Mike Gelhaus was once like a million other railroad enthusiasts.
His trains ran on tracks laid out in an upstairs room that Gelhaus’ parents turned over to their rail-obsessed boy.
Life sure was simple back then.
Today, Gelhaus’ hobby has, shall we say, blown up. In the last 20 years the Spokane man has spent a half-million dollars buying eight vintage North Coast Limited passenger cars.
Once the pride of the mighty Northern Pacific Railroad, the cars occupy some spare track near Havana Street that the 62-year-old leases from the good folks of Burlington Northern.
“Totally out of control,” conceded Gelhaus, a retired railroad engineer, of his obsession.
“My family won’t even talk about it. They just think of it as abnormal.”
A buddy of mine tipped me months ago to Gelhaus and his railroad relics. But after a dozen unanswered phone calls to him, I shelved the matter for another time.
Little did I know that Gelhaus had saved my number from his caller ID. About this time each year, the train buff offers tours to friends, relatives and the curious, like me.
So Gelhaus called the other day to ask if I was interested.
Was Casey’s last name Jones?
You can’t grow up in a train town like Spokane without a little rail romance seeping into your soul.
Plus I’ve logged a lot of time in clubs picking and singing Steve Goodman’s iconic “City of New Orleans,” the best damn train song ever written.
So Friday afternoon found me with Gelhaus, lumbering through the tight and dusty interiors of colorfully named cars, circa 1947 to 1959.
The Gold Creek. The Mount St. Helens. The Lewis and Clark Traveler’s Rest. The Loch Ness …
With his white beard and long white hair, Gelhaus looks more like a Civil War colonel than a stereotypical train geek. But not wearing bib overalls or a conductor’s cap apparently doesn’t equate to a lack of authority.
On the contrary. Gelhaus spouts train lore the way baseball zealots spew batting stats.
The Loch Ness, for example.
The Northern Pacific was run by a Scotsman when this 1959 Streamliner came into being, explained Gelhaus. So the man took to naming his cars after the lakes of his homeland.
Speaking of lakes, Gelhaus said he has gone through 100-plus gallons of stripper in 20 years of removing paint from his classic cars.
He has spent untold hours pulling carpet and replacing the many parts and pieces that had been stolen and sold for scrap before he obtained the cars.
Don Quixote’s goal was a cakewalk compared to the Gelhaus railroad restoration quest.
Bringing just one car back to its original luster, he estimated, would cost $500,000. And that wouldn’t even make it legal to operate.
Code for the modern railroad requires all sorts of expensive upgrades like bulletproof glass, say, and holding tanks for waste.
Long gone are the days when what a passenger flushed from the “hopper” went straight onto the tracks.
“My mother is 87,” he said. “She keeps telling me that it was so nice when my trains were little.”
The man’s only hope is to find a train lover willing to share the vision.
A train lover with deep pockets, that is.
With enough backing, Gelhaus could form a nonprofit group, buy a nearby patch of land and move his fleet.
And, hey, as long as we’re hallucinating, let’s erect a small museum to display the trove of rail-related items that Gelhaus has amassed over decades of collecting.
“You’re not married, are you?”
Gelhaus exploded with laughter at my question.
“A wife would never put up with this nonsense,” confirmed the bachelor.
Mike’s right about one thing. These pre-Amtrak passenger cars are wonders worth keeping.
One reason is that the interior layout and color scheme came from the mind of Raymond Loewy, the genius designer who streamlined Greyhound buses, Studebaker automobiles and even the Coke bottle.
“A time machine,” said Gelhaus of the bygone passenger car.
“I want to save as many of them as I can because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
The Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited was also a big part of Spokane. The train ran from Seattle to Chicago with a Lilac City stop each way.
“I’ve always loved trains,” said the railroad man.
“Working on them is a thrill that gets in your blood and becomes a part of you.
“But you’ve gotta have fun, too,” he added. “If you make it a job there’s no point to it.”