley, was already in the northeast ready to pick up the caboose. The second driver didn’t show, so the group had to hire one to transport the trucks. That driver wasn’t already in the northeast.
Utley said when he went to pick up the caboose he spoke with several Grammy-nominated musicians at Philo Records who said they loved Utah’s music. One of his songs has more than 156,000 views online, while many other songs and radio recordings have tens of thousands of views.
The drive across country was also interesting, he said, as people would drive past the caboose and slow to read the sign on the side. At scales, workers would often come over and say they were fans of Utah's. They said he was always “making jokes and doing funny things in restaurants to change the mood,” Utley said.
The Long Memory hired a grader to grade the approach to the railroad museum’s side entrance, since the caboose was being placed to the west of the other six cars. Utley was able to pull into the rail car yard without scraping bottom.
Once Utley had maneuvered the caboose in place for the large crane and the cables were set, the crane lifted it and two workers rotated it 450 degrees using long straps. It was lowered, the wheel sets were adjusted two inches, and the four pins dropped in place to attach the caboose.
More than 25 people had gathered to watch, and scattered applause broke out. Duncan Phillips and Kaminkow gave each other a high-five.
Plans for purchasing the caboose started nearly a year ago.
“I lived in the caboose for six months,” said Brendan Phillips, “and my mom and my dad planted a tree (when I was born), and now it’s a big, sprawling tree.”
“The first order of business is getting stairs,” Duncan said. He placed an aluminum ladder against the caboose at one of the two doors and climbed up and in. The inside is painted white, with a stained wood platform. Weatherizing and a new roof for the winter months is also high on his to-do list.
Local musician Tom Scott saw Utah Phillips in concert about 20 years ago in Crescent City.
“He was greyed and grizzly and had a heart that was huge,” Scott said. “He was unafraid that one, he was a socialist, and two, he was pro-labor. We could use some more Utah Phillips these days.”
Besides being a musician and fan of the railroad, Utah Phillips was a workers’ rights advocate. He had been a hobo, someone who hops onto trains and rides them, as a young veteran of the Korean War.
Back in the early 1900s, Duncan said, there were around 500,000 rail-riders. Today they ride more in groups and look out for each other.
Utah had a rose tattoo and started a group called The Rose Tattoo. “Members had to be musicians, unemployed and ride the rails,” Duncan said. “They’ll be out for the ribbon-cutting.”
Duncan, Brendan and The Long Memory plan to have the Utah Phillips Library completed in spring, 2018. It will be a place where visitors can listen to audio recordings of their father’s songs and radio shows, read railroad books and soak up Utah’s zest for life. They plan to have a celebration and ribbon-cutting Memorial Day weekend 2018 at the 10-year anniversary of their father’s passing.
Anyone interested in donating to the restoration project can donate online at www.thelongmemory.com or send a check to The Long Memory, PO Box 711694, Salt Lake City, Utah 84171. The Long Memory is a non-profit organization.
For more information on the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture, see the website www.bbcrc.org.