The 50-ton crane shook ever so slightly as its towering arm lifted the heavy, steel load -- a 34,100-pound red caboose -- from the train tracks behind a brick supply warehouse in Gaithersburg.
Never before had the crane's operator, Kenny Smith, moved a caboose. The "feet" to steady the crane screeched as Smith pulled the lever inside the orange cab toward his belly. "Bring it up. Bring it up. Bring it up," yelled a man in work gloves from down below.
With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Smith pushed the lever forward slowly, suspending the caboose about eight feet in the air. Two kids stood below, staring in awe in the early morning sunlight. "Whoa. That's cool," said Kyle Cassidy, 10.
Four men grabbed yellow seat belts at the corners of the caboose and gently pulled it around to lay it in a special flatbed truck. "Down just a little now," the truck driver yelled up to Smith. He threw his left fist in the air, as the caboose's underbelly lightly touched the truck's bed. Smith leaned back in his seat, wiped his brow and puffed his Marlboro.
"This is the kind of stuff I live for," he said, smiling down from the cabin of the crane to the kids' and passersby below.
Once everything was in place, the unlikely caravan of the caboose, its wheels and four pickup trucks full of curious onlookers moved three miles along Rockville Pike to historic Old Town Gaithersburg about two weeks ago. It was the end of a long journey for the caboose and its owner, businessman Robert Herbert.
"There she is," Herbert said, as he stepped back to admire the caboose, which he plans to use as an office. "Finally, she's right here."
Herbert bought the caboose last fall in Poplar Bluff, Mo., from an engineer who used to work for the Missouri Pacific Line. Herbert and his buddy and sometimes co-worker, Bob Cassidy, decided they wanted a unique office for their trash hauling and snow removal business. Herbert has worked for decades out of his Rockville home.
"I wanted a conversation piece," said Herbert, 44, who bought land near some railroad tracks in a "railroad park" to sit the caboose. Herbert and Cassidy surfed the Internet for the most original caboose they could find. They found a handful and headed off on a four-day road trip. They looked at cabooses and rail cars in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In Poplar Bluff, the seller had the caboose sitting in his front yard.
The yellow letters spelling "Missouri Pacific Line" are still on it, and the caboose has a slightly faded red coat of paint. In white letters, its number, 13577, is written above a light. Inside, it has the original metal bed frame, a sink and a place for a toilet. A desk, chair and a light sit where an engineer probably once did paperwork.
Unlike other cabooses in which the cupola is in the middle or closer to the front, this one has a cupola near the back. It is a rarity and is one of the last made in 1972. By the mid-1970s, most major railroad companies had stopped making cabooses because they were too expensive, too heavy and too dangerous, according to train enthusiasts.
Herbert said it has the one quality few old rail cars possess: little rust.
"It was the most beautiful one we saw and it was in its original condition," Herbert said.
Moving the caboose was a logistical nightmare.
Herbert said he paid the Missouri engineer $15,000 for the caboose, but it sat in the man's yard after heavy rains last fall and winter kept a crane company from lifting the caboose out. Three weeks ago, the ground got hard enough for the only company in Poplar Bluff with a crane big enough to hoist the caboose to move it out of the man's yard and to the railroad tracks for $2,000.
Railroad safety officials checked the caboose and found that it ran fine. Union Pacific Railroad hooked the little red caboose to one of its trains for a small fee, and it chugged to Chicago. But train officials couldn't find the caboose for a week because it didn't have an automated tracking device attached to its roof like more modern rail cars.
From Chicago, the caboose had to make its way eastward. But Union Pacific doesn't come east, so CSX carried it on its lines from Chicago to Cumberland. From there, it went to Jessup, just outside of Baltimore and then to Gaithersburg, where it was moved to a side track that is used for repairs next to the existing railroad track.
"Between the rains keeping it in Missouri for a year and then we get to move it and Union Pacific loses it, it's been quite a journey," Herbert's wife, Donna, 44, said as she taped every maneuver with a video camera.
Herbert had to find a special truck to get the caboose off the railroad tracks. He needed one with a special low flat bed truck so that the caboose's cupola would fit underneath power lines and stop lights. The truck's bed also had to be long enough for the 43-foot-long caboose.
After dozens of calls, he found a truck company in Baltimore who could move the caboose on its 63-foot-long truck for $1,200. Herbert paid a Lorton-based company $1,000 to lift the caboose onto the truck bed.
He plans to renovate the interior in the spring.