Caboose at 1406 5th Street. Photo: John Storey
Caboose at 1406 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey

There is something about trains that is profoundly American. Thomas Wolfe wrote of “the great trains that cleave through gulch and gully,” of the “great trains that thunder over America.” The image and reality and lore of the railroad are deeply etched in our national cultural fabric, an icon of what Berkeley’s Greil Marcus called the old, weird America. The caboose is a special part of that fabric.

Rob Garross moved form his home in Waukegan, Illinois, to Berkeley in 1980. He bought his house on Fifth Street in 1996. He makes his living buying, rehabilitating, and selling low-priced homes from Joshua Tree to Volcano to Isleton. Berkeley has, shall we say, gotten too pricey for his business model.

Walking his neighborhood, Garross was inspired by an old wooden caboose on a nearby railroad siding. In the 1980s, advances in railroad technology such as flashing rear-end devices, and end-of-train devices, intersected with corporate goals of reducing labor costs to spell the end of the caboose. They were sitting around, there for the buying.

Garross had a special place in his heart for cabooses. When he was 25, Garross rode a caboose from Great Falls, Montana, to Everett, Washington. As was fitting for a young man of his generation, he had been inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The caboose ride fed that inspiration, which got him through a very cold night crossing the Rocky Mountains.

In 1998, he decided to buy a caboose to put in his driveway. Quirky idea! There was no handy World Wide Web for caboose shopping, so he visited railroad yards, first in Barstow and then in Sacramento, where he found and bought a late-model Southern Pacific bay window caboose.

Caboose arrives at 1506 Fifth St. Photo courtesy of Rob Garross (on the right in photo)

He laid railroad track down the middle of his driveway and had the caboose trucked to Berkeley from Sacramento.

Caboose backed into driveway at 1406 Fifth St. Photo courtesy of Rob Garross

The truck got the caboose close to the driveway, and then came a tremendous feat of crane lifting, operating from the yard of neighbor Chris Brown.

Caboose lifted onto driveway tracks at 1406 Fifth St.. Photo courtesy of Rob Garross

Seventeen years later the caboose is there, a proud testament to a hard-working, quirky vision.

1406 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey

The neighborhood is in transition, evolving from working class to gentrified, but there are still great flashes of artists present in what had been a working-class area. Doug Heine’s Gate 13 studio at 813 Page St. and the oh-so-quirky columns in front of what I think is Christopher Brown’s studio at 770 Camelia Street are two examples. And the caboose that Rob Garross has in his driveway.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.

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Freelancer Tom Dalzell has lived in Berkeley since 1984. After working for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 10 years as a legal worker and then lawyer, he went to work for another labor union...