The Red Caboose Page
By Dan Lyksett
Photos by David Jones
LTOONA — There still are cinders under foot, and the oily diesel smell of hardworking steel
and iron machines permeates the air. Sharp eyes spot peeling paint and pin-holes in the roof,
but visionary eyes see a renovated, lively, functioning tourist draw called the Altoona Roundhouse.
"We think there's a tremendous amount of potential here, the chance to preserve something that's
really special," says Charlie Schaaf of Altoona, one of tfle railroad-enthusiasts hoping to build a
future for this historic building.
"There's a railway museum in Green Bay, and the Duluth (Minn.) transportation museum, but
we have something they don't have: An operating roundhouse next to a functioning rail line and
right in a railway town."
That the Altoona Roundhouse is in the city is no surprise. The oldest part of the structure was
built in the early 1880s, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing in Altoona.
Altoona grew up around the railroad, originally platted as East Eau Claire in 1881 because the
old West Wisconsin Railway needed land for their rail yard, depot and roundhouse, according to
Gerald Hagen's book "A History of Altoona."
There's still a functioning switching yard and main line running through town, not to mention
two taverns with railroad themes — the 400 Club, Rollie's Coach Club and the Rail Haven — and
a high school bearing the nick-name Railroaders,
"Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie had the timber industry — Altoona has the
railroad," Schaaf said.
The roundhouse might have a bright future because enough people in the city rose up to stop its
Its current owner, the Union Pacific Railroad, had previously announced that the structure was to
be demolished. The City Council set up an ad hoc committee to work with the railroad on other
options, with the result that ownership of the building and about seven acres of land surrounding it
will be transferred to the city sometime late this year or early next year.
The next step will be determined by how much of that enthusiasm continues.
"We were really hustling to meet the deadline to stop that wrecking ball," said Dan Jones, a City
Councilman and a member of the ad hoc committee. "The next step is to get some sort of
organization going that can take control, begin raising and receiving funds, and develop a plan
and a vision for what they'd like to see out here. As a city we're pretty much operating from a
position of limited funds, so it's going to take that group to turn this into something that could end
up being pretty awesome."
The first items on the agenda for that future group are relatively modest — a new roof, some
cleaning up around the site, possibly a coat of paint.
But as Schaaf and Jones tour the facility, with its still-functioning turntable and the locomotive
stalls with their rails radiating out from the center, they present a grander vision.
"You start with maybe just some static displays, the 2719 (a Soo Line steam locomotive being
renovated in the roundhouse) and maybe another locomotive here," Jones said. "But you go out to
the high end and you can see a whole interpretive center, a rail center, with excursion trains
originating here and a pedestrian walk going from here over function tracks to downtown. That
could help turn a pretty minor business district into a pretty nice niche shopping area, with
restaurants, train-related memorabilia, things like that.
"It's pretty far down the line, but there's real potential there."
Now that the title to the building seems secure, Schaaf said the next step will be finding the