May 25, 2014 Updated: May 26, 2014 at 4:30 pm
For 10 years, the old train car sat exposed to the elements in a valley south of Chama, N.M., slathered in lime-and-water whitewash.
Thank heavens for a rancher's thrift.
"Whitewashing is really what saved it," said John S. Engs of Colorado Springs, recounting the story of how Pullman Tourist Sleeper Car No. 470 - manufactured in 1889 - ended up under a covered canopy in Colorado Springs, waiting to be restored to its former glory.
Since 2009, Engs and a rotating cast of some 40 volunteers have made biweekly pilgrimages to the old Rock Island Roundhouse in Colorado Springs, where with hammers, saws and copies of Pullman's original train schematics, they are slowly bringing the car back to life.
It's the latest labor of love for the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, and thanks to the group's efforts, Pullman Car No. 470 will one day be restored to service on a historic thin-gauge railway that threads the hills between Antonito and Chama.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, jointly owned by Colorado and New Mexico, serves approximately 30,000 riders a year and snakes through vistas prized by Hollywood filmmakers. "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Wyatt Earp" are among the films that featured the train, which crosses the Colorado-New Mexico border 11 times along its 64-mile route.
Stripped down and suspended over an ancient-looking maintenance pit at a roundhouse south of Fillmore Street, Car No. 470 is the apple of Craig McMullen's eye.
"We like to tell the model train guys, come work with us, we do it in 1:1 ratio," said McMullen, a former physician who leads the crew of restorers. "It's sort of fascinating to see how these old railroad cars were built in 1889."
The car was one of 10 Tourist Sleepers manufactured in the Pullman Palace Car Co.'s Detroit shops for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which offered inexpensive transportation to the Western frontier opened up by the railroad in 1880.
But by 1898, demand for passenger tickets to Colorado's mining towns was on the wane, and the car was sold.
Over the next 60 years, it served in the fleets of the Colorado and North Western Railroad, the Denver Boulder and Western Railroad and Western Union, which ultimately donated it back to the Denver and Rio Grande.
It was being used as a kitchen diner for the railroad's bridge crew the year it was finally retired, in 1953, and sold to a private collector after being stripped of its steel.
A rancher who favored liberal use of whitewash and a carpenter who planned his own restoration effort were among those who owned the rickety body before the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec purchased it in 1994, according to a history of the car compiled by the group's researchers.
For 15 years, it sat protected at the rail yard in Chama, N.M., until the Friends group transported it to Colorado Springs in 2009.
Getting the car back on the tracks wouldn't be possible without a copy of the original plans, obtained courtesy of the Illinois Railway Museum in suburban Chicago. Nor could it happen without hundreds of hours of volunteer work by Engs, McMullen and their crews, representing sheet metal workers, welders, carpenters and other trades.
"If you had to pay for what they're doing, restoring one of these cars would be in the millions," said Gregory C. Roberts, restoration shop manager at the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation, which also occupies the roundhouse. "They're a great bunch to have around."
For volunteer Tom Simco, it's about reclaiming history.
"It gives you great pleasure and accomplishment," he said.
McMullen, 70, said the group will be hard at work for at least another couple of years before the car is ready.
As one of the group's carpenters, he'll be taking it in stride, hammer in hand, he says.
"If I wasn't doing this, I'd be weeding gardens."