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Tuesday, July 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Love of history fuels restoration of luxury railcars in Spokane for convention

The sleeper cars and lounge cars are all sleek and fine, but there’s no better way to take in dramatic western landscapes than from the light-filled dome of the Sierra Hotel.

The restored 1948 railcar and 20 others arrived Monday evening in Spokane in a rolling museum celebrating the splendor and elegance of vintage passenger trains.

“The whole thing is a cruise on land, and it’s supposed to be luxury living and a civilized way to travel,” said Borden Black, executive director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, which arranged the trip from Denver and holds its annual convention this week in Spokane.

“If you’re not in a hurry, why not do this, right?” Black said.

The owners of the private railcars charter Amtrak locomotives and crews to take them around the country. Most bring along their own chefs and stewards.

The 21 cars parked at a BNSF yard east of downtown range from a 1911 Pullman Co. car that carried two presidents on their travels, to a 1959 Canadian-built car designed for railroad executives.

Brothers Robert and Jim Donnelley of the Chicago-based commercial printers RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 company, are part-owners of the Sierra Hotel and another dome sleeper, the Puget Sound, that also made the weeklong trip.

The Sierra Hotel, built for Amtrak’s California Zephyr route, operated until 1980 as crew quarters. The Donnelleys and other investors spent about $780,000 to buy and rebuild it.

“It’s expensive, but when you compare it to a boat, it’s nothing,” said Robert Donnelley, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida.

Jim Donnelley said this Thanksgiving he will take his children and grandchildren aboard the two cars to visit New Orleans and Los Angeles for the holiday.

“Lots of togetherness and nonstop Monopoly games, all the cousins get to know each other,” he said. “It brings people together, you’re with each other all the time, and yet there’s plenty of places if you want to go be by yourself and read.”

The owners are a diverse group, from money managers and doctors to a mosquito abatement officer, who share a love for preserving a piece of America’s past. Many salvaged their cars from scrap yards and spent a decade or more restoring them.

“The overriding purpose is to maintain the history,” said Robert Donnelley, the association’s incoming president. “This is as much a labor of love as much as anything else.”

Most of the cars feature a mix of period furnishings and décor plus modern conveniences like satellite TV and Wi-Fi.

The oldest restored car on the rails today is the 105-year-old Federal, owned by Xerox Corp. retiree Dave Luca and his wife, Janet, of Rochester, New York. They bought it in 1992 and spent about 10 years restoring the Pullman sleeper, which had been used by Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson in their official travels.

“It was our goal to not alter the fabric of the car but modernize it so you could enjoy it while you travel,” Dave Luca said. “People aren’t going to want to cook on a coal-burning stove today. We have an electric range.”

The business car has four bedrooms, a dining room and galley, and an observation room in the back. A bathroom features a stained-glass window.

Luca said he played with his Lionel trains for hours and hours as a kid growing up in Ohio.

“I always wished I could ride that train,” he said. “Then I found out you could own your own car and ride the train.”

Bringing up the rear of the 2,000-foot-long train is the City of Spokane, a 1950 tavern lounge car owned by Larry and Linda Milsow of Spokane. They were joined by six guests who paid varying amounts to ride all or part of the journey from Spokane to Denver and back again.

For the last leg from Sandpoint they invited a family friend, Spokane Mayor David Condon, his wife, Kristin, and their three children, ages 7, 6 and 2, to ride along.

Larry Milsow, a retired ophthalmologist, said he stopped tracking how much they spent restoring the car, previously named the Port of Vancouver. He indicated a tall stack of receipts had piled up.

Much of the work he has done himself, and they use the car about one week a year. “It’s like a sailboat, it’s 99 percent work, 1 percent fun.”

Explaining the attraction, he said, “We call it the railroad disease.”

The best part of traveling by private railcar, Milsow said, is “seeing Spokane disappear out the back window, because that means you’re on your way. All the work that goes into it, you’re finally on the road and can sit back and relax.”

The train originated Sept. 13 in Denver and traveled north on the former Colorado & Southern along the front range of the Rockies. It passed through Wind River Canyon, considered one of the most scenic rail passes in the country, and stopped in Livingston, Montana, for day tours of Yellowstone National Park.

Convention attendees can pick from two daylong excursions Wednesday: Grand Coulee Dam with a geological tour en route, or the Trail of the Hiawatha tour along the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains near Lookout Pass Ski Area.

The historic cars are not open to public tours, and the train is parked on BNSF property, which also is not open to the public.

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