When 80-year-old Warren Bell was a boy growing up in Bluemont, the village that now has only a few homes and businesses was a busy place.
"There was a time when we had three hardware stores here and there was a time when we had three soda fountains," recalled Bell, who now lives in Great Falls. "The people from Washington came out . . . this was a summer resort."
The reason Bluemont thrived in the early part of the century can be summed up in two words: the train. From 1900 to 1939, the village was the end of the line on the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, which each weekend brought city dwellers who longed to exchange Washington's sweltering humidity for Bluemont's cool mountain breezes.
Those days, and the W&OD, which ceased operation altogether in 1961, are long gone. But their memory rushed back to Bell last week when the first train car to enter Bluemont in more than half a century rolled around the steep corner of Snickersville Pike and Clayton Hall Road.
The car, a red caboose, arrived alone on a flatbed truck instead of on a train track preceded by dozens of railroad cars. But that suited Bell, and the six or seven dozen townspeople who turned out to watch, just fine. At least some part of a train was back in Bluemont, to stay.
The caboose's new permanent home is a specially built rail bed behind the Bluemont Community Center. The Bluemont Citizens Association, working with the county Department of Parks and Recreation, plans to paint the 33-year-old caboose and turn it into a museum of railroad memorabilia and community artifacts. That will be a task, said citizens association President Joan Butler, but a small one compared with what it took to get the caboose to Bluemont.
It all started with Bell.
Last year, he read a story in The Washington Post that said the Fairfax County town of Vienna, which had been a stop along the W&OD, was among towns to receive a free caboose from the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The railroad is phasing out cabooses after the Virginia General Assembly's 1988 ruling that repealed a 1914 statute requiring cabooses on all trains in the state. But rather than sell them for scrap, the railroad chose to give away more than 100 to charities and to towns in whose histories trains had played a major role.
"When I read that article, I thought Bluemont's got to have a caboose," Bell said. "I thought it would be a great thing to retain the heritage of the old town."
So he called the railroad for information, and then he called the citizens association, which promptly formed a committee to get the caboose rolling. The railroad located a caboose for Bluemont in fairly short order, but the community had to find a place to put it. In the meantime, the caboose sat alongside a set of railroad tracks in Berryville for months.
After getting permission from the county, which owns and operates the community center, the citizens association decided that would be the perfect place. Once the caboose opens as a museum, it will be the county's responsibility.
But it was community volunteers, particularly John Talbot, Don Onstat and Mark Zurschmeide, who bought the railroad ties, spikes, track and gravel to make the caboose a proper bed. And it is the citizens association that will pick up the $3,000 tab for moving the caboose from Berryville to Bluemont, an awesome task that took two flatbed trucks, a couple of dump trucks, a half-dozen men and a crane.
"It was a whole world of work I never thought of," resident Evelyn Johnson, a teacher at Loudoun County High School, remarked as she watched the whole works come crawling up the community center's driveway last week.
The caboose arrived shortly after 10 a.m. with half the job already done. Before coming to Bluemont, it had to be lifted off the tracks in Berryville, loaded onto a flatbed and driven over 10 miles of hilly Route 7.
"They looked like a wagon train coming over the mountain," said Cindy Welsh, assistant director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Once at the community center, crane operator Dennis Manuel and his helpers painstakingly moved two wheel bases, each weighing five tons, and then set the 17-ton caboose on top of them. To make that happen, one man had to slide in between the caboose and the wheel bases and line them up. He did this as the caboose hung suspended not a foot from his head.
The Bluemont crowd, which included several classes of children at the community center, watched appreciatively.
"I'm impressed," said Sara Hampton, of Round Hill, who brought Daniel, 6, and Rebecca, 15 months, to see the moving show.
When the job was done, Bell needed little encouragement to be the first person to board the caboose. Cameras clicked as he carefully hoisted himself up its metal stairs and turned to face the crowd, whom he favored with a grin and a salute.
"This was a place to come to" when the train was running, Bell reminisced again. "Now you have the automobile and you zip right on by."